Design student uses art to show aquarium bond with animals

Mystic — When college interns arrive to work with the animal care staff at Mystic Aquarium, they typically come from marine biology and other scientific fields.

That changed this past summer when Rae Whiteley, who recently graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in illustration, spent five weeks observing and sketching the staff as they worked with the animals. Whiteley then spent the next five weeks in a studio using an opaque, water-based paint called gouache to not only communicate the work of the aquarium staff but, more importantly, the bond they share with the animals.

The dozen paintings are now on display in the mezzanine leading to the aquarium’s marine theater. Called “A Bond Beyond,” they show staff working with penguins, belugas, sea lions and an octopus, as well as visitors interacting with the animals.

Whiteley, who lives in Haddam and grew up going to the aquarium, said having the opportunity to work there was amazing.

Whiteley became interested in communicating science through art after taking an evolutionary biology course at RISD. The professor, Lucy Spelman, who is also a veterinarian and founded the group Creature Conserve, encouraged Whiteley to communicate science through art. The nonprofit group is dedicated to bringing artists and scientists together to support animal conservation before it's too late, according to its website,

Until then, Whiteley was always under the impression that art and science were separate entities. That changed when Spelman encouraged Whiteley to use art to explain science in a way people can understand.

“They are not as different as you think,” Whiteley said.

Whitely especially was impressed by the extreme intelligence of the octopus. When the animal’s usual trainer came back to work after a week off, the octopus entwined its tentacles on the trainer’s arm and would not let go, as if to say “where have you been?”

“To see that connection between an octopus and a person was beautiful to me. You don’t think about it until you see it,” Whitely said.

Aquarium spokeswoman Dale Wolbrink said having Whiteley around was a great experience for the aquarium staff because the intern was able to explain what they do in a different way.

Amanda Wheeler, the aquarium’s assistant trainer for penguins and California sea lions and is featured in one of the paintings, said “It takes my breath away how Rae portrayed the incredible bond, my passion for my profession, and the opportunities Mystic Aquarium provides through encounters, and the endless possibilities that a single experience can create.”

Whiteley plans to continue working with Creature Conserve.

“I want to help people see the world the way I see it and to appreciate it,” Whiteley said.


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