Nobody — dolphin or human — outranked Theresa in longevity at the Dolphin Research Center. Theresa, matriarch of the dolphin pod at the Grassy Key facility for more than four decades, died Wednesday at an estimated age of 56.
“What an incomparable dolphin,” said Mary Stella, DRC media director. “She was a terrific midwife and loved being a baby-sitter. All the younger dolphins loved hanging out with Nanna Theresa.”
A necropsy will be performed but DRC staff knows the cause of death almost certainly was simply “complications of old age,” Stella said. “She was really old for a dolphin.”
Theresa was the oldest DRC dolphin, and was already in residence when senior center staffers Mandy and Jayne Rodriguez arrived in the early 1970s.
“Theresa was in charge of our human training,” Stella said. “She taught so much to everybody who came to work here. Our staff learned from her, and who knows how many thousands of our visitors learned something from her.”
Theresa first gained fame as the so-called the AWOL dolphin, a marine mammal captured for a then-secret U.S. Navy training program. She spent time at the Grassy Key facility — then Santini’s Sea School — before being transferred to the Navy base in Key West.
She decided the Navy wasn’t for her and went absent without leave a few times, always returning to Grassy Key. In 1968, the Navy decided she should just stay there.
“She was the famous runaway Navy animal,” said Key Largo dolphin activist Rick Trout, who worked with Theresa after Santini’s changed to Flipper’s Sea School.
Before then, Trout said, Theresa’s story made him curious about the Navy dolphin program and he wound up being hired as a civilian trainer in a military marine-mammal program in California. He left after “becoming disgusted with the whole concept and the treatment of the animals.”
“Theresa absolutely proves the point,” Trout said. “She was smarter than the program and left.” He added, “She was a super animal. The fact that she lived so long is a testament to the skills of the folks at DRC.”
“Everybody here has a Theresa story,” Stella said. “She definitely had her own ‘dolphinality.’ She had a sweet disposition and was very patient but knew her own mind. She had a goofy side.
“She loved men with beards and facial hair, and would steal kisses from them. She liked her naps, and would do a happy dance where she put her head above the water and just spin in the lagoon.”
The staff recalls the mid-1980s story when Theresa once uncharacteristically ignored the commands of a female trainer in a session but kept focusing her echolocation to scan the trainer’s stomach. Two days later, the trainer learned she was pregnant. “Theresa knew before anyone,” Stella said.
When staff heard the sound of a motorboat coming from the lagoon, they knew it actually was an 8-foot, 500-pound prankster.
After Theresa demonstrated a “speed run” behavior in a narrated session for visitors, “she would make this motorboat sound on the way back,” Stella said. “Nobody ever taught her that; it was a variation all her own.”
She outlived her only offspring, Nashua, but is survived by 9-year-old grandson Tanner. Actually, the entire 22-dolphin DRC pod was family to Theresa.
“She lived with practically every dolphin here at some point, and we always made sure she was with the pregnant females,” Stella said. “She liked her older female friends, and she really liked the kids.”