Nellie, 61, a bottlenose dolphin whose life spanned most of the history of performing dolphins in captivity, died on May 4, 2014 at Marineland of Florida, her home since she was born there on February 27, 1953.
The seventh dolphin born at Marineland of Florida, and the second born that month, Nellie became the oldest captive-born cetacean of any species on record, and the longest-lived cetacean in captivity. Her parents, Susie and Happy, were also longtime Marineland of Florida residents, as is her surviving son, Sunny, born in 1984.
As well as performing before as many as 400,000 visitors per year, Nellie appeared in films and TV programs made at Marineland of Florida, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Sea Hunt (1958-1961), and a 1961 television commercial starring singer Frank Sinatra.
Built in 1937 as an underwater film studio, Marineland of Florida is generally considered the first modern oceanarium, distinguished from traditional aquariums by the addition of performance venues. The founders included W. Douglas Burden, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Sherman Pratt, and Ilya Andreyevich Tolstoy, a grandson of the author Leo Tolstoy. As a vegetarian for the last 25 years of his life, and a proto-animal rights philosopher, Leo Tolstoy would probably not have approved.
Marineland of Florida opened to the public on June 23, 1938 with a bottlenose dolphin already resident. Fifteen years later, at Nellie’s birth, Marineland of Florida remained the only oceanarium in the world, but others were in development. Marineland of the Pacific opened near Los Angeles in 1954. The Gulfarium, in Fort Lauderdale, and the Miami Seaquarium both opened in 1955. Dozens more oceanariums debuted during the next three decades.
The rise of the Sea World empire, founded in San Diego in 1964, brought a consolidation phase. Sea World bought and closed rivals, bought and closed other oceanariums to acquire their animals, and set a standard for size and quality of facilities in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio that other marine mammal exhibitors could not match.
Meanwhile, public concern for the well-being of dolphins in captivity brought protest as early as 1962. Former Miami Seaquarium and Flipper television program trainer Ric O’Barry recalled in his 1988 autobiography Behind the Dolphin Smile that as a member of the Seaquarium capture team he had evaded demonstrators in small boats to net the albino dolphin Carolina Snowball.
Carolina Snowball survived three years in captivity. Her death in 1965 was the first of several that influenced O’Barry to switch sides on Earth Day 1970, attempting unsuccessfully to free a captive dolphin named Charlie Brown from the Lerner Marine Laboratory in the Bahamas.
Between competition from Sea World Orlando, opened in 1973, and activism led by O’Barry, former Ocean World trainer Russ Rector, and others, the older and smaller Florida oceanariums fell on hard times.
Marineland of Florida declared bankruptcy in April 1998 with debts of $9.7 million, and nearly went out of business after closing to visitors in November 1998. It reopened in March 1999, however, only to be closed again by Hurricanes Floyd and Irene in September and October 1999. Much of the facility was demolished in 2003, including the original circular and rectangular tanks.
The remaining portions of Marineland of Florida were sold to Georgia Aquarium board member Jim Jacoby in 2004. Jacoby reopened Marineland of Florida as a swim-with-dolphins attraction in 2006, then sold it to the Georgia Aquarium in 2011.