Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dolphin born in captivity is now 54 years old!

Nellie may be known as the world's oldest bottlenose dolphin born in captivity, but she still gets her kicks, and marine-lovers say they're impressed by her youthful vigor.

She squirted out a candle atop an ice and fish birthday cake Tuesday morning. And the 54-year-old Pisces leaped into the air before dozens of clicking cameras, drawing oohs and ahhs from the children, parents and grandparents who gathered around her tank for the celebration.

A chorus of "Happy Birthday" rang through the Dolphin Conservation Center at Marineland, and later, about 70 people grabbed slices of a yellow cake with white frosting topped off with an image of Nellie.

Nellie's fame lives beyond her age. She's known for her old Smokey the Bear routine in which she put out camp fires by squirting water on them. She was once featured in a Timex commercial, and participated in a Benji movie. And she's the official mascot for Jacksonville University.

She's also distinguished for being a little on the heavy side, or "big-boned" as Marineland employees like to tease her. An average dolphin might weigh 400 pounds, said Billy Hurley, the center's general manager. Nellie weighs in at 480.

But the park likes it that way, Hurley said. It's a nice cushion in case she feels like not eating. Her birthday cakes have been made from paper maiche, Play-Doh and from the traditional flour and egg, which Marineland employees said left goop in the water.

She celebrated with longtime buddy Lilly, a blonde-colored bottlenose dolphin who park employees estimate to be about 50 years old, which is old for a dolphin in captivity.

Kevin Roberts, who works for Marineland, said Nellie has had at least two calves, one of which, Sunny, lives at the park. Nellie's grandson Bailey lives at SeaWorld in Orlando.

Hurley said Nellie's healthy and scientists say her vocalization and general energy are that of a dolphin in its 20s. Hurley said his only concerns about her next birthday are old age and Mother Nature.

"I'll be deeply saddened when the day comes that Mother Nature calls her home," Hurley said. "Until then, we're going to live every day like there won't be another. To that end, every day is a birthday for her at Marineland."

Nellie's not blind, but her eyesight has diminished over the past decade, Hurley said, which isn't a problem because she uses echolocation. With echolocation, dolphins, like bats and some other animals, emit high-pitched sounds that bounce off an object to determine its whereabouts.

And like other aging mammals, Nellie's metabolism has slowed and she's mellowed out, Hurley said.

"At age 54, scientists are very interested in what her blood chemistry looks like, because we've never had a chance to study those in an animal that old," Hurley said. "That's really important, because as we try to understand wild populations of dolphins and the challenges they face, geriatric concerns have to be weighed."

Flint, Mich., visitors Marina Kimeall and her 13-year-old son Gavin walked away from Nellie's tank with smiles.

Gavin said he was surprised he could get so close to the animals, and coming to Nellie's party has certainly made the vacation worthwhile.

The last time Gavin's mother, 44, saw Nellie, she was also 13.

"I think it's awesome," she said about Nellie's party. "I think they need to be celebrated. I think the work that happens is important to us all."

Randy Wells, a program manager at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, said he's used Nellie as an example when talking about older dolphins. He's been with the world's longest running study of wild bottlenose dolphins since its beginning 37 years ago.

Scientists watch over about 150 dolphins in the Sarasota Bay area. Included in the study is Niklo, a female estimated to be 57, and who may be the oldest bottlenose dolphin in the world, Wells said, with an emphasis on known.

"There aren't a lot of people aging dolphins," Wells said.

During the 1970s, scientists used to think bottlenose dolphins could only live to be 25 or 30, and that 30 was a dangerous age for a dolphin to breed. But when Niklo was 48, she gave birth to a calf.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"