A Life’s Purpose

Dolphin researcher Nicole Mader has dedicated her life to monitoring and protecting the precious sea life in our local waterways

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Nicole Mader photographs the local dolphin population from her 17-foot Mako boat. Photography by Steven Martine
Nicole Mader photographs the local dolphin population from her 17-foot Mako boat. Photography by Steven Martine

Stuart resident Nicole Mader is on a mission to protect some of our local waters’ most beloved creatures. The 54-year-old field biologist has spent the past decade studying South Florida’s abundant waterways and wildlife. Currently working with the nonprofit Dolphin Ecology Project, permitted under Dolphin Census, she monitors Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the southern Indian River Lagoon, studying water conditions and how they affect the dolphin population. It’s important work to be sure, as many local dolphins suffer from issues including seriously compromised immune systems, skin disorders (like lobomycosis), and a high mortality rate for newborn calves. And all of that, she says, is a direct result of environmental pollution in the waterways caused by things like discharge from Lake Okeechobee, fertilizer and stormwater runoff, and plastic trash. “The dolphins don’t leave the Indian River Lagoon,” explains Mader. “They travel 50 miles or so up and down, but they don’t go into the ocean. They stay here. So whatever we do to our waterways, we do to the dolphins. They’re our neighbors, and we need to treat them as such.” 

Born and raised in Martin County, Mader has been interested in aquatic wildlife since she was a child, attending Jensen Beach’s Environmental Studies Center and spending time on the water with her father, a boat builder. After graduating from the University of Florida, she started her career working as a dolphin trainer in the Keys, where she was eager to work with marine life—if still a bit green. “When I was in the Keys, people there were protesting the collection of wild dolphins for captivity,” she recalls. “At the time, I didn’t fully understand it, but now I’m on the other side doing research and am very against any type of captivity. It’s amazing how far I’ve come.”

After migrating back up north in 1991, she volunteered with the Jupiter-based Wild Dolphin Project, studying Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas and working closely with other organizations as well throughout the years. Now she has returned to her home turf of Martin County. “It was a full-circle moment coming back here and focusing on the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin population in the southern Indian River Lagoon,” says Mader. “What’s going on with Lake Okeechobee, the discharge, and how it has polluted our waterways, I really wanted to document that over time because the best way to study any population is over the long term.”

Mader’s dog Moby often accompanies her during research days on the Indian River Lagoon. Photography by Steven Martine
Mader’s dog Moby often accompanies her during research days on the Indian River Lagoon. Photography by Steven Martine

Mader’s research involves collecting data to monitor the local dolphin population. By photographing their dorsal fins (each dorsal fin is as different as a human fingerprint), she can track them over the years. Her collection of data helps to understand abundance, birth and death rates, home ranges, behaviors, and more. At every dolphin sighting, she checks the water’s salinity, temperature, and turbidity every half hour.

She also has a strong passion for educating others on what she has learned about the harm being done to marine life and how locals can make small changes that add up to a big impact. “Dolphins are intelligent beings, and they live in harmony with their environment without destroying it,” she says. “I really want to bring to light what people do to our waterways, like throwing trash away inappropriately. We’ve had many dolphins wash up on the beach that have been stranded or killed by ingesting plastics or getting entangled in monofilament.”

Mader is heavily involved with the community’s waterways in other ways as well, including as a board member of the Environmental Studies Center and the Rivers Coalition. For the past 11 years, she has led River Kidz, a Stuart-based nonprofit that teaches children the importance of advocating for clean waterways. She also serves on the board of Massachusetts- based Ocean Alliance. 

“I’m proud that I have stayed consistent with my deep concern for our local environment and waterways,” says Mader. “I try to spread the word with the kids and by being on various boards…. I have such love for my town. Every little bit counts. If you do the right thing, it draws people to do the same.”

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