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Idelisa Bonnelly: Dominican Mother of Marine Biology

Updated: Apr 29


Idelisa Bonnelly, Dominican Mother of Marine Biology
Idelisa Bonnelly

In honor of Earth Month, I would like to recognize someone who has dedicated their lives to protecting our planet's ecosystems, specifically those of the Caribbean--an are of the world suffering the negative effects of an economy driven by tourism. One such person is Idelisa Bonnelly, a Dominican marine biologist, conservation advocate, and founder of the Dominican Academy of Sciences. While the BBC has called her one of the most important women scientists in Latin America, I argue that her impact extends far beyond the region, making her one of the most important women scientists in the world.


Born in 1931 in the Dominican Republic, Bonnelly's passion for the ocean and its inhabitants led her to pursue a career in marine biology. Determined to pursue her passion for marine biology, Idelisa Bonnelly found herself facing a significant obstacle: the lack of biology programs in her native Dominican Republic. Undeterred, she made the decision to seek her education abroad, setting her sights on New York City. In 1953, Bonnelly embarked on her academic journey at Columbia University, where she immersed herself in the study of marine life. Her dedication and hard work paid off when she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology in 1956. Driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Bonnelly continued her educational pursuits, earning a master's degree from New York University in 1961. Armed with a solid foundation in her field, she took her first professional step as a research assistant to Ross Nigrelli at the prestigious New York Aquarium, marking the beginning of a remarkable career in marine biology.


Dominican Republic, Humpback whale
Humpback whale in the Dominican Republic.

Bonnelly's research has focused on the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources in the Caribbean. She has studied the region's coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, which are critical habitats for many species and play a vital role in maintaining the health of the ocean. Her work has shed light on the threats facing these ecosystems, such as overfishing, pollution, and climate change.


Armed with her hard-earned degrees, Bonnelly set her sights on a new mission: revolutionizing the education system in her homeland. Driven by a passion for sharing the knowledge she had acquired during her studies in New York, she took a bold step and established the country's first biology institution. This initiative aimed to provide aspiring scientists with the same opportunities she had pursued abroad. But Bonnelly's vision didn't stop there. She also founded the Institute of Marine Biology, known as CIBIMA, at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, which would become a beacon of hope for the nation's marine ecosystems.


Prior to the establishment of CIBIMA, the Dominican Republic lacked the necessary knowledge and resources to effectively care for its oceans. As a result, numerous species faced the threat of extinction. However, Idelisa Bonnelly refused to stand idly by and watch this devastating trend continue. Through her tireless research efforts and unwavering dedication, she set out to improve marine life in a multitude of ways.


CIBIMA's work has been nothing short of remarkable. The institute has implemented a range of innovative strategies to protect and preserve the country's marine biodiversity. One such initiative involved the creation of closed fishing seasons, which have proven instrumental in maintaining healthy fish populations. By regulating the timing and duration of fishing activities, CIBIMA has ensured that fish stocks have the opportunity to replenish and thrive.

In addition to the closed fishing seasons, CIBIMA has also established protective zones for various species. These designated areas provide critical habitats where marine life can flourish without the threat of human interference. By safeguarding these ecosystems, Bonnelly and her team have given countless species a fighting chance at survival.


CIBIMA started by Idelisa Bonnelly, mother of marine biology in the Dominican Republic

Perhaps one of CIBIMA's most notable achievements is the opening of the first Humpback Whale Sanctuary in the Dominican Republic. This sanctuary serves as a safe haven for these magnificent creatures, offering them a protected space to breed, nurse their young, and migrate without the dangers posed by human activities. The establishment of this sanctuary has not only contributed to the conservation of humpback whales but has also raised awareness about the importance of preserving marine life.


It is my hope that the Dominican government and society will invest in the education and training of the next generation of scientists, so that more individuals like Idelisa Bonnelly can emerge and make a positive impact on the world. By providing young Dominicans with the tools and resources they need to succeed, we can ensure that the country becomes a leader in scientific research and innovation.


Idelisa Bonnelly is a true pioneer in marine conservation and a shining example of the incredible potential that exists within the Dominican Republic. Her work has had a profound impact on the health of the Caribbean's marine ecosystems and has inspired countless individuals to take action to protect our planet. As we celebrate Earth Month, let us honor her legacy by recommitting ourselves to the fight for a sustainable future, and by working to create a world in which all individuals, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and make a difference.

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