Will the National Aquarium Free Its Dolphins?

A redesign of the respected and adored attraction could spell the end of dolphin captivity in Baltimore.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. (Photo: Education Images/UIG/Getty Images)

May 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

To the surprise and delight of dolphin lovers and other opponents of marine-mammal captivity, the renowned National Aquarium in Baltimore announced last week that it might be retiring its eight bottlenose dolphins to sea-pen sanctuaries.

The move could be part of a new initiative to modernize the facility. “We know we must evolve to remain relevant,” aquarium CEO John Racanelli said in a statement announcing an “ambitious and far-reaching” facility upgrade called BLUEprint. “We are probing the foundation of what it means to be a world-class aquarium, both now and in the decades to come,” he said.

Being a world-class aquarium, it seems, may not be dependent on keeping whales and dolphins in tanks. In fact, the opposite may be true.

As part of the “four pillars” of the BLUEprint redesign, which was recently detailed in a lengthy article in The New Yorker, the aquarium is conducting an intensive study of the eight dolphins in its care to determine whether they should remain in the Dolphin Discovery section of the popular Inner Harbor attraction or be sent to live in more natural environs.

Racanelli cited a “heightened understanding” of the science around dolphin captivity and vowed to evaluate “all possible options for providing [National Aquarium’s eight bottlenose dolphins] with the best possible living environment in the years ahead.”

Two years ago, under the direction of the recently arrived CEO, the aquarium halted its splashy dolphin shows and replaced them with a new “interpretive approach” in which visitors can “engage in one-on-one conversations with the biologists who care for the animals,” Racanelli said.

Even that improvement may not go far enough, Racanelli said.

“Our next step is to evaluate the most beneficial options for our aging animals,” he added. “There are many issues to consider when planning for the future of these social, cognitively advanced mammals.”

Later this month, the aquarium will stage a summit of veterinarians and biologists to consider a wide range of feasible options for the dolphins, including the construction of a “dolphin sanctuary in an oceanside setting,” said Racanelli, who did not answer questions emailed by TakePart. “We will pursue our exploration and address this need with our highest priority in clear view: to ensure the continued health and well-being of our dolphin colony.”

Racanelli has not openly advocated for the retirement plan. Instead, as he explained to the Baltimore Brew news site, “My main role has been to ask the question: Is this a concept we need to rethink? We’re still exploring all the options. It’s very important we be guided by the science.”

To assist with the feasibility study, the aquarium has partnered with a team of consultants led by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, who runs the award-winning Studio Gang Architects firm. “We believe their emphasis on work informed by cultural and environmental trends syncs precisely with our design and planning needs,” Racanelli said.

The study, expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, is perhaps the most ambitious undertaken by the aquarium, one of Baltimore’s leading attractions, drawing some 1.3 million visitors a year. Currently there is no time line for its completion.

Efforts to retire the eight dolphins began a few years ago, according to Courtney Vail, program and campaigns manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“The process for considering an alternative future for [National Aquarium’s] dolphins has a long history,” Vail explained in an email.

She lauded aquarium executives for their “strong commitment to science and conservation,” adding, “We have been encouraged by National’s direction and are involved in these consultations that reflect a progressive direction for the aquarium’s future.”

Vail predicted that the “extremely complex process” will “pave the way for a new ethic and paradigm in how we relate to and connect with these amazing animals.”

Should the prestigious National Aquarium decide to retire its dolphins to netted-off ocean pens, it might help move forward the California bill to outlaw the display of captive orcas in that state, home to SeaWorld San Diego, which was tabled pending a one-year review process. After all, orcas are dolphins too, biologically speaking. If the National Aquarium can retire its dolphins, critics contend, then why can’t SeaWorld retire its killer whales?

“I think this is a revolutionary decision,” Dr. Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist and leading dolphin scientist, wrote in an email. “By even asking the question, [Racanelli] is light-years ahead of the rest of the captivity industry.”