Marineland's Dolphin Conservation Center reported on Friday that Lilly Champagne, the last of Marineland's famous "blonde" dolphins, has died.
Lilly died on Tuesday of age-related conditions and a weakened immune system, which led to pneumonia, the most common cause of death in dolphins.
Collected in 1964 from Steinhatchee prior to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, she lived in the care of staff at Marineland for 45 years and far surpassed the average 25 year lifespan of female bottlenose dolphins in the wild.
Lilly was at least 47 years of age at the time of death, which is equivalent to that of human around 100.
"Countless numbers of guests learned to care about dolphins because of Lilly," said Director of Education Terran Rosenberg. "Generations of visitors better understand the plight of wild dolphins because of what Lilly could teach us about genetics and predators. She will be greatly missed."
Lilly's unusual light brownish coloration rather than the typical gray of other Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins was due to a rare recessive genetic trait, Marineland said. In the wild, dolphins with that coloration are more prone to attack by predators since they are not well-camouflaged.
Lilly participated in Marineland shows daily until she entered her senior years in the late 1990s. From that point, she spent much of her time with her social mate, Nellie, the world's oldest dolphin in human care.
"While we all knew this day was eventually coming, it feels like we lost a family member," said Marineland's Curator of Marine Mammals, Kevin Roberts. "Lilly was one-of-a-kind in so many ways. I have worked with dozens of dolphins over the past 20-plus years, and have never had a relationship with any as close as the one I had with her. I think that Nellie is handling this better than some of us."
Nellie the dolphin is thriving at 55 and celebrates her 56th birthday in two weeks. Marineland said that fact refutes the common misconception that dolphins die prematurely in captivity.