Across the street from the entrance to Marineland, in an unadorned building that doesn’t prompt a second look, George “Geo” Biedenbach, director of conservation programs, and field coordinator Matthew Denny spend their days doing the kind of work tourists may not think about when they visit the park, but which is vital to its dedication to marine research and education.
Opened in 2009, the $1.5 million Dolphin Conservation Field Station is a stranding center that rescues and recovers whales, dolphins, manta rays and whatever else might float to the surface or wash up on land.
Biedenbach and Denny respond to about eight strandings a year. The outcome usually isn’t pleasant.
“Seventy-five percent of the animals that hit the beach are already dead,” Biedenbach says. “Many others die on their own or are euthanized within 24 hours.” If the animal is alive, the staff performs triage and transports it to one of its partner hospitals at SeaWorld, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce or Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City.
If it’s “fresh dead,” with no signs of bloating, it is taken to Marineland’s necropsy facility. Here, internal and external exams are performed.
“We’re basically ‘Dolphin CSI,’” Biedenbach said.
He and visiting veterinarians document lesions, signs of blunt trauma and other causes of death to glean what they can about underwater life. They also identify wild dolphins in the area and photograph their dorsal fins — a defining feature — so the animals can be tracked. If a dolphin becomes stranded or entangled, a zip through Denny’s computerized catalog can determine which dolphin it is, whether or not it’s a “resident” of the area and if it’s had other problems. So far Denny has collected and tagged data on more than 200 dolphins.
“This is a piece of the scientific puzzle that wasn’t happening before we were here,” Biedenbach said.
In the eight habitats overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Marineland Dolphin Adventure, 13 bottlenose dolphins follow the commands of their trainers, presenting their fins to visitors who have paid for a “touch and feed” encounter. Some will later hold plastic containers of acrylic paints in their mouths and create dolphin Picassos on canvas for guests willing to pay for the experience.
Meanwhile, one almost-sexagenarian dolphin cruises through the translucent water with a peaceful air. As she glides around her circular pool, Nellie seems to glance at a visitor with a knowing look.
No matter how cloudy her eyes have become, she is the lone inhabitant who has seen it all — the crowds, the spotlight, the lean years and now this new era with its focus on education. Once an entertainer, she’s now a teacher and her lesson is one of longevity.