North America’s First Dolphin Sanctuary

By Genevieve Cottraux

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland is undertaking groundbreaking changes in the way they care for the dolphin colony raised in captivity at the facility.  With a mission to “advance understanding and protection of cetaceans by offering a natural environment in which the colony of dolphins in (their) care will thrive,” the aquarium is establishing the first dolphin sanctuary in North America.  The colony of 8 dolphins will be moved by the year 2020 from the 35-year old Inner Harbor attraction at the Marine Mammal Pavilion.

Dolphin at National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD, by David J. Stang (Wikimedia Commons)

The envisioned protected seaside habitat, first announced in June of 2016, involves relocating the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to an area where dolphins have lived for perhaps millions of years.  Several sites in the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean have been under consideration.  In acknowledging that the dolphin show model no longer works for the aquarium, John Racanelli, CEO and president of the aquarium, said, “We need to get out of that awful era that we’ve been through for the last hundred years of caging animals.”

Kerry Diehl, Assistant Curator of Dolphin Discovery, and the aquarium staff have been working with the dolphins to prepare them for the eventual move and the changes in conditions that a natural environment entails, such as warmer temperatures, algae, and the presence of other life in the waters.  Born and raised in captivity and unlikely to be able to survive in the wild, the dolphins will continue to receive regular meals.  Racanelli notes that the dolphins, who are highly social animals, are used to human interaction and have in some cases bonded with the trainers.  Several of the trainers will also relocate to the new sanctuary with the dolphins, as it could be detrimental to the dolphins at this point in their lives to be completely removed from any human contact.  Once established, the sanctuary will potentially be available for captive dolphins from other facilities.

The only dolphin in the colony to have been born in the wild was the colony’s matriarch Nani, who died last year at about age 44 and was one of the longest living dolphins in captivity at the time.  Two of her calves, Beau and Spirit, are still with the colony.

Dolphins at the Indianapolis Zoo, by Durin-en (Wikimedia Commons)

When kept in captivity, marine mammals are prone to suffering psychological damage and to developing aggressive behavior.  In switching from a revenue-producing model to a nonprofit, conservation model with a precept of “dolphins first,” the aquarium is embracing a major philosophical change.

Animal activists have been lobbying aquariums to make changes for years.  Protest groups such as Empty the Tanks and documentary films like Blackfish, about captive whale Tilikum, and The Cove, about the yearly slaughter of dolphins and porpoises in Taiji, Japan, have broadened public awareness of the plight of marine mammals.  Racanelli, in an op-ed piece about the 2016 announcement, wrote, “we have learned that the American public is increasingly uneasy with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity.”  He concluded, “Although this decision is about a group of dolphins, it is every bit as much about our humanity; for the way a society treats the animals with whom it shares this planet speaks volumes about us.”

Photo by Hanson Lu (Unsplash)