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National Aquarium Considering Ending Its Captive Dolphin Exhibit

Aquatic entertainment parks such as Sea World are also feeling the heat to empty their tanks.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Pannochka/Shutterstock

 
 
 
 

In hindsight, “good” ideas often fail to meet expectations. A 1980s-style perm, the 2013 Baz Luhrmann production of  The Great Gatsby  and, though still under intense debate, the exhibition of captive dolphins.

In May, John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, announced in  an open letterthat the aquarium is in the midst of some soul searching about the future of its captive dolphin exhibit. “We will host a summit to convene animal care experts, veterinarians, and biologists to determine the feasibility of a variety of potential solutions, including designing and building a dolphin sanctuary in an ocean-side setting and exploring in detail the requirements for operating such a facility,” Racanelli wrote.

Popular films such as  Blackfish and The Cove  have illustrated to millions of people the harmful psychological and physical stress endured by captive whales and dolphins. This growing public awareness has prompted the National Aquarium (as well as aquariums across the country) to rethink the educational and financial merits of exhibiting captive dolphins.Although the National Aquarium has not definitively announced the release of its dolphins, aquatic entertainment parks such as Sea World are already feeling the heat. “If the National Aquarium takes this step and releases their dolphins into an ocean sanctuary, there will be a huge intensification of pressure on Sea World to do the same,” says David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. “This would be a game changer for sure.”

“These entertainment parks have no place in the twenty-first century. We know the level of awareness these animals have,” says Rachel Carbary from the activist campaign  Empty the Tanks Worldwide. “These are incredibly social, intelligent beings that are being used to make money. It is animal slavery. I do think that the attitude towards this issue has changed greatly over the past few years. I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that marine mammal captivity is finally being talked about.”

The National Aquarium has taken note of this shift in public opinion. “We have experienced a significant evolution in the audience we serve: it has become younger, more concerned about the health of our planet, and less willing to simply accept the same way of doing things,” Racanelli stated in his May open letter. 

This impetus for change from within the industry itself, Phillips says, is a significant step forward. “It’s not like the push for aquarium reform and release of dolphins is just coming from the radical fringes like PETA anymore. The fact that a similar agenda and call for reform is coming from a big industry player like the National Aquarium is huge.” 

The National Aquarium has been making a gradual move away from Sea World-style dolphin entertainment. In 2011 the aquarium cancelled its dolphin shows, a move that cost the non-profit institution about $1.9 million in annual revenue. CEO Racanelli realized that if entertainment-based dolphin performances were no longer offered, something new was needed. 

So the aquarium developed a dolphin exhibition it coined “Dolphin Discovery.” Dolphin Discovery allows visitors to observe trainer and dolphin interactions from an open pool. All interactions are focused on educating visitors about common dolphin behaviors such as porpoising and lob-tailing. “It’s been very stimulating and positive for the dolphins. And people's overall satisfaction has gone up,” Racanelli told  National Geographic  in a  recent interview.

Moving the eight dolphins from the small, enclosed pools at the aquarium into a natural marine setting would be a more complicated matter. Full reintroduction of the dolphins into the wild is seen as infeasible. Seven of the eight dolphins were born in captivity (the eighth was captured while very young), which means that they don’t know how to hunt in the wild. It’s likely the dolphins would be relocated into a large sea pen, where they would still rely on human care and feeding. The location of such a pen is also an open question. The dolphins will need to live in waters warmer than those in the Baltimore harbor, which means aquarium visitors would no longer have interactions with the animals. 

 
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