29 Jan 2024

Meet Idelisa Bonnelly


Known as the Mother of Marine Biology in the Caribbean, Idelisa and her work have had a huge impact. Find out more about her life and work below.



Growing up

Idelisa was born in the Dominican Republic. She grew up here, and she spent her days on the beautiful beaches with the marine life. This is where she decided to dedicate her life to protecting the ocean and its biodiversity. She said in a 2010 interview that she “lived very close to the sea, which I saw as a challenge, a mystery that I wanted to unravel”.

After completing school, she faced her first hurdle. Even though she lived around plenty of marine life, there were no Marine Biology university courses nearby. This didn’t stop her, though; she moved to New York in 1953 to get her undergraduate and Master’s degrees!



After getting her degrees, she worked as a research assistant at the New York Aquarium. She spent her time looking after penguins, walruses, and many other species. Something was missing for Idelisa, and she decided to return to the Dominican Republic.

Now she had her degrees, she decided to become a teacher and make changes to the education system in the Dominican Republic. She founded the first biology institution in the country to teach others what she had learned in New York. She also founded the Institute of Marine Biology, known as CIBIMA!

Before CIBIMA, there was no knowledge of how to care for the oceans, and lots of species were dying out. But, Idelisa wouldn’t let this last long. Through her research, she managed to improve marine life in many ways.

Some work from the CIBIMA includes:

  • Creating closed fishing seasons to keep healthy fish populations
  • Creating protective zones for different species
  • Opening the first Humpback Whale Sanctuary





After a long career and lots of research, Idelisa sadly passed away at age 90 in 2022. Even though Idelisa is no longer with us, her work has had lasting impacts. So many students have studied at the institutions opened by Idelisa. Humpback whale populations have grown because of her work. In 2016, the National Authority for Marine Affairs named a marine strait after her, which Humpback Whales pass through to get to Dominican waters.

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