CLEARWATER — Clearwater Marine Aquarium and its many visitors from across the world mourned Sunday’s news that PJ, the aquarium’s oldest bottlenose dolphin, has passed away.
She was estimated to be 51 years old and had lived in the aquarium’s rehabilitation center since her rescue in August 2018.
Officials with the aquarium announced PJ’s death in a statement posted online just before 10:15 a.m. Sunday, assuring that the beloved dolphin was “in the loving arms of her animal care and vet teams as she took her last breaths.”
“We did all we could to ensure she was as comfortable as possible during her last moments with us,” the statement said. “PJ lived a long and whole life — and we are so incredibly grateful to be able to provide her every comfort during her sunset years.”
As news of PJ’s passing spread, social media sites became inundated by a tidal wave of tributes to the beloved animal, known for her “easygoing personality” and “motherly” instincts when it came to caring for younger dolphins at the aquarium.
The latest federal research from experts in the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the average lifespan for an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin like PJ is around 40 years. The females of the species, however, often outlive the males, with some living 60 years or longer.
On Aug. 21, 2018, PJ was found stranded in the shallow waters of Old Tampa Bay, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s website says. Rescue workers from agencies throughout the region initially believed her to be around 30 years old. But once they were given federal clearance to take PJ to the aquarium’s rehabilitation facilities, veterinarians there determined the youthful dolphin was actually in her late 40s, aquarium staff said.
PJ’s condition quickly improved once she was taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but veterinarians there also discovered a host of other medical issues that led the National Marine Fisheries Service to classify her as “nonreleasable.” According to the aquarium, the friendly and laid-back dolphin was suffering from severe vision loss and was believed to be partly or completely deaf. She also suffered from arthritis and pain caused by her worn-down teeth, the aquarium said.
Due to her deteriorating health, experts at the aquarium determined that PJ was unable to hunt fish and migrate to warmer, safer waters, like others in her species. According to the aquarium’s reports, they determined that PJ was likely living as a “beggar dolphin” completely dependent on the scraps of food thrown by humans and passing boaters to survive.
It quickly became evident her only chance at survival was to live as a permanent resident at the aquarium, where she could receive round-the-clock, specialized care.
In March 2019, PJ was strong enough to move in to the aquarium’s Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, where staff say she lived in the same pool with the aquarium’s other famed dolphins, Winter and Hope.
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But it was Apollo, the aquarium’s newest dolphin rescue, who truly captured PJ’s heart when he was moved into the dolphin complex in December 2021, the aquarium’s staff said.
Apollo was believed to be 2 years old at the time and also suffered from severe to total hearing loss, the aquarium’s website said. The young dolphin often interacted with PJ as a “motherly figure,” the statement on her passing said.
PJ now joins in death Florida’s most famous dolphin with a prosthetic tail — “Dolphin Tale” film star Winter, who died in November 2021, the aquarium said.
“PJ is now able to join Winter and serve as her bodyguard for eternity,” the aquarium’s statement said, “as she would have it no other way.”