National Aquarium Will Move Dolphins to a Seaside Sanctuary

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NA Dolphin Sanctuary rendering[1]
The National Aquarium in Baltimore will move its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins out of public display and into a protected seaside sanctuary by the end of 2020, paving the way for major changes to its Inner Harbor campus.

Aquarium CEO John Racanelli announced the decision in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun and an interview with the Associated Press.
“There’s no model anywhere, that we’re aware of, for this,” he said in the Associated Press interview. “We’re pioneering here, and we know it’s never the easiest nor the cheapest option.”
The aquarium disclosed two years ago that it was considering retiring its dolphins, as part of a trend in which institutions are rethinking the idea of holding cetaceans and other living creatures, in captivity.
Because the dolphins may not be able to survive if released into the wild, the aquarium has explored the idea of creating a sanctuary for them, the way Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus maintains a sanctuary for its retired elephants.
As part of its evaluation, the aquarium hired Chicago architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang to propose ways to repurpose a $35 million marine mammal pavilion that opened in 1991 and was designed exclusively for the display of dolphins.
Gang has proposed converting the building to an attraction that would focus on the Chesapeake Bay.
The aquarium released some details about the proposed animal sanctuary, which Gang also has been working on.
According to the aquarium, board members have voted to move the dolphins out of Baltimore by the end of 2020. The sanctuary will be the first of its kind in North America and will provide the dolphins with a “protected, seaside habitat, creating a new option for how dolphins can thrive in human care.”

No location has been selected but it will be in a warmer climate, possibly in the Florida Keys or the Caribbean. The National Aquarium has formed a site selection team whose number one priority is to ensure the health and welfare of the dolphins. The location will be chosen based on a list of criteria, including:

  • Ability to provide lifetime customized care for each dolphin
  • Outdoor location with natural sea water, with more space and depth than current facility
  • Tropical or sub-tropical climate
  • Natural stimulus for the dolphins, such as fish and aquatic plants

“As we look at the future of the dolphins in our care, we are working very hard to provide them the best possible place to live out their years,” said Tom Robinson, National Aquarium board chair.

The institution and its board of directors began exploring new ways to care for the dolphins five years ago. Numerous options were weighed, ranging from rebuilding the existing 25-year-old Marine Mammal Pavilion in a more naturalistic style to moving the dolphins to other accredited facilities. After careful consideration, the decision was made to create a protected, year-round, seaside refuge with aquarium staff continuing to care for and interact with the dolphins. The work effort defines the sanctuary not just as a place, but also a set of corresponding practices and principles.

“We’ve evaluated this for five years and have decided that this is the right decision for the dolphins, and, thus, for our organization,” said aquarium board member Colleen Dilenschneider, who also served on a special board committee that assessed this project. “We are excited to introduce this new option along a spectrum of human care for dolphins.”

“This is a special time in history concerning evolving attitudes about treating all forms of life with dignity and respect—other humans very much included,” said Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer and author. “The idea of providing sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees, big cats—and now dolphins—is a sign of a maturing ethic of caring unthinkable in past millennia, centuries and even decades.”

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

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


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