Spirit, Chesapeake and six other Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are among the brightest stars at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Known for their intelligence and agility, they draw large crowds to the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Pavilion, which was designed specifically to let visitors get close to this one species.
But despite being the playful, personable face of an institution at the core of Baltimore’s tourist engine, the dolphins’ days in the limelight at the Inner Harbor may be coming to an end.
The National Aquarium Institute, the organization that runs the aquatic museum, has hired a multidisciplinary team of consultants to help board members decide, among other issues, whether they should continue to keep dolphins in captivity at the Inner Harbor or at all.
“The dolphin question” is one of the four “burning” issues the aquarium has asked her team to address, said architect Jeanne Gang, a key member of the consulting team, at a public talk she gave earlier this year.
A MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, Gang made it clear that one option – and the preference of the aquarium’s Chief Executive Officer John Racanelli – is for the facility to stop exhibiting live dolphins altogether.
“They currently have eight dolphins in their collection, and as public opinion and as science move forward, we all know cetaceans are highly intelligent,” Gang said in her address organized by the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.
“Maybe some of you have seen ‘Blackfish’ and ‘The Cove,’” Gang said, referencing two high-profile documentaries about, respectively, the death of a killer whale trainer at Sea World and dolphin hunting in Japan.
“So, as this new CEO entered the National Aquarium, he really wanted to stop housing these animals in captivity,” Gang said. “And one of the first things he did was stop having dolphin shows.”
An Oceanside Dolphin Sanctuary?
Aquarium officials are bracing for this quiet discussion to move to the broader public, in part because of a New Yorker article published this week on Gang and her assignment to help Baltimore’s 33-year-old aquarium overhaul its facility and re-evaluate its mission.
The aquarium responded to the article and The Brew’s inquiries with a news release today that confirms the far-reaching scope of its planning process.
“A Dolphin Summit is planned later this month that brings experts from the aquatic world to determine the feasibility of a variety of potential solutions, including designing and building a dolphin sanctuary in an ocean-side setting and exploring in detail the requirements for operating such a facility,” the release said.
The fate of Baltimore’s dolphins is being pondered as part of a larger reevaluation of the aquarium’s physical assets and mission, dubbed National Aquarium BLUEprint.
The study was launched last fall, just as the aquarium was closing a sister facility in Washington D.C. It began two years after the aquarium hired Racanelli, who has made no secret of his concerns about the ethics of holding dolphins in captivity.
Early in his tenure, Racanelli cancelled the aquarium’s structured dolphin shows, opting instead to let all visitors spend as much time as they want in the marine mammal pavilion, without paying extra to watch dolphins carry out a rehearsed routine of leaps and splashes.
In a telephone interview after the aquarium’s news release was issued Wednesday, Racanelli said he didn’t believe Gang accurately characterized his views when she told the Cooper Hewitt audience that he “really wanted to stop housing these animals in captivity.”
Racanelli said he has not taken a stance on the issue and that he is looking forward to hearing what the experts say at the Dolphin Summit. Ultimately, he said, he believes the aquarium must “do what is best for the animals.”
As CEO, “my main role has been to ask the question,” he said. “Is this a concept we need to rethink? We’re still exploring all the options. It’s very important we be guided by the science ”
The debate about the dolphins is also a response to a sea change in public attitudes about institutions that exhibit cetaceans, a category of mammals that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises.
Signs of the change can be seen in the social media-driven boycott of SeaWorld in Orlando after a killer whale killed a trainer there in 2010. The film about it, “Blackfish,” raised questions about the morality of humans’ treatment of marine mammals, as did “The Cove,” with its depictions of brutal dolphin hunts.
Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have long voiced opposition to zoos and aquariums holding dolphins in captivity, on the grounds that such a practice is cruel to highly intelligent creatures. PETA even mounted a protest of Baltimore’s marine mammal pavilion when it opened in 1991.
Now studies show more people outside organized groups are beginning to understand and share those concerns , including so called Millennials and Gen Y-ers who were born after the Baby Boomers and presumably represent the aquarium’s future constituency.
Aquarium officials acknowledge that the study is underway but caution that it is too soon to say what their consultants might recommend. They note that even if a decision is made to stop exhibiting dolphins in Baltimore, it could be years before they actually leave the Inner Harbor.
But as the planning effort has progressed, word is getting out that big changes could be coming, and those changes would have widespread implications for Baltimore in areas such as tourism and economic development. Driving them are changes not just in attitudes toward marine mammals but questions about whether they should be kept in captivity.
Changing Attitudes Worldwide
By taking on “the dolphin question,” Baltimore may find itself at the center of a debate raging in the zoo and aquarium worlds for years.
Some countries have already stopped the practice of taking dolphins from the wild for exhibition, while others have banned programs that let people swim with dolphins or otherwise interact with them. The United Kingdom has prohibited construction of facilities to house dolphins.
In recent years, several North American attractions have disclosed plans to stop exhibiting dolphins, including the Minnesota Zoo in 2012. Canada‘s Vancouver Aquarium is debating the issue this spring. But none has the high profile or the number of animals that the National Aquarium has.
People involved in the decision-making process acknowledge that there are powerful pros and cons. Opponents of the practice of holding dolphins in captivity make the case that they are large brained mammals that are nearly as intelligent as humans and highly sensitive to their surroundings.
“No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal,” oceanographer Jacques Cousteau has written.
Advocates for keeping the dolphins in captivity say they are valuable ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild, that they are loved, well fed and well cared for, and that having them on site gives visitors a chance to learn about them in ways they can’t do in nature. They point to the fact that dolphins are a huge draw, helping to generate money that the aquarium can use to house and protect many other specimens
Economic Implications of Dolphin Decisions
Beyond the world of marine biology, the aquarium’s decision will have economic implications for the city, state and region. Among the issues are:
Tourism: How would elimination of the dolphin exhibit affect attendance at the aquarium, which typically draws approximately 1.3 million visitors a year? Would other aquariums that still feature dolphins, such as Atlanta’s, get more visits? How would the absence of dolphins affect the aquarium’s position as an entertainment anchor for the Inner Harbor? Or could there be an upside? Could the aquarium win points with the anti-captivity faction by making a change?
Education: How would the aquarium tell the story of marine mammals without dolphins in house? Many institutions take visitors on boats for dolphin- and whale-watching expeditions, or show films of marine mammals in the wild. Is that the answer for Baltimore?
The future of Pier 4:What would become of the city owned Marine Mammal Pavilion, built on city property at a cost of $35 million and later renovated for millions more? Could another species, such as sea lions, take over the dolphin habitat? Would they be as popular and make good use of the large central amphitheater? How would the building have to be altered for a substitute exhibit, and how would the work be funded? Is there a better non aquarium use for Pier 4?
The dolphins themselves: What would happen to the dolphins, which range in age from nearly six (Bayley) to 42 (Nani, who was captured in the wild in 1975.) One option could be the off-site dolphin sanctuary, an environment more like the wild, but still fenced-off and controlled. It would be a place where the dolphins could be studied , potentially with live-cams showing them to the crowds back in Baltimore. But where would it be, and what would it cost to create and operate? How would the dolphins adjust?
Real Estate and Realignment
The dolphin decision is one of several issues that the aquarium board is studying as it charts a blueprint for the future. According to Gang and others, additional issues include:
The National Aquarium’s future presence in Washington: After opening its Baltimore facility in 1981, the aquarium in 2003 assumed operations of the smaller National Aquarium in Washington, which was located until last September in the basement of the U. S. Department of Commerce headquarters.
The two aquariums came to be jointly operated by the group known as the National Aquarium Institute. The Washington facility was forced to close because of renovations planned for the Commerce building. When it closed, aquarium officials said they hoped to re-establish a presence in the Nation’s Capitol at some point. They have asked their consultants to help them think about what that presence might be. One option is an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.
The fate and fine tuning of the aquarium’s additional holdings in Baltimore: Besides its properties on Piers 3 and 4, the National Aquarium leases space in Fells Point that is used to house and care for animals not on exhibit in the Inner Harbor. It also controls 11 acres on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in south Baltimore. That land was to be the site of a $50 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, a project that was put on hold after the 2008 recession.
The aquarium also has used parts of the former Columbus Center on Piers 5 and 6 as a behind-the-scenes holding area for jellyfish and other creatures. The aquarium board wants to figure out how these places can serve their mission. They also want to address issues related to the aging and operation of the buildings on Piers 3 and 4. There are way-finding issues and conflicts between the strong one-way sequence of the Pier 3 building and the more random movement traffic flow of the Pier 4 pavilion.
The Aquarium experience: Under Racanelli, the aquarium is seeking to redefine its mission. Unlike some facilities around the country, the National Aquarium did not start out as a serious research institution with a particularly strong conservation message. It was conceived by former Mayor William Donald Schaefer primarily as an entertainment destination that would help make the Inner Harbor more of an attraction for tourists and residents alike.
Schaefer visited the New England Aquarium during a trip to Boston and hired the same architect to create a sculptural centerpiece for the Inner Harbor, using money from the sale of Friendship Airport. Research was a secondary concern. As Schaefer moved to the Governor’s office, tourism remained a high priority for the aquarium, as seen by the decision to expand the attraction by building a separate showplace for the dolphins.
But over the years, as it gained popularity and financial stability, the aquarium has grown increasingly strong in sending a conservation message.
With issues such as climate change and the health of the Chesapeake Bay moving to the forefront, it was a natural evolution, and one that could be embraced by long time members and first time visitors alike.
In many ways, leaders say, the organization now seems to be evolving from being an aquarium with a conservation message to a conservation organization that happens to run an aquarium.
And with two locations 40 miles apart, they say, the potential division of labor seems to be clear: the Baltimore aquarium can take the lead on addressing issues pertaining to the Chesapeake Bay and the Mid Atlantic, while a new D.C. operation can be the venue to address issues with more of an national or international scope.