Maya, one seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins currently residing in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of National Aquarium.

It looks like Baltimore’s dolphins may be around for a little longer than expected.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore announced plans in 2016 to move its Atlantic bottlenose dolphins out of the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Inner Harbor Pier 4 and into a first-of-its-kind North American dolphin sanctuary by the end of 2020, in an effort to provide “an environment in which they can thrive.”

At the time, 2020 seemed a long way off. But with that deadline now less than two years away, aquarium president and CEO John Racanelli says they may need more time.

Racanelli said the aquarium has still not found a location to create its desired protected seaside sanctuary for the dolphins, which could hold up the move. “It might be an extra year,” he said. “We want to do it right.”

Racanelli said the aquarium has focused on possible sites in the Florida Keys, but has struggled to find one that’s both suitable for the dolphins and affordable. Whenever locals learn the aquarium is looking in their area, he said, “people come out of the woodwork” seeking high prices.

The search has also been hampered by natural disasters in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. “The hurricanes slowed us down,” Racanelli said.

The National Aquarium has therefore begun to look beyond the Florida Keys. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory, has some promising areas in terms of meeting the site selection criteria, he said. So for now, “we’re going to try to spend the rest of this year buttoning this down.”

Besides identifying a site, the aquarium is raising money to build the sanctuary, anticipated to cost about $15 million.

The institution has raised about one third of that so far. An early supporter is Virgin Holidays, a British travel agency that’s pledged to invest $300,000.

The site search has not been a secret. Last year, PBS NewsHour filmed a segment entitled “Finding a Home,” in which science correspondent Miles O’Brien followed Racanelli and others on a site search in the Keys. They visited Cudjoe Key, 20 miles from Key West, which O’Brien described as “one of about 30 sites they have seen” and “a leading contender,” and a site on No Name Key, inside the National Key Deer Refuge and next to a residential community.

From the start, aquarium leaders have said they won’t be driven by an arbitrary deadline to move the dolphins.

“Because we are committed to finding the best possible setting, we intend to allow the site selection process to take as long as necessary before beginning the actual physical relocation process for the dolphins,” the National Aquarium website states.

At the same time, officials said the Marine Mammal Pavilion will be 30 years old in 2020 and require substantial upgrades to keep operating, whatever the use is. Renovation costs have been estimated at as much as $30 million.

The marine institution has emerged as a pioneer in pursuing North America’s first dolphin sanctuary. Racanelli, CEO since 2011, has likened the concept to the elephant sanctuary that Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey created in Florida for pachyderms retired from the circus, except that it needs to be on a protected shoreline in a temperate climate, accessible to sea water, and away from shipping or boating lanes.

The aquarium is seeking an outdoor location in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, where aquarium staffers can continue to care for and interact with the dolphins. It wants the sanctuary to be a year-round refuge that can offer lifetime customized care for each dolphin and natural stimuli, such as fish and aquatic plants.

It would have underwater fencing or barriers of some sort to prevent the dolphins from swimming out into open waters–and to protect them from predators coming in. This arrangement is considered better for dolphins than releasing them in the wild, biologists say, because they have been raised in captivity and wouldn’t necessarily know how to survive in open waters without regular meals.

The discussion about relocating the aquarium’s seven Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins has grown out of research indicating they are highly intelligent creatures, and that it’s not ideal to house them in manmade environments with limited movement.

To raise funds and build a broader constituency for its project, the aquarium has indicated it’s open to the idea of taking in “retired’ dolphins from other aquariums, but the first priority is accommodating the ones already in its care.

Racanelli said the Barcelona Aquarium in Spain has expressed a strong interest in moving its dolphins to the National Aquarium’s planned sanctuary. If it existed now, “they would move them tomorrow,” he said.

A rendering of the proposed dolphin sanctuary, courtesy of the National Aquarium

The National Aquarium has been working with Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient and head of Studio Gang, to design the sanctuary.

Once the dolphins have moved, the Inner Harbor attraction would explore other uses for the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4. Studio Gang has proposed converting the building to an attraction focusing on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and has already developed preliminary designs.

The aquarium still needs to secure approval and funding for any plans to alter Pier 4 once the dolphins move out. The city-owned building opened in 1990 at a cost of $35 million and officials have not set aside funds for a major overhaul.

Racanelli said the General Assembly recently agreed to provide $2 million annually for several years for capital improvements, but it’s for unspecified changes throughout the entire Inner Harbor campus on Piers 3 and 4. The city has also agreed to include the aquarium in a future bond bill that would go before voters, he said, but that would provide less than $200,000 for capital improvements.

At least one longtime aquarium board member said the delays on the sanctuary aren’t necessarily a negative, given the dolphins’ tourist appeal in the Inner Harbor.

During a visit to Baltimore last week for the unveiling of a new mural at the aquarium, former board chairman Frank Gunther Jr. said he isn’t a fan of moving the popular dolphins away from the Inner Harbor. A longtime Baltimore business leader now living in Ocean City, Gunther supported Racanelli’s decision to replace structured dolphin shows, in which they jump through hoops and perform other tricks, with unrehearsed presentations showing off their natural behaviors.

But he’s concerned about the precedent that would be set by moving the dolphins out altogether, fearing other creatures will eventually disappear, too. If the trend continues, he said, “pretty soon nothing will be left.”

With more than 2.2 million gallons of water, the aquarium is home to more than 20,000 animals representing more than 800 species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It draws 1.5 million visitors a year, 53 million since it opened.

Racanelli, for his part, is not wavering on his commitment to relocate the dolphins, despite the difficulty in finding a site for a sanctuary.

He noted a third of the aquarium’s entire space is currently devoted to care and exhibition of just seven animals. If dolphins can be relocated for their own good, he said, “think what else we could do” with the space.

Avatar photo

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.