A Dolphin Tale

A Mote scientist on what he learned from nine-month-old dolphin Nellie.


By Randy Wells

In a flurry of splashing, nine-month-old Nellie was released and swam off rapidly beside her 32-year-old mother, finally free of the line that had been tightly embedded for weeks just behind her head. It was the morning of March 1, 2010, and our dolphin rescue team, composed of staff, students, and volunteers from the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program, sloshed back to our anchored boats in Little Sarasota Bay, feeling very relieved.

I’ve been studying Sarasota Bay’s dolphins since I was 16 years old in 1970, when the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program—the world’s longest running study of a dolphin population— tagged its first dolphin.

Nellie was the latest of an increasing number of entanglement cases involving the long-term resident bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay, a change I’ve been sad to see. To have such a life-threatening situation occur so early in Nellie’s life brought into sharp focus for me that our neighbors in the bay need our help to prevent and mitigate problems that can arise when humans and dolphins share the same waters.

Nellie, her six siblings, mother and other relatives are among the 160 or so dolphins that call the Sarasota Bay area home, year-round, ranging from the Manatee River to Venice Inlet. At any given time there are up to five concurrent generations in Sarasota Bay, with individuals up to 64 years old. We still see two dolphins from 1970-71.

The complexity of the long-established dolphin social system rivals that of the humans living on the adjacent Sarasota shoreline. Observing individuals such as Nellie throughout their lives has helped me to appreciate the challenges they face. It has also helped me to understand that with just a little bit more care while we are boating and fishing, we can relieve some of the threats our finned neighbors face.

Four years after her rescue, Nellie is going strong. I hope that by sharing her story, we are able to continue to make a positive difference in the lives of the Sarasota Bay dolphins.

Randy Wells is director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between Mote Marine Laboratory and Chicago Zoological Society.