Former Phs Student, Coach Now Training Dolphins, Sea Lions

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A former Payson High School honor student and basketball star, who later became a teacher and coach at his alma mater, is living his dream of working as a wild animal trainer.

Austin White, 29, resigned his teaching position at PHS last spring to accept a training position at SeaWorld San Diego. In the years leading up to the job offer, White often wondered if it would ever be coming.

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While working in SeaWorld dolphin stadium, Austin White learned that dolphins love to eat ice cubes, Jell-O and shaved ice.

"There were times, I thought I wouldn't make it," he said. "But I had to keep trying."

For the past five months, White has been working as an associate trainer at dolphin stadium at SeaWorld, training two female short-finned Pacific Pilot whales, six female bottlenose dolphins and four male bottlenose dolphins.

Last week, however, White turned in his SeaWorld wetsuit for one issued by the U.S. Navy and the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

"SeaWorld is seasonal work, so I took a job with SAIC," White said. "Many of the trainers at SAIC have worked at SeaWorld."

SAIC is a technical services company that works hand in hand with the Navy in defense modernization efforts, intelligence collection and homeland security.

The corporation's Web site claims it "sends thousands of intelligence solutions to the war fighters."

With SAIC, White trains dolphins, but also works with sea lions, at the Point Loma Naval submarine base.


White calls his work with SAIC and the Navy extremely important in that he and his animals help tackle some of the toughest problems national security faces, "We train dolphins to assist the military to protect our freedom."

For White, working with the animals in the open water -- rather than the friendly confines of SeaWorld -- is a huge challenge.

"There are so many more distractions," he said. "There is food, other animals and bad weather.

"We have to work in all those conditions."

To be accepted as a trainer with SAIC, White had to undergo rigorous swim and dive tests.

"The swim consisted of a timed swim, an underwater swim and 10 minutes of treading (water)," he said.

"The dive test accessed my ability to use SCUBA gear and be able to react to emergency situations above and below the surface."

At SAIC, White and other trainers continue to work closely with Sea World and animals are exchanged regularly.

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White learned during his time at SeaWorld that a whale named "Bubbles" had taken a liking to him partly because he was the only male trainer.

"SeaWorld favors the females, so the males are used by the Navy," he said.

At SeaWorld

While working in dolphin stadium, White found his favorite dolphin to be a 26-year-old, 400-pound mother named Sandi.

"She was extremely friendly with really a nice personality," he said. "She was a great mother, has raised five calves and is almost finished with her sixth.

"She was also great at retrieving objects in the pool -- the occasional spoon or bone from the restaurant dropped in by the seagulls -- or anything else a little kid threw in."

Among the first traits White learned about dolphins after accepting the training position is that they "love to be touched and swam with and they love to eat ice cubes, Jell-O and shaved ice."

In swimming with the dolphins, he discovered holding on to their dorsal fins is much more demanding that it appears to spectators.

"They are extremely strong animals that can pull you in the water pretty fast," he said.

White also learned during his time at SeaWorld that a whale named "Bubbles" had taken a liking to him.

"She was partial to men and I was the only male working the show.

"She was like working with your grandma because she was blind or deaf when something was hard, or she didn't want to do it.

"But she could see and hear just fine when she wanted to."

Another characteristic of the animals is that each has a unique personality,

much like the students White taught as a biology instructor at Payson High School.

"We had sweet ones that loved people and others who could care less," he said. "We also had the mischievous ones who loved to splash unsuspecting park guests.

"We had hard workers, lazy ones and stubborn ones; just like at school."

One of the highlights of White's summer at SeaWorld was his hosting of hundreds of Payson visitors and family members.

"I was able to take many people behind the scenes to see the dolphins up close and personal," he said.

Among those he hosted was the David Daniels family, of Payson, who were asked to participate in one of the dolphin shows.

Another real treat for White was the summer day that 28 members of his extended family showed up at the park.

"It was the largest family group to visit dolphin stadium in years," he said.

While White is enjoying his life's goal, he fondly remembers his days in the classroom.

"I have one of the most coveted jobs in the world, training dolphins, but I sometimes miss teaching and coaching," he said.

"I had a great principal, excellent students and exceptional athletes. Teachers have the ultimate job."

White's time at SeaWorld and with SAIC often has him wondering how a small town kid from rural Arizona could end up training wild animals in the waves and currents of the Pacific Ocean.

"I guess I've come a long way from the days when I was learning to swim at Taylor Pool," he said.

"But, it doesn't seem that long ago."

White's fondest wishes for those still in school is that they set their goals high and work hard to achieve them.

"If I could tell the students anything, it would be ‘go for your dreams and never give up'," he said. "The possibilities are endless."

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