By Kevin Hogencamp/Jacksonville University
MARINELAND, Fla. — Call her “Dr.” Nellie, if you will. You could even say that she’s “old school.”
Jacksonville University’s beloved marine mascot – the oldest dolphin in human care – received an honorary doctorate degree in health sciences and longevity during her 60th birthday celebration Thursday, May 30, at Marineland Dolphin Adventure. The certificate is Nellie’s third: She was proclaimed an honorary JU Dolphin when she was adopted as the University’s mascot in 1970, and she received an honorary masters in marine science degree in 2008.
Famous for her showmanship to live audiences and in films, and for an iconic 1961 “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking” Timex watch commercial with broadcaster John Cameron Swayze, Nellie is the oldest living college mascot in the country. A longtime featured performer who jumped through hoops and playfully interacted with trainers and spectators at Marineland’s once-popular dolphin shows, the sextenarian is long-retired and shows signs of aging, including blindness and limited agility, as she continues to be studied and marveled by marine researchers.
“She’s (Nellie) awesome,” Sara Schunter, a 2013 JU marine science graduate who was at Nellie’s birthday celebration. “She shows us how long dolphins can live in captivity. I hope to work with fish and love dolphins, too. They are so friendly, and each has their own personality.”
Marineland invited JU officials, community leaders and other special guests – including Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts and Shirley Ann Thompson, the daughter of Nellie’s late namesake, Nellie Mae Skinner Neighbors – for birthday cake and the honorary degree ceremony conducted by JU Vice President for University Relations Derek Hall. Nellie’s birthday was Feb. 27; Marineland is celebrating the milestone birthday and the park’s 75th anniversary with special events through early June.
Media were present at birthday celebration from The Flagler College Gargoyle, Palm Coast Observer, Daytona Beach News-Journal and First Coast News.
“I think Nellie would be quite proud to receive this degree. I think she must have taken some night classes to get her PhD,” quipped Billy Hurley, chief zoologist for the Georgia Aquarium, which bought Marineland in 2011. “It’s so cool for Jacksonville University to have been honoring her for so long. She’s done so much for the community.”
An oceanside property on Florida A1A in north Flagler County about 18 miles south of St. Augustine, Marineland offers guests interactive and in-water programs, including opportunities to swim with dolphins. Marineland opened in 1938 as Marine Studios, an underwater movie-making operation and the world’s first marine animal park, and transformed through the years into Florida’s most popular theme theme park. But the attraction was hit hard financially by the opening in the 1970s with the opening of Sea World, Disney World and Interstate 95, and attendance numbers dropped from 400,000 annually to less than 20,000.
Although marine research is a larger-than-ever focus for Marineland, attendance is on the rise as Georgia Aquarium recently invested about $4 million in the park, including heated water, pool renovations, a tent area and behind-the-scenes tours.
While Nellie has lived more than double the normal age of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, other dolphins at the park are living well in their 40s and 50s.
“It goes to show how the care of these animals have grown over the decades. We appreciate every day we have with her,” said Kurt Allen, general manager and vice president of Marineland.
JU Marine Science Research Institute Executive Director Quinton White said that with Nellie serving as JU’s ambassador, of sorts, at the marine park, Marineland has been a valuable partner for the University.
“We’ve had a long history of working with Marineland through students working here on staff and in internships, and with class visits, so this (ceremony) is very appropriate,” White said. “I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve been done here. The staff is always very helpful and very professional, and very focused on marine science education.”
David Kimmel, president and chief operating officer of the Georgia Aquarium, said that Marineland and Nellie established the standard for creating awareness and understanding of marine mammals.
“It all started here. We all have learned a lot from Nellie, who has made a lot of contributions to all of us about what we know about dolphins,” Kimmel said. “Every single day we learn something new.”
Thompson, a 77-year-old St. Augustine resident, said she was moved by the birthday ceremony, and that Nellie is like a family member to her and her three sisters. Her mother was employed at the park from 1952 until the mid-1960s.
“My mother was so enthralled with working here. She took her job very seriously,” Thompson said. “It was quite an honor when they named Nellie after her and it’s wonderful that they continue to give Nellie the attention she deserves with events like this.”
Through having first-hand access to Nellie and other Marineland stars as a young child and, later, by swimming with dolphins in the St. Augustine bay, Thompson said she has gained a deep appreciation for marine life.
“Dolphins, especially, are spectacular. Very smart and very brave,” she said. “When you swim with them and a shark approaches, the dolphin will get between you and the shark. They are just amazing.”
Noting during the birthday ceremony that dolphins often are spotted from the JU campus on the St. Johns River bank, JU’s Hall said of Nellie: “While she has never visited campus … her relatives do.”
Hall said that in addition to Nellie’s contributions to marine research and serving as JU’s mascot, she has had a positive, lasting impact on children who attend JU’s Wilma’s Little People’s School, who send her birthday wishes every year. Wilma’s founder, Kay Johnson, was on hand for the birthday celebration – and for Wilma’s adoption ceremony in 1970.
(JU News and Publications Director Phillip Milano contributed to this report.)
Here is a photo gallery from Nellie’s 60th birthday celebration: