For the National Aquarium’s Dolphins, the Long Goodbye Begins

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NA Dolphin Sanctuary rendering[1]Moving Day is still more than four years off for the dolphins of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. When CEO John Racanelli announced that the institution plans to retire its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and move them to the first seaside sanctuary for dolphins in North America, he said the target date for doing so is the end of 2020.

Four years may seem like a long time – the term of a U.S. president, or the time it typically takes to earn an undergraduate degree. But according to aquarium officials, there’s much to be done before the dolphins can leave their home in the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Inner Harbor Pier 4. The aquarium has to find a site for its seaside sanctuary, most likely in Florida or the Caribbean. It has to design it, raise funds for it, and build it. It has to prepare the dolphins for their relocation.

As part of that last task, Racanelli said, the aquarium is thinking about installing a tank for its dolphins on the pier overlooking the Inner Harbor. Not so they can say farewell to the public, although that may be a byproduct, but so they can get used to sleeping outdoors, under the stars. They may practice boarding a plane, so the aquatic creatures can experience living outside water. They’ll also change the chemical makeup of their water so it’s more like the natural seawater they’ll be living in.

John Racanelli
John Racanelli

“Our goal is to have a temporary tank of some sort out on the pier so that they could actually begin to spend a night or two out there literally under the sky and in the open atmosphere,” Racanelli said. “The idea is to give them a chance to live outside for …short periods, so that that’s not completely alien to them when they arrive at the sanctuary.”

The aquarium has other plans as well. Although the sanctuary is being created specifically for the National Aquarium’s dolphins, it will be designed to accommodate more than the eight dolphins from Baltimore, in case other institutions want to retire their dolphins in the same location. It is not envisioned as a place for dolphin breeding, however.

Those are a few of the logistical issues that aquarium directors have begun to address, now that they have decided to develop a new model for the human care of dolphins. In the following interview, Racanelli talks about what it will take to relocate the dolphins. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Question: You’ve mentioned the end of 2020 as the target date for the dolphins’ move. What happens in the meantime?

Answer: Well, of course they’ll stay right here in Baltimore and they’ll live in the same facility on Pier 4…But over these next four to five years, they will be going through a very careful process that’s driven by science, that is designed to enable them to acclimate both behaviorally and physiologically to this transition.

Q: All that can happen in the Pier 4 facility?

A: It can. Although part of the process will include taking them eventually out of the facility for brief periods to be acclimated to the whole process leading up to and even including, perhaps, boarding a plane and then coming home.

Q: A lot had to happen just to transport the dolphins into Baltimore.

A: Exactly. In any event, here’s this aquatic animal that lives in water and you’re taking them out of water, so you have to do it very, very carefully and with the highest level of professional engagement.

One other element of that whole incremental process that they’ll be going through includes the possibility — and I want to make sure that you understand that it’s not something that, there’s even some engineering questions that we have to answer before we can say that we will incontrovertibly be able to do this — but our goal is to have a temporary tank of some sort out on the pier so that they could actually begin to spend a night or two out there literally under the sky and in the open atmosphere. Of course, it would be staffed. We’d have people out there whenever they’re out there. And we don’t know, to answer the question you might be thinking, whether or not the public will be able to see that or not. But the idea is to give them a chance to live outside for …short periods, so that that’s not completely alien to them when they arrive at the sanctuary.

Q: You’ll need to get them acclimated to a different quality of water as well

A; Yes. That’s the physiological adaptation that has to occur. Every organism, every living organism, has something called a microbiome associated with it. We do too. It’s the bacteria, the pathogens,
the spores, larvae, fungi. All the different things that live on us and around us. In the case of dolphins, they are in a medium that holds those kinds of biotic agents. So what you have to do is make sure that you get them used to the microbiome that they’ll be soon going to, and the way we’ll do that is to gently, slowly, over time introduce into their water the same water that they’ll eventually be going to.

Q: What is the difference?

A; Well, they’ll eventually be in natural sea water. It is essentially the same basic chemical makeup as our manufactured salt water that we make here. But I think it’s, you could fact check it, but I believe there are something like 35 elements in seawater and there are something like six or eight in ours. Trace elements of course. But there are a lot more elements in natural sea water. More importantly, back to the biome question, there are other things in that water that make up seawater. Again, they could be spores of marine plants. They could be larvae of planktonic animals. All of that, you want your dolphins to be acclimated to physiologically before you make this kind of a transition.

Q: Who owns the dolphins?

A: Nobody owns marine mammals in America. But the government grants the responsibility to see to their care to permit holders like ourselves.

Q: Which government do you mean?

A The U. S. government. It’s NOAA actually. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. And then the portion of the agency that is responsible is called NOAA Fisheries.

Q: Does NOAA have to bless this idea?

A: They have to grant a permit to anybody that holds any marine mammals that are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and we hold such a permit. Our permit is a public display permit. And we will take that permit with us to wherever we go, which is presumably Florida or the Caribbean. When we say Caribbean, we generally are thinking of U. S. territories.

Q: Does the City of Baltimore have any say or vote because the aquarium is a city-owned facility?

A: The city does not engage in the day-to-day management of the aquarium, but we’ve kept them very well apprised of our plan.

Q: You don’t need city approval of any kind for the changes you’re making related to the dolphins?

A: No, none that we’re aware of.

Q: Will the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 need any major upgrades between now and the end of 2020?

A: Not any major upgrades. But we will be doing minor improvements to it over that time, for sure. It will be reaching its 30 years right about the time the dolphins go. Thirty is a typical depreciation cycle for a large structure like that.

Q: Is that what drove the 2020 date, the condition of the Marine Mammal Pavilion?

A: No, it’s really more about the time that it would take to acclimate the dolphins. That’s the real driver here. I mean, obviously we would not want to keep them on site when the facility was not safe or reliable. But…we have a margin of error there, probably measured in several years. We want to make sure that by the time we reach the 30-year mark, which is the latter part of 2020, that …we know where they’re going and we’re ready to go with it.

Q: The conceptual rendering that you released to show a dolphin sanctuary looks like the old Flipper Sea School in Key West, where Flipper came from. It’s a cove. There’s a shoreline, but there’s also deep water. If the aquarium creates something like that, what will it own? Will it own the water? The piers? The shoreline? What does the aquarium need to create what you’re seeking to create?

A: Well, the reason we can’t really cite a specific price right now is that the cost of the land, and I’ll touch base in a moment on what I mean when I say land, is a significant variable. And until we know specifically what site we have identified as the best possible site, it’s hard to really estimate the potential costs. Also, each site is so dramatically different that the cost to develop the facility can be quite variable depending upon what site you pick, right? If it’s got buildings already on it, you might need to remove the buildings. If it’s got a small channel, that’s easier to create some kind of barrier than if it’s a wide open bay. There are a lot a variables.

Q: Do you have to own the water, the Riparian rights? How far out into the ocean do you have to control?

A: The main thing is, we really would prefer it as it’s drawn there to be. Of course this is just a conceptual drawing, and that’s important to stress. But as it’s drawn, the idea is that a natural inlet of some sort is the best option, so you’re not having to go out and create some kind of enclosure in open water. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but you can imagine — protection from high seas and that sort of thing. In fact, you don’t want to be anywhere where there’s navigation. So a sailboat whimsically drawn there might be sailing by, but we’d prefer not to be out where the sailboat might sail into our fence. That said, the purchase can include what’s called bottom lands. Bottom lands are simply the earth below the water… It’s different in each jurisdiction. I don’t know Florida’s laws, but I believe you can own the land out to a certain number of feet. A little bit like how Maryland has with the Chesapeake Bay.

Q: What happened to the idea you once mentioned of forming a consortium of aquariums to go in on this together?

A: We are in the process of creating a new option here for human care of dolphins, and at this point we’re focused on these eight dolphins, our mission, our dolphins’ needs, and for now that’s our emphasis.

Q: For fundraising purposes, that’s a lot for one institution to take on. One might think, just like with the elephant sanctuary for retired circus elephants, if you spread the costs around you might be better able to afford it.

A: It’s a great question. Two things come into play. One is, we’re the National Aquarium. If we can’t do it, who can? If we shouldn’t do it, who should? And more than that, we believe that there will be a lot of support for this…There’s a lot of pent-up support for this idea. I think people are ready to see a responsible player get out there and try this very important new approach to providing care for dolphins.

Q: What do you base that on?

A: We’ve gotten a very positive response since the announcement went out.

Q: Will the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) be involved in this? You’re out in front of other aquariums right now. Do you need other aquariums to buy into this, in order to move ahead?

A: Well, what I will say is this: It is our intention to work closely with peer institutions. We would expect to have this facility eventually accredited by the AZA because we believe in the quality of the standards that the AZA upholds. And last and certainly not least, one of our design parameters is that it be a facility that could accommodate more than the eight dolphins we have here. Not because we expect to breed there. We don’t. But if somebody else came along and said, ‘Can you take our dolphins?’ we want to be prepared for that. Although I should stress that nobody has done so at this time.

One last thing I would say. Dolphins have been living in sea water under human care for quite some time. You pointed out Flipper Sea School, which is now called Dolphin Research Center. Last I checked, they have 29 dolphins there. It’s more partitioned up. But it is, as you pointed out, a similar kind of layout. The difference here is that we’re doing this specifically for the dolphins. So one principle that I haven’t mentioned, and I don’t know if you’ve picked it up in your research, is that this is going to be a facility that is following a principle called Dolphins First. Dolphins First plain and simply means their needs are the first priority and everything else will follow that. So there will be public access to some limited extent, probably a kind of an observation area, and that also ensures that we’re in compliance with our NOAA permit. And there will definitely be research done there. We think there are some huge opportunities…for research around bioacoustics, communication, cognition, a lot of really fascinating research opportunities That said, the primary one is that this is a home for the dolphins to live out their lives, and that’s different from all the other places where dolphins live in the water. Because those places, they’re doing swims and that’s how they pay their way. We’re choosing a different model. We’re going to cover that cost. Another way to put it is that it is three things. It is not one thing. It’s three. It is a place. It is a set of principles. And it is a corresponding set of operating practices that are in line with those principles.

Q: Will there be an admission charge?

A: We haven’t gotten that far.

Q: Any other details?

A: It’s an ongoing story. There will be more news.

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  1. This is a responsible, courageous, and terrific decision that NAIB has made. Congratulations to all involved!

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