Free at last: National Aquarium’s sea change on dolphin policy

By Erica Cirino and Carl Safina

If you’re ever visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you must stop by Dolphin Discovery, according to aquarium staff. It’s an exhibit reminiscent of an Olympic swimming stadium: A large pool surrounded by bleacher seating for hundreds of onlookers, located inside a towering glass-walled building. Inside the glass-and-concrete swimming pool one finds eight sleek and silvery Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

Inside the pool, the aquarium’s six female and two male dolphins balance beach balls on their noses, kiss wetsuit-clad trainers, perform aerial flips and whistle at aquarium visitors. This much amuses some visitors, but it turns off others who say it’s time aquariums free their captive whales and dolphins.

Dolphin at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Jyothis (Wikimedia Commons)
Dolphin at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Jyothis (Wikimedia Commons)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the National Aquarium’s managers now agree with the latter group. Just last week the National Aquarium announced it would be building a protected yet naturalistic seaside habitat where its captive dolphins will be able to live out the rest of their days more like wild dolphins.

“We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change,” said the National Aquarium’s chief executive officer John Racanelli in a press release last week. “This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary.”

For years, concerned members of the public, animal rights groups, and some scientists have argued that whales and dolphins are too intelligent, too social, too active to be kept in artificial pools infinitesimally smaller than their natural habitats for the duration of their—often very long—lives. It also comes on the heels of SeaWorld’s announcement in March that it will no longer breed orcas and that the generation of orcas currently kept in its facilities will be their last.

Neuroscientist and marine mammal expert Lori Marino praised the National Aquarium’s announcement.

“The idea that a National Aquarium would transfer its animals to a marine mammal sanctuary is unprecedented,” says Marino. “It’s a bold statement declaring that we humans need a different relationship to these animals, that it’s no longer appropriate for them to live out their lives as entertainers in concrete tanks.”


Wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Credit: Carl Safina
Wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Credit: Carl Safina

Marino (who is a Safina Center Affiliate) just this year founded the Whale Sanctuary Project, which, like the National Aquarium, plans to have a seaside sanctuary up and running by 2020 but which would maintain aquarium orcas and perhaps other whales instead of smaller dolphins. Because killer whales require cold-water habitats, Marino’s group is currently scouting possible sanctuary locations off the Northeast coast of North America, as well as in the Pacific Northwestern part of the continent. Other dolphins need to live in warmer water so the National Aquarium is looking at potential locations in Florida and the Caribbean.

Seaside sanctuaries, like other types of wildlife sanctuaries, would allow captive marine mammals to be cared for by humans in a habitat that more closely resembles the kind in which they’d naturally live. While access to the open ocean would be restricted for captive whales’ and dolphin’s safety, seaside sanctuaries would provide them with more ample space to carry out their social, feeding and breeding behaviors. Marino says she hopes the Whale Sanctuary Project can partner with the National Aquarium so they can work together in a way that helps both groups succeed in establishing viable seaside sanctuaries for captive whales and dolphins.

“In less than five years, there will be at least two marine mammal sanctuaries—ours and the National Aquarium’s—in North America,” says Marino. “We know down the line each of us can benefit from each other’s projects, to the overall benefit of the country’s captive dolphins and whales.”



Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.