National Geographic News
Photo of 2 bottlenose dolphins.

Two bottlenose dolphins play at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland.

PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL AQUARIUM

Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published May 20, 2014

Last week the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, announced that it may retire its eight bottlenose dolphins. The animals would be moved to a seaside sanctuary—the first one for dolphins in the United States.

Although it's not clear where the sanctuary would be or how it would be created, the idea has met with enthusiasm from conservationists and the public.

The announcement also puts the aquarium at the forefront of a debate about keeping dolphins and whales in captivity—a discussion that gained momentum last year following the release of the documentary film Blackfish, about an orca that kills its trainer at SeaWorld.

National Geographic caught up with John Racanelli, the National Aquarium's chief executive officer, to find out more about what inspired this bold move.

Was this announcement prompted by the public's growing concern for the health and well-being of captive dolphins and other cetaceans?

Times have changed, and our understanding of the needs of the animals in our care has changed. A lot of very valid research has been done in the last 20 years to open our eyes to the cognitive and social behavior of dolphins. It's incumbent upon us to avail ourselves of these findings, and that means figuring out how we can better care for these dolphins in the future.

Also, as part of our mission, we're trying to focus [attention] on the plight of dolphins and whales in the oceans, and the great threats they face. More than one million cetaceans are being killed annually due to such things as bycatch [species caught unintentionally by fishermen], intentional killing, ship strikes, seismic surveys done for oil exploration, and naval sonar.

If this colony of eight dolphins can help people grasp what is happening to wild populations, then it's incumbent upon us at the National Aquarium to bring that about.

You became CEO of the National Aquarium in 2011. Was there something in your background that made you think that keeping captive dolphins was wrong?

I studied biology but ended up earning a degree in business. I'm an avid diver, and one of my first jobs was as a dolphin-tank cleaner—basically an underwater janitor—at Marine World, near San Francisco. At that time [the early 1980s], I thought it was unlikely that we'd still be doing this—having dolphins in captivity—in the future. Later, I worked as director of marketing and communications for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which didn't have captive dolphins, and then helped build the Florida Aquarium, which also doesn't have dolphins but has a dolphin-watching cruise. I also co-founded [the global conservation initiative] Mission Blue and Google Ocean with [oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence] Sylvia Earle.

So I gained my perspective on dolphins from different angles.

But this particular inquiry—about the possibility of making a dolphin sanctuary—was under way at the National Aquarium before I arrived. It was brought into bright relief for me when two calves were born that summer [in 2011] and both quickly died [one from pneumonia, the other from internal bleeding]. It wasn't because of the quality of our care; the calves were born to two naive mothers. But it was a tragic time. The dolphins were depressed, the humans here were depressed, and the people visiting were depressed, because they love the dolphins and the dolphin shows, [which] we stopped to let the dolphins and our staff recover.

But that cost us. We lost $1.9 million of business because we canceled the dolphin shows. I realized that if the aquarium was going to be a successful enterprise, it needed to be in [a less] vulnerable financial position. And that meant changing things, starting with the care of the animals.

What did you change?

We did away with the shows entirely, raised the entry fee [to compensate financially], and opened up the dolphin viewing area, so people can hang out with them all day if they want.

We also rolled out Dolphin Discovery, where people can still watch the dolphins being trained.

But it isn't a show—there's no music, no playing with balls.

People want to know why dolphins do what they do. So the dolphins [don't do] unnatural things in Dolphin Discovery; they do things they would do in the wild, such as porpoising together [making high-speed ballistic jumps out of the water] or lobtailing [slapping the surface with their tail], and our trainers explain why. We still have the dolphins splash the audience. But now it's in context: The trainers explain that in the wild, dolphins [do this] to distract predators, to communicate, or [to] create bubble nets to catch fish [by confusing and startling them].

It's been very stimulating and positive for the dolphins. And people's overall satisfaction has gone up. There are those who ask, "Where's the show?" But others say, "This is cool. We can stay here with the dolphins all day."

Shows are antiquated. No animals at zoos perform in shows any more. We somehow reached a level of enlightenment with chimpanzees, elephants, tigers, and lions. Why are we still interested in having dolphins do shows?

Does the National Aquarium still have a dolphin-breeding program?

No. It's part of the response to that tragic summer [of 2011]. We declared a moratorium for two to three years, and at this time the moratorium is indefinite.

Photo of a bottlenose dolphin.
A bottlenose dolphin seems to smile for the camera at the National Aquarium. The eight dolphins now living there may be moving to a seaside sanctuary.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL AQUARIUM

If the dolphins are moved to an off-site sanctuary, will the National Aquarium be able to survive financially?

We take seriously that we're one of Baltimore's star tourist attractions, and we would never do anything to jeopardize that. Some say that the bottom will fall out if we don't have dolphins. But our mission—to show the ocean's treasures—[is what] attracts our visitors. We have more than 17,000 animals for people to see. People love the sharks, and the exhibits that re-create the real world. Our far-and-away most popular exhibit right now shows people what a real Indo-Pacific coral reef looks like. But trying to replicate the world of most marine mammals is pretty hard to do.

So we have to look at other alternatives.

It would be wonderful to build a dolphin sanctuary right here for our dolphins. But they don't naturally live in these waters; they would head south. If we have to move them to another location, we'll only do so if our plan can meet two requirements: One, the dolphins must be kept together, and two, visitors here must be able to see them and interact with them digitally.

Only one of the aquarium's dolphins, Nani, was born in the wild. How do you prepare captive-born dolphins for life in an ocean-side sanctuary?

Nani is now 42 [wild and captive bottlenose dolphins live between 30 and 50 years, as a rule]; she's worked all her life. The ocean she'd be returning to is much changed [in the 39 years since she lived there], and not for the better. There are risks for the animals—from oil spills, morbilliviruses, and other pathogens. These guys have never seen jellyfish drift by or watched spiny lobsters crawl on the ocean floor. So, if we are to do this, it must be a very carefully prepared and researched project. That's why we're holding a dolphin summit at the end of this month.

What will happen there?

The summit is a workshop to figure out how to develop an off-site dolphin sanctuary. What would be the best environment? What type of husbandry will the dolphins require? What kind of corporate partners might exist? We're thinking of it as a National Dolphin Center, like the National Elephant Center, where zoo elephants can retire.

Had you thought about dolphin sanctuaries before coming to the National Aquarium?

I actually began to think about the need for these when I was at Marine World in the '80s. There was a dolphin there named Shiloh who was in her mid-20s. [One day after she'd done a show she was] returned to her tank, where she lived with three other dolphins. She looked fine, and after feeding and caring for her, the staff left.

But when they returned later that day, they found her on the bottom of her tank, dead—probably from cardiopulmonary failure. People said that it was probably because she was old. I thought, "That doesn't seem right. She had to work until she died? Why wasn't she moved to a sanctuary to live out her life?"

Well, there weren't any dolphin sanctuaries. There still aren't, although there are [sanctuaries] for dang near every other megafauna species that's in a zoo. If this one succeeds, it will be the first.

Do you feel that it's important for the National Aquarium to develop the first sanctuary, to set an example?

We're not trying to be an example—to say to other aquariums, "You need to do this." We want to do right by our dolphins and by our audience, and do a better job of serving our mission. We want to change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. Everything we do is centered on that mission.

The sanctuary idea isn't unique or our own. But we are the first to make a deep inquiry—and at this stage it is [still] an inquiry—into how to do it. We are committed to doing whatever is best for the eight dolphins in our care.

[Of course, we] hope to develop a way for our peers to also do this, if it works for them. If we figure out a way to do this and raise the money for it to happen, I can't imagine not offering it to others, so that their animals could go to [the sanctuary] as well.

22 comments
Candy Anthrasal
Candy Anthrasal

dolphins definitely have every rights to gain their own liberty too and not to end up as depressed circus puppets! It would be such a waste to take these flawless creatures for granted. Hopefully the dolphin summit may come up with the best solution on regards to this matter and return the dolphins back into its free spirited nature!!

Stannous Flouride
Stannous Flouride

I live about half a mile from the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences and I miss the White-sided dolphins that lived there until the 1990s.

But it would hurt worse to see them in such a tiny tank today. I couldn't stand to watch them anymore.

(unfortunately those were sold off to a Marine World park in San Antonio)

There aren't many choices for these poor beasts that have lived almost their entire lives in captivity but this is a huge first step toward doing away with captive cetaceans all together.

Michael Wysocki
Michael Wysocki

Dear Dolphin, spend the rest of your life in a pool surround by land and humans, or stick you in a polluted ocean? Yep, those are the options us humans will give you.

norman h.
norman h.

"the plight of dolphins and whales in the oceans, and the great threats they face. More than one million cetaceans are being killed annually due to such things as bycatch [species caught unintentionally by fishermen], intentional killing, ship strikes, seismic surveys done for oil exploration, and naval sonar."

 It's disgusting what we humans are doing to our oceans (you can include our forests and wild-lands as well) and the animals that live there. Greed and ignorance reigns supreme and right at the forefront is americans sadly enough. While I think this is a great idea and one too long delayed I have my doubts it will ever happen. Money being the foremost issue but setting aside areas of our oceans to be protected from oil exploration and shipping lanes will be even harder to establish in this country whose government has been bought and paid for by big oil and our mega corporations. 

Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher

While I have no problem with the dolphin training demonstrations being more educational than entertainment, lets not kid ourselves that the dolphins see it any differently.  The dolphins are being trained to do the "natural" behaviors on cue just like they were trained to do the "show" behaviors; through positive reinforcement training and having a relationship with their trainers.  There is no real difference to the dolphins what they are learning and what message the public receives.  To the dolphins, the training sessions are a chance to get attention, get food, and work their brains and bodies, no matter what behaviors they are doing.  It irks me that "shows" get a bad rap, but "training demonstrations" are OK.  The message to the public is different, but the animals see no difference between the two.   

Elizabeth Asch
Elizabeth Asch

It is a wonderful idea, thanks for uncovering it Virginia.  Wonderful as it is, it's also so very complex.  Let's ask the dolphins what they think!  Why not involve a communicator like Anna Breytenbach, as well as the scientists and behavior specialists?

Eryn Murphey
Eryn Murphey

Sounds awfully expensive start up and long-term wise. I wonder how they plan to fund a second, off-site facility. Also, I agree- Wouldn't the dolphins be exposed to viruses and pathogens that their bodies can't handle? I feel like the idea should be discussed a bit more. That money could maybe be put towards conservation efforts in the field.

Rhyan Rudman
Rhyan Rudman

Maybe this would be the bench mark that changes the future of the Dolphin show. It is long overdue to be STOPPED 

Norka Sandi
Norka Sandi

it is a moving story about my favorite animals.

Elizabeth Manning
Elizabeth Manning

I posted this earlier today and after being present all day, it curiously disappeared, so I'm reposting. Here is a well thought out, educated quote from an actual expert in the field.

"et's start with the assumption that dolphins are somehow better off in an "ocean-side sanctuary". The last time dolphins were turned over to a "sanctuary", activists decided to release some of them without a permit, leaving them starving nearly to death and needing to be rescued to save their lives. What does the term “sanctuary” mean? No shows? No training? No alleged “stress”? Right now the Eastern seaboard is still in the midst of an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) as declared by NOAA, with over 1,200 dead dolphins KNOWN to have died between New York and Florida since last July (with who knows how many more that have not been found), with 96% of them testing positive for the lethal and highly contagious morbilivirus. Is this where the "sanctuary" should be located, where the diseased wild dolphins can swim right up to the fences and infect them? Talk about subjecting them to unnecessary stress…. And what happens when a hurricane approaches the “sanctuary”, or an oil spill? Who will care for the dolphins at the “sanctuary”? Who will monitor their health, and how? Will they no longer be trained for voluntary husbandry behaviors (blood samples, gastric samples, etc.) to monitor their health because a bunch of emotional non-professionals think training is bad? Who will do the daily dive inspections of the fencing for the safety of the animals, and to clear the “sanctuary” of debris and garbage?

I have spent 28 years in the field as a dolphin trainer, animal caregiver, rescuer and rehabilitator. I worked with dolphins in "natural lagoon" settings for 8 of those years. I have trained dolphins to swim out into the open ocean, unrestrained, and return home enthusiastically; in fact, it took some convincing to get them to venture outside the safety of their home habitats. We stopped doing it due to concerns of them coming into contact with diseased wild dolphins. I have also rehabilitated dolphins in human care who ended up outside their lagoon habitats in other areas where, again, they were unable to feed themselves (despite living in a lagoon teeming with fish which we frequently saw them snack on), and carefully nursed them back to health. I have spent years responding to stranded dolphins and whales, and know what a nightmare the wild is for them, and how riddled with disease, gastric ulcers and parasites they are….and how the life expectancy continues to decline for wild populations due to humans turning our oceans and rivers into toilets. The ocean is not a Disney movie; they don’t all live happily ever after out there, nor is just any type lagoon setting as pristine and sanctuary-like as they would have you believe.

Our field is based on science and best practices of modern veterinary and animal care, yet the vocal minority who are now “experts” after watching a couple of movies can create the public dialogue that they somehow know better than the true experts. We face surprise inspections by the USDA every single day, where an inspector can show up and look at our training, veterinary and water quality records, walk through our fish preparation area looking for a single stray fish scale, and file a report that is available to the general public."

Elizabeth Manning
Elizabeth Manning

I posted this earlier today and after being present all day, it curiously disappeared, so I'm reposting. Here is a well thought out, educated quote from an actual expert in the field.

"et's start with the assumption that dolphins are somehow better off in an "ocean-side sanctuary". The last time dolphins were turned over to a "sanctuary", activists decided to release some of them without a permit, leaving them starving nearly to death and needing to be rescued to save their lives. What does the term “sanctuary” mean? No shows? No training? No alleged “stress”? Right now the Eastern seaboard is still in the midst of an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) as declared by NOAA, with over 1,200 dead dolphins KNOWN to have died between New York and Florida since last July (with who knows how many more that have not been found), with 96% of them testing positive for the lethal and highly contagious morbilivirus. Is this where the "sanctuary" should be located, where the diseased wild dolphins can swim right up to the fences and infect them? Talk about subjecting them to unnecessary stress…. And what happens when a hurricane approaches the “sanctuary”, or an oil spill? Who will care for the dolphins at the “sanctuary”? Who will monitor their health, and how? Will they no longer be trained for voluntary husbandry behaviors (blood samples, gastric samples, etc.) to monitor their health because a bunch of emotional non-professionals think training is bad? Who will do the daily dive inspections of the fencing for the safety of the animals, and to clear the “sanctuary” of debris and garbage?

I have spent 28 years in the field as a dolphin trainer, animal caregiver, rescuer and rehabilitator. I worked with dolphins in "natural lagoon" settings for 8 of those years. I have trained dolphins to swim out into the open ocean, unrestrained, and return home enthusiastically; in fact, it took some convincing to get them to venture outside the safety of their home habitats. We stopped doing it due to concerns of them coming into contact with diseased wild dolphins. I have also rehabilitated dolphins in human care who ended up outside their lagoon habitats in other areas where, again, they were unable to feed themselves (despite living in a lagoon teeming with fish which we frequently saw them snack on), and carefully nursed them back to health. I have spent years responding to stranded dolphins and whales, and know what a nightmare the wild is for them, and how riddled with disease, gastric ulcers and parasites they are….and how the life expectancy continues to decline for wild populations due to humans turning our oceans and rivers into toilets. The ocean is not a Disney movie; they don’t all live happily ever after out there, nor is just any type lagoon setting as pristine and sanctuary-like as they would have you believe.

Our field is based on science and best practices of modern veterinary and animal care, yet the vocal minority who are now “experts” after watching a couple of movies can create the public dialogue that they somehow know better than the true experts. We face surprise inspections by the USDA every single day, where an inspector can show up and look at our training, veterinary and water quality records, walk through our fish preparation area looking for a single stray fish scale, and file a report that is available to the general public."

Elizabeth Manning
Elizabeth Manning

While the intent may be well-meant, it is very misguided and unfortunately isn't taking the advice of the true professionals who know these animals inside and out.
As a colleague in the industry stated (not me, though I wish I could take credit) - "Let's start with the assumption that dolphins are somehow better off in an "ocean-side sanctuary". The last time dolphins were turned over to a "sanctuary", activists decided to release some of them without a permit, leaving them starving nearly to death and needing to be rescued to save their lives. What does the term “sanctuary” mean? No shows? No training? No alleged “stress”? Right now the Eastern seaboard is still in the midst of an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) as declared by NOAA, with over 1,200 dead dolphins KNOWN to have died between New York and Florida since last July (with who knows how many more that have not been found), with 96% of them testing positive for the lethal and highly contagious morbilivirus. Is this where the "sanctuary" should be located, where the diseased wild dolphins can swim right up to the fences and infect them? Talk about subjecting them to unnecessary stress…. And what happens when a hurricane approaches the “sanctuary”, or an oil spill? Who will care for the dolphins at the “sanctuary”? Who will monitor their health, and how? Will they no longer be trained for voluntary husbandry behaviors (blood samples, gastric samples, etc.) to monitor their health because a bunch of emotional non-professionals think training is bad? Who will do the daily dive inspections of the fencing for the safety of the animals, and to clear the “sanctuary” of debris and garbage?
I have spent 28 years in the field as a dolphin trainer, animal caregiver, rescuer and rehabilitator. I worked with dolphins in "natural lagoon" settings for 8 of those years. I have trained dolphins to swim out into the open ocean, unrestrained, and return home enthusiastically; in fact, it took some convincing to get them to venture outside the safety of their home habitats. We stopped doing it due to concerns of them coming into contact with diseased wild dolphins. I have also rehabilitated dolphins in human care who ended up outside their lagoon habitats in other areas where, again, they were unable to feed themselves (despite living in a lagoon teeming with fish which we frequently saw them snack on), and carefully nursed them back to health. I have spent years responding to stranded dolphins and whales, and know what a nightmare the wild is for them, and how riddled with disease, gastric ulcers and parasites they are….and how the life expectancy continues to decline for wild populations due to humans turning our oceans and rivers into toilets. The ocean is not a Disney movie; they don’t all live happily ever after out there, nor is just any type lagoon setting as pristine and sanctuary-like as they would have you believe.
Our field is based on science and best practices of modern veterinary and animal care, yet the vocal minority who are now “experts” after watching a couple of movies can create the public dialogue that they somehow know better than the true experts. We face surprise inspections by the USDA every single day, where an inspector can show up and look at our training, veterinary and water quality records, walk through our fish preparation area looking for a single stray fish scale, and file a report that is available to the general public."

Mallory Morgan
Mallory Morgan

@Michael Wysocki  Live life in a tiny a** pool where any sound that is made is reverberated and can make any dolphin, with their incredible sensitivity to sound, go literally insane. Live in an environment where you are forced to perform for food. Live a life where you are either chosen from a crowded cove by "professional trainers" or be slaughtered for food.


Or live where nature intended you to and where you are truly adapted to be. Where your group can multiply infinitely until there are literally hundreds of your kin around you. Where you can travel where you please and be free and eat what you want when you want.


Which sounds more appealing now?

Eryn Murphey
Eryn Murphey

@Ellen Gallagher Agreed. The dolphins get the same benefits from shows, because they are the same thing. The only difference is the public's perspective. Right now it seems that the public is centered on what makes them feel good, NOT what makes the dolphins feel good.

norman h.
norman h.

@Elizabeth Manning And I suppose you just expect us to believe what you write to be the truth? How do we know you aren't a paid employee of sea world or some other aquarium trying to turn public opinion on the subject? It sure wouldn't be the first time profits were put ahead of the animals welfare. Quite frankly the only part of your story I believe is the part about "humans turning the oceans and rivers into toilets". Let the dolphins go, their lives are much fuller in the oceans where they belong instead of captured and caged in tiny tanks being forced to perform tricks for and by people like yourself.

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