The Oldest Dolphin in Human Care

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You might remember this smiling face from a 1960’s Timex commercial. But Nellie, the oldest bottlenose dolphin born in human care in North America – and possibly the world – is now 57 years old.

Nellie was born on February 27, 1953 at Marine Studios (what is now called Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center), the world’s first oceanarium. Here’s the full vintage Timex commercial which featured young Nellie:

Kevin Roberts, Marineland curator, shared with me a bit about Nellie’s personality.: “When I first came to Marineland 13 years ago, Nellie had a reputation for stubbornness. She supposedly only “liked” certain dolphins… What was such a pleasant surprise to me was that by gradually applying more modern training techniques, this old “stubborn” dolphin began to respond extremely positively to all kinds of new training, including husbandry training which includes voluntary blood draws.”

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Bottlenose dolphins, found in tropical oceans across the globe, have an average lifespan closer to 25 years. And while Nellie may be quite the senior citizen in dolphin years, she is surprisingly healthy. Kevin shares that in “recent years she has developed cataracts that affect her vision. Several years ago we decided to begin transferring her visual hand signals – or Sd’s – for behaviors into tactile Sd’s, where we actually touch various parts of her body, to account for her loss of visual acuity. She adapted far better than anyone could have predicted, and to this day continues to learn new behaviors on occasion, as new training is good mental stimulation for dolphins. Over the years we have also tackled the alleged social favoritism that she supposedly showed, and she now interacts positively with fellow geriatric dolphins and dolphin calves alike. The old adage about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks does not carry over to Nellie; she is a consistently solid and dependable animal, which is especially appropriate since she did the old Timex commercials in the 1960’s, showing how they “take a licking and keep on ticking.”

Here’s a glimpse of Nellie swimming in her modern habitat along the Florida coast at Marineland, known as the first place in the world to have a successful captive dolphin birth and the facility to pioneer dolphin training (anyone remember Flippy, the dolphin that inspired the movie Flipper?). Meet ol’ Nellie yourself by visiting Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center and learn all about bottlenose dolphins before you go.


Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall, images taken at Marineland.