A JU graduate tells his story of personal connection with Nellie the dolphin.

39 21 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Nellie the dolphin entertained and educated Marineland audiences since 1953, when she was born at the iconic facility.

The 61-year-old Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, the oldest living in human care, died Thursday.

Marineland said on their website they had to euthanize her.

And when they made the announcement of Nellie's death on their Facebook page, it was clear she had touched generations of lives in her six decades.

"I can remember way back in the day, while I was teaching junior high school, we'd take field trips to Marineland," said David Cameron.

He lives 15 minutes from Marineland, in Butler Beach now, but grew up, taught and became a school principal in Jacksonville.

Cameron graduated from Jacksonville University in 1966, and it wasn't long after that he and Nellie would have a pretty close bond.

"She became JU's mascot in 1970," he remembered. "And with JU being the Dolphins, it was a natural fit."

He is a proud alumnus of the university, and is still active at school.

Which is why he was even more excited when Nellie was given an honorary doctorate degree from his school.

"That was last year on her 60th birthday," he said.

He's got dolphin statues all over his home, and even has a Christmas ornament, "hand-painted" by Nellie.

"Well she had the brush in her mouth and would make strokes that way," he laughed.

So considering his love of JU and Nellie, he had a special way he wanted to celebrate JU's 80th anniversary this year.

"The school came up with something called the global toast," he said. "They were getting people from all over the world to give a toast and take a picture to post on Facebook."

So, on April 16 -- JU's 80th anniversary -- there was only one other mammal David wanted to toast with.

"I went down to Marineland and they couldn't have been more accommodating," he said. "I told them I graduated from JU and I wanted to toast with Nellie, and they took me inside."

Just two weeks before Nellie died, David got a little one-on-one time with her, and raised a cup in her honor.

The Marineland staff photographer snapped a picture of the moment.

"I had a wine glass, well it was plastic, but they said I couldn't do that. So they gave me a red solo cup instead," he said, laughing.

Just one of the thousands of special connections Nellie made through her years at Marineland.

"It made me sad she died," Cameron said. "But it did make me really happy that I got to go down there and take that picture, it makes the picture really, really special."

For everyone who feels that connection, Marineland is holding a celebration of Nellie's life on May 15.

39 21 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://www.firstcoastnews.com/story/news/community/2014/05/02/nellie-marineland-dolphin-dies-ju/8632287/