National Aquarium Will Move Dolphins to Seaside Sanctuary by 2020

Under mounting public pressure, the aquarium’s eight bottle-nosed dolphins will soon move to a seaside retreat in the tropics

Dolphin Sanctuary
Artist's rendering of the first U.S. dolphin sanctuary Studio Gang/National Aquarium

The Baltimore-based National Aquarium announced today that it will transfer the eight bottle-nosed dolphins currently in its care to an ocean enclosure by the end of 2020, Jennifer Kay reports for the Associated Press.

Public attitudes towards the animals have shifted dramatically over the last decade, galvanized by documentaries like Blackfish, which highlights the gruesome way that captive orcas are treated, and The Cove, which delves into the vicious world of dolphin hunting. This latest move is in response to these changing attitudes and follows announcements earlier this year from SeaWorld that it will phase out breeding and showing orca whales.

Seven of the eight dolphins at the aquarium were born in captivity, eliminating the possibility of their release into the wild. But a seaside enclosure is the next best option. 

“We’re pioneering here, and we know it’s neither the easiest nor the cheapest option,” the aquarium’s CEO John Racanelli tells Kay. “We've learned a lot, obviously, about how to take care of them, about how to ensure that they thrive. As that learning evolution has continued, it’s become clear to us we can go even further in terms of their health and welfare by taking this kind of step.”

The nonprofit group has yet to select a site for the sanctuary where professional staff will take care of the marine mammals for the rest of their lives. The aquarium is searching for a large protected area with excellent water quality that could include isolation areas to take care of sick dolphins and an ocean barrier to prevent mixing and breeding with wild populations.

A timeline by Natalie Sherman at The Baltimore Sun shows that National Aquarium has had a mixed record with dolphins. In 1981, soon after the $21.5 million facility first opened, one of its four dolphins died. The next year its remaining dolphins were sent to Florida to recover from ulcers. The likely culprit was the 250,000-gallon tank they lived in, which had poor lighting and lacked a private area for them to escape from public view.

In 1990, the aquarium opened a new $35 million marine mammal pavilion and began daily dolphin shows. And over the course of the next 20 years, the facility increased the number of dolphins in their care, initiating a breeding program. The aquarium eventually canceled the dolphin shows in 2011 following the death of two infant dolphins.

“Through feedback painstakingly gathered over 10 years, we have learned that the American public is increasingly uneasy with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity,” Racanelli writes in The Baltimore Sun. “These beliefs matter to us.”

The Humane Society, PETA and other animal welfare groups strongly support the move. “We’re thrilled, and we think that this is really a breakthrough decision,” Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, tells Jada Smith at The New York Times. “This is going to improve the animals’ welfare enormously. It’s going to restore to them a little bit of what was denied them all these years, living as performers in an aquarium.”

The public will be able to watch the dolphins’ transition as they acclimate to their transportation tanks and outdoor tanks, which will be the first time they swim under open air before the big move to their oceanside residence.

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