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A photo of a bottlenose dolphin at the Baltimore Aquarium.

This bottlenose dolphin currently lives at the Baltimore Aquarium, but it could be heading for a seaside sanctuary.

PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCENT J. MUSI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published May 15, 2014

Thrusting itself to the forefront of a debate about keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, has announced that it is considering retiring its eight bottlenose dolphins and moving them to an oceanside sanctuary.

The proposed move comes at a time when the aquarium is shifting its overall mission from being mainly a tourist attraction to becoming a major conservation organization with national recognition.

Although the final decision about the dolphins has yet to be made, John Racanelli, the National Aquarium's director, said in a press statement, "we are studying and evaluating all possible options for providing them with the best possible living environment in the years ahead."

The aquarium has already hired Studio Gang Architects from Chicago to explore preliminary designs and has discussed the overall plan with several dolphin and whale biologists.

And the news—even if not final—is being widely celebrated. "I applaud them for considering ALL options, including the idea of retiring the animals to a sea pen," Naomi Rose, a cetacean biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, wrote in an email to National Geographic.

Such a sanctuary, if built, would be the first of its kind.

Chronic Stress

"It's time for kudos," says Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist and expert on dolphin cognition who has argued that keeping cetaceans in public aquariums is wrong. The aquarium is "clearly responding to the scientific evidence about dolphins' cognitive complexity and how they fare in captivity, and to public opinion."

Dolphins and other marine mammals kept in captivity suffer from chronic stress and behavioral abnormalities, such as odd repetitive movements, self-mutilation, and aggression, Marino explains.

Ironically, some of the research establishing dolphins' higher mental abilities has been done with the National Aquarium's animals. Diana Reiss, an animal cognition researcher at Hunter College in New York City, has worked with the younger dolphins to discover at what age they develop a sense of self-awareness.

Born in Captivity

Reiss and other cetacean experts will take part in an aquarium-sponsored "dolphin summit" later this month to determine if the move is feasible and what a seaside sanctuary would require.

"Seven of these animals were born in captivity," says Reiss, "and the eighth, Nani, was captured from the wild when she was very young." They've been fed dead fish and cared for in sterile, concrete pools their entire lives, and they know nothing about living in the wild.

"The husbandry must continue," Reiss says. "They cannot simply be released into the wild. But they can be given a choice about [which other dolphins] they want to live with, and they can be given a richer environment."

That general plan makes sense, says Richard Connor, a cetacean biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who's studied dolphins in the wild for 30 years.

"I'd be very negative about this if the plan was simply to release them into the wild," he says. "That would be like taking country-raised children and letting them go in a big city. They need to care for them and exercise them for the rest of their lives."

Connor adds that he hopes that some type of cognition research will also be allowed, since little is known about how dolphins think in comparison to other species such as chimpanzees and elephants.

The aquarium opened its first dolphin exhibit in 1980, but the facility was poorly designed, and two of the dolphins soon died. Three others developed ulcers and were sent to an aquarium in Florida to recover.

The current dolphin exhibit, which is bright and airy, opened in 1990. But problems have persisted: Two baby dolphins born there in 2011 perished, one from internal bleeding and one from pneumonia.

Trendsetting

Racanelli's idea to give the dolphins a more natural life follows his previous decision in 2012 to end the aquarium's dolphin shows.  Acknowledging that there was little of educational value in the dolphins' stunts, Racanelli instead arranged for visitors to see the animals in their pools and to meet staff biologists who could discuss dolphin cognition, behavior, and conservation.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Racanelli commented, "There are chimp sanctuaries, orangutan sanctuaries, gorilla sanctuaries, elephant sanctuaries, big-cat sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries ... And there's not yet a dolphin sanctuary. What's that about?"

By taking the lead and establishing the first dolphin sanctuary, the National Aquarium could set a trend.

Marino says that partly because of the movie Blackfish—about an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, who killed one of his trainers—the public is less enthusiastic about seeing cetaceans in captivity.

"All it takes is for one of these institutions to be the leader, and others will follow," Marino predicts. "I have a feeling that this will start to roll."

20 comments
Nancy Richard
Nancy Richard

It's about time that one of God's higher form, intelligent species was given top priority.  Every animal on this planet has its niche.  They are NOT here to serve humanity, and we have an obligation to  correct the damage that we have done, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Donald Inks
Donald Inks

Bravo, for your brave steps towards respect for all sentient creatures.
May it spread across the Earth, and awaken "top-of-the-food-chain"
humans who somehow believe that "they" are the only "reason"
for LIFE upon this planet.

Deborah A.
Deborah A.

By taking the lead and establishing the first dolphin sanctuary, the National Aquarium could set a trend. Yes!!!!! Finally!!!!!!!!!!

Jennifer Kelley
Jennifer Kelley

While I strongly support ocean pens and sanctuaries, there has been zero information thrown out there on how to finance it.  Whether we like it or not, our experiences at zoos and aquariums is a large part of what brings in money.  People like to be able to see the animals up close and that's what they want to pay for.  I'm not saying it's right AT ALL.  I don't believe these creatures belong in captivity.  But I'm also unwilling to say "let's throw them in ocean pens" with little evidence to be able to financially care for them. 

Susanne Lars
Susanne Lars

What happens if the marine park industry smells trouble if they actually make the descision to release these dolphins to a sea pen? Wouldn´t they try everything possible to protect their business model? Wouldn´t they even try to poison the released dolphins to make it look like keeping them captive is safer?

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

Reiss and Connors attitude is why there is no dolphin sanctuary in existence. we are talking about highly evolved creatures that have amazing learning capacity. Phased introduction over a couple of years will enable them to adapt their hunting skills and slowly build up their resistance to environmental change that occurs. Go for it,  Racanelli. 

Marie H.
Marie H.

I hope they move forward with this plan and explore options for setting up a natural sanctuary for these animals. They probably can't be released into the wild, but giving them a more natural and better life, and not bringing anymore animals into captivity, is better than continuing down this path that we know is not in their best interests. If this is successful, maybe it will be a move other aquariums, most especially SeaWorld, will follow with their orcas. I have visited the Baltimore Aquarium several times, and while I enjoy seeing the exhibits with the parrots, sloths, and sharks and sting rays, I always get sad when it comes to the dolphins, and we never buy tickets to the shows. Such intelligent creatures don't belong in captivity.

Natalie Bennon
Natalie Bennon

Wow, awesome! Racanelli sounds like a fantastic person, and I am proud to call Baltimore my hometown with him at the head of the aquarium! 

Lori Marino
Lori Marino

The concerns  my colleagues Diana Reiss and Rich Connor are voicing about "releasing them to the wild" are strawman arguments.  No one is suggesting these dolphins be "dumped into the ocean like goldfish". And, they know it.  So, can we have an honest conversation about an ocean sanctuary - where these dolphins are more than likely to go?  Let's stop setting up roadblocks to dolphin welfare, okay?

Claire Fremuth
Claire Fremuth

I am all for this new idea. I think the movement from attraction to conservation is a great step for places like aquariums and zoos. Follow through!

Stacy De Mott
Stacy De Mott

I want to applaud Mr. Racanelli and the Baltimore Aquarium.   I have visited this aquarium when it first opened.   Around that same time, I began developing a deep abhorrence to idea of keeping ANY animal in life-long captivity for ANY purpose.  What clarified my principle was visiting San Diego Zoo, a supposed "leader" in the animal captivity arena.    I was horrified at the small, open spaces, especially for the elephants.  I saw either languid and lifeless animals or hyper and stressed out animals.   I swore to never again patronize another 'animal prison".    


As a teacher I am all for education, but we do not need to keep ANY animal in captivity to educate ourselves.  

R. McDonald
R. McDonald

This is amazing.  Hopefully this will encourage other institutions to follow suit. 

Mark Mack
Mark Mack

About time. Hopefully others will follow suit. I'll be perfectly happy when all Sea Worlds have nothing but pictures and videos. And rides...

Bob Cottrell
Bob Cottrell

What wonderful idea. I hope they follow through with it and things go well.

Karima Theresa Pragg
Karima Theresa Pragg

@Jennifer Kelley  Hi Jennifer, good point. I do believe that zoos bring in a lot of money since people love being up close with animals. The question though is, where does this money go? I assume much of it goes to purchasing new animals to add to the zoo collections.


As far as financing sanctuaries is concerned, they are usually funded by NGOs, individual donors, and persons who pay monthly donations to NGOs such as the WWF. These donations go a long way in funding research and providing care and land/marine homes for many species of animals. 

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Stacy De Mott Thanks for writing, Stacy. As a society, I think we're now re-examining the entire idea of how we treat animals--particularly in light of the many discoveries that scientists have made about how animals think and feel.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Bob Cottrell Thanks, Bob. We'll be following this story as it unfolds, and let you know how the aquarium's plans develop.

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