Nellie Turns 60, Maybe


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She met Van Gogh at the end of his life. He was ugly. He was an alcoholic. At 119 years old, Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) spoke in French to an interviewer from ‘Provence’ that she had seen everything. She outlived her parents and grandparents and stayed strong until she was 122. To the nations, Calment was a miracle. It was not every day that populations could marvel at a woman living to be more than 120 years old.

Like the shock of Jeanne Calment in 1997, Nellie, Jacksonville University’s mascot since 1970, made headlines when she reached her 60 birthday on Feb. 27, which would make her the oldest dolphin in the world under human care.

According to the Oceanic Preservation Society, dolphins will live for approximately 40 to 50 years in the wild, but in parks “their survival rates are staggeringly low.” At SeaWorld in San Antonio, the average lifespan of a captive-bred dolphin is four years.

“It’s truly astonishing how long she has lived,” said junior marine science major and president of Rho Rho Rho, a marine science honors society, Brett Durda. “She has lived easily 20 years longer than any other dolphin in captivity. Usually dolphins do not live very long in captivity due to space requirements, exercise and food. She has probably lived this long due to great care of her caretakers at Marineland mixed with a good diet and exercise.”

Because of Nellie’s astonishing lifespan, Marineland celebrated Nellie’s 60 birthday with the community with cake and card signings. However visitors were unable to visit Nellie due to “ongoing construction” according to an article in The St. Augustine Record. Others say Nellie’s health can also attribute to the visitor restrictions.

“Lately within the last three or so years, Marineland has made it relatively difficult to see her,” Durda said. “This is probably because she has been sick lately and fragile and Marineland has been worried about her health and longevity.”

The visitor restrictions added with the outlandish age of Nellie have started rumors that Nellie is actually dead and Marineland is trying to replace her before anyone finds out. Some students on campus have heard these rumors and are reacting to them differently. There are two main reactions. The first is an appalled reaction with a sentiment of hope.

“It’s sad. I thought we had the oldest dolphin in the world, and then someone told me she was dead and I’m like ‘no, she’s alive,’” freshman musical theater major, Adda Laplaceliere, said. “They haven’t changed the napkin holders at Nellie’s, so she’s alive. Nellie’s fit. I would think if Nellie was dead they would change that. I would feel so sad because I actually want to meet her some day.”

The second is a more complacent response.

“Shamoo is the mascot for SeaWorld and there has probably been a lot of Shamoos,” freshman animations major Lexy Plummer said. “If Nellie dies, we’ll get a new dolphin and name it Nellie.”

Dead or alive, Nellie has served JU since just a year after the US landed on the moon, and will continue to serve JU in the future. Since the 1950s, Nellie starred in several television shows and quickly became a fan favorite performing her famous “hula hoop trick” and other charming personality connections with the guests. Now, Nellie is “paving the way for other dolphins that may reach her age and is helping to provide a baseline of data or information for the zoological community as a whole,” according to Marineland.

“She has been a great mascot,” Durda said. “Since JU is on the river and almost everyone has experienced a dolphin in the river, she was the perfect fit. She has also given us a mascot to support as well as a real physical representation of JU and its longevity as a university, much like her life.”

On May 31, Nellie will receive her honorary doctorate degree from Jacksonville University, and through June 2, Marineland Dolphin Adventure will host further activities and events. Those who were unable to make it to the celebration Wednesday can still sign Nellie’s birthday card on display at the facility or visit and share stories, photos and videos as well as view Nellie memories as far back as 1953.

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