At 8:30 a.m. each day, before the doors of Baltimore’s National Aquarium open to the public, its resident bottlenose dolphins begin the first of their six daily training and feeding sessions, structured much like a school day for human children. Lessons are taught, knowledge is tested, and rewards given by the humans who represent the center of their universe.

The aquarium is Maryland’s most visited tourist attraction, receiving about 1.3 million visitors a year, a fact that it owes largely to the pod. Among the daily activities are some intended to prepare the six dolphins for life in an outdoor sanctuary somewhere in the Caribbean at a time yet to be determined and still years away, a plan first announced in 2016.

Meanwhile, the pod – Chesapeake, Jade, Spirit, Beau, Foster, and Bayley – grow older, the oldest now 31, the youngest 15. And the science is splintering. Those who study captive cetaceans do not unanimously agree the emerging sanctuary model is the best possible scenario for dolphins who have lived all their lives in captivity as the Baltimore pod has. One scientist suggested that Chesapeake and the gang are already living their best lives.

“I worry a lot less about the dolphins in Baltimore than I do about the dolphins that swim in the waters off Baltimore,” said dolphin researcher Jason Bruck, an assistant professor of biology at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

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“These animals have never seen the ocean, but we assume they will acclimate as if they have a genetic propensity to do so. While it might feel good for us to get this seaside sanctuary enclosure, the animals might not want that. What they might want is what they have now.”

Bruck published a paper in January, “The Cetacean Sanctuary: A Sea of Unknowns,” that questions the benefits to captive cetaceans of living in the type of sanctuary the National Aquarium is proposing. Instead of gently combining the benefits of a captive and wild existence, such sanctuaries might inadvertently create the worst of both worlds, “a step away from a pampered existence and a step toward elements of the wild characterized by uncertainty of food, loss of environmental safety, increased risks of predation/disease, and competition for resources,” Bruck wrote in his report.

He contends the push to build sanctuaries, still in its formative years, has more to do with public messaging than animal welfare. More about people’s romanticized notions of freedom and the purity of nature, and our desire for redemption for the original sin of capture. And less about the practical realities of sharing the world with complex creatures who will never be truly wild again.

In other words, sanctuaries say more about us than them.

The word sanctuary, he argued, “provides a permission structure for the public to tune out, as justice is now served.”

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The aquarium acknowledged skepticism from some in the scientific community but maintained confidence in its plans for a sanctuary.

“Based on extensive study of our dolphins, their needs, the public’s wishes and the state of the science, we continue to believe it is appropriate to test and prove the feasibility of the sanctuary alternative,” wrote John Racanelli, the aquarium’s president and CEO. “Until and unless the data demonstrate otherwise, we will continue to pursue that goal.”

The sanctuary model remains an experiment, but “as experiments go,” Racanelli wrote, “this one will be well-controlled, carefully documented, and shared in an open-source format so that others may benefit.”

The term sanctuary was formally defined recently by the Arizona-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), which has not yet accredited any cetacean sanctuaries. The National Aquarium consulted with the Sea Life Trust and the Whale Sanctuary Project (the only other major sanctuary projects in the world) to help create criteria for an industry-standard cetacean sanctuary. The GFAS approved the criteria last year.

In a nutshell, sanctuaries must provide large but contained spaces in a natural environment like a bay or lagoon. All the benefits of human care are retained, but human interaction is minimized and done only for the animal’s benefit. Intentional breeding is not allowed, nor is release. The sanctuary is forever.

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In 2019, animal activist and former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry created his version of a sanctuary in Bali, Indonesia, what he described as the world’s first permanent dolphin rehabilitation, release and retirement facility for formerly performing dolphins.

O’Barry, who trained the dolphins that played Flipper on the popular 1960s TV show before denouncing dolphin captivity, built a series of outdoor pens in Bali with the intent of preparing the dolphins for return to the wild, something most scientists do not believe can be done successfully. Nonetheless he released three dolphins in 2022, one of whom died a few months later of an infection.

The dolphins have play time with big red balls at the National Aquarium on November 13, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Dolphins are kept in outdoor, seawater pens in various places in the world including the United States. Hawaii and Florida are home to several. Some are bigger than others, and most appear to be conscientiously operated, but all cater to human visitors who pay the bills to run them. GFAS sanctuaries would derive most of their income from donations.

While sanctuaries go a long way to assuage guilt over captivity, they do less to serve the greater cause of cetacean welfare, Bruck said.

“The problem with giving the megaphone to [the 2013 documentary] Blackfish is that people think SeaWorld is a bigger problem than crabbing and fishing,” Bruck said. “We can’t focus on the real issues anymore, because we’re too distracted by those flashy documentaries. It’s easy to get on the internet and rail against SeaWorld, but it’s harder to look at your own seafood consumption. That’s really what’s killing whales.”

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Aquarium’s dolphin exhibit doesn’t age well

Baltimore’s aquarium was inspired by Boston’s New England Aquarium and championed by then mayor William Donald Schaefer. Voters passed a bond measure in 1976 to fund construction on Pier 3. The aquarium opened in 1981. Nine years later, the marine mammal pavilion opened on adjacent Pier 4. The dolphin exhibit was a huge hit and big money-maker. The pod performed as many as eight times a day, and even that wasn’t quite enough to fully satisfy visitor demand.

About 10 years ago, as public sentiment against captivity grew, the aquarium stopped breeding them, and soon ended performances. The 2009 documentary “The Cove” about a dolphin hunt in Japan (O’Barry plays a key role in the film), and “Blackfish” about a captive orca whale hardened generations weaned on “Free Willy” and “Flipper.” Cultural narratives around captive cetaceans changed quickly, accelerated by social media. Captivity had become a bad look, and the National Aquarium wanted to be on the side of good.

“Today, a majority of Millennial and Gen Z customers, our primary audience for the next 30 years, is opposed to dolphin shows and traditional captive settings,” Racanelli wrote. “As these perceptions continue to evolve, we have no doubt that others will seek our cooperation in providing homes for their dolphins in the years ahead.”

One fact is not in dispute. Sanctuaries are expensive to build and run. The National Aquarium estimates the cost of constructing its sanctuary to be $15-25 million, the wide gap owing to the numerous variables involved in such a complicated project. Racanelli estimated the operating cost in the first year to be $2.5 million, increasing about three percent each year, and factors in a staff of 17. The Aquarium has completed large capital projects before like its Blacktip Reef exhibit ($12.5 million), Rainforest Pyramid exhibit ($8 million), and Harbor Wetland ($12 million), but a sanctuary is an unprecedented challenge and one that will not contribute to the aquarium’s bottom line.

A dolphin swims up to the glass to a visitor at the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

The aquarium plans to choose a site and secure initial funding this year. Once it has received at least $12 million in donations, it will begin the design and construction of the facility. Once the sanctuary is open, it will seek to raise another $10 million for improvements and additions. The sanctuary will be operated and funded separately from the aquarium and its foundation, which acts as a sort of charity arm and investment account for the aquarium. The third entity has yet to be named.

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The DC-based Whale Sanctuary Project has projected similar operating costs. It is farther along in its development than the Baltimore project but still at least a year away from harboring a beluga or orca whale in its chosen 100-acre site in Nova Scotia, Canada. Tax filing data showed revenues of $1.93 million in 2022, almost all of it from donations, and expenses of $1.63 million, all before a single creature has arrived.

Bruck is skeptical of the cost estimates and thinks the aquarium is underestimating its task. He is also wary of any revenue model that relies heavily on donations. The annual cost of caring for one animal ranges from the mid five figures to well into six figures, money, Bruck argues, would be better spent on helping wild cetaceans, and improving their habitat.

“Those millions can go toward helping a lot of wild whales,” he said. He suggested developing technology to create crab and lobster pots that do not need ropes, which are hazards to marine mammals. Instead of lines and buoys, traps can be located using sensors and raised using inflation devices. Developing and implementing ropeless fishing technology, he said, might be a better investment and save far more lives in the wild, where the greater tragedy occurs, often unseen.

“When an animal dies in the wild, nobody ever hears about,” Bruck said. “In a zoo everyone knows about it.”

Little Grey and Little White

The sanctuary model has a precedent, and the results so far have been less than promising.

The Sea Life Trust (backed by Merlin Entertainments, a British operator of theme parks like Legoland and Madame Tussauds wax museums) operates a sanctuary in Iceland for two captive female beluga whales named Little Grey and Little White. They were transported in 2019 from a marine park in China to Klettsvik Bay, the same one Keiko of “Free Willy” fame was brought to before he was released into the wild in 2002. (Keiko never outgrew his need for human contact and died one year later of pneumonia.)

Little Grey and Little White, after time to acclimate in an indoor pool, were released into the bay in September 2020. By December, they were indoors again. The Sea Life Trust gave no reason, other than the approach of winter. The belugas spent 2021 indoors.

In April 2022, the sanctuary’s American general manager Audrey Padgett appeared on a BBC news segment, the two belugas behind her on camera, still swimming indoors. She talked about construction delays, the pandemic, and supply chain issues, and about a new contraption the whales were about to try, a moveable sea pen they called the halo. The halo acted like a leash to limit their movement and guide them around their new surroundings.

“They want my attention,” Padgett told her interviewers when they asked about the whales, lingering close behind her instead of availing themselves of the rest of the open pool. She was asked to engage them, and she obliged.

“Hi Grey,” she said, raising the pitch of her voice the way adults do around babies and puppies “Now she’s being camera shy.”

She also tried to explain why the first and only release into the bay in 2020 did not last.

“We could see that Little White in particular had some hesitation exploring that bigger bay sanctuary space and needed a bit of additional support from the care team,” she said.

In June 2023, after the whales spent a few months in the halo, the Trust announced they would be moving back indoors. This time it was Little Grey who struggled. Her appetite decreased, and her behavior caused concern. Upon examination, veterinarians found stomach ulcers. The trust called it a “temporary setback.” Almost five years after arriving at the sanctuary, Grey and White remain indoor creatures, attached to their humans.

Padgett has moved back to the U.S., and according to her LinkedIn page, is now the director of sales and marketing for Rapids Waterpark in West Palm Beach, Florida, where all the mammals live indoors.

“In the one time that we’ve done this, it has failed so far,” Bruck said of the beluga sanctuary. “We all should be paying attention to that.”

A case for the status quo

Bruck lobbied for the status quo, admitting it might feel emotionally unsatisfying: Keep zoos, aquariums, marine parks, outdoor sea pens, but continue to improve conditions for the animals housed there. In tandem, funnel resources to save more wild cetacean lives.

“I’m cautious of coming off as Debbie Downer here,” Bruck said. “But we have limited resources to care for animals in the wild, so when we divert those resources to projects with a low chance of working out, we risk those animals going into a worse state, and doing a disservice to animals in our care and to animals in the wild.”

Bruck has conducted research on dolphins kept at facilities run by Dolphin Quest, which refers to its three dolphin parks in Hawaii and Bermuda as sanctuaries. None adhere to GFAS standards, and operate similarly to aquariums, except the dolphins live outdoors.

The Bermuda dolphins inhabit an ocean-fed, manmade lagoon within the walls of an old fort, where most visitor interactions take place. This is also where dolphins are kept during storms. A tunnel connects the manmade lagoon to the harbor outside the fort so the dolphins can also freely swim in a natural setting of coral, sand, and sea life. Netting restricts the dolphins to an area about the size of a football field. Once in a while, the dolphins are chaperoned outside the netting and into deep water, accompanied by staff in boats. Theirs is a life between a wild dolphin and a suburban dog.

Dolphin Quest allows its dolphins to breed, counter to the strategy of other facilities like the National Aquarium, which puts its dolphins on hormonal birth control to end captive births, which is the only current option as surgery cannot be performed on dolphins who would likely die under anesthesia. (Dolphins live 40-60 years and female dolphins remain fertile all their lives.) Some scientists believe allowing reproduction is integral for the well-being of not just the mother but the entire pod, and therefore worth the ethical tradeoff of keeping dolphins in human care in perpetuity.

Bottlenose dolphins generally cope better in captivity than their larger cousins. They are easily trained, breed reliably, and live long lives in human hands. In 2017, California banned the display and captivity of orca whales, but not dolphins. Only one state, South Carolina, bans the display of all cetaceans. Canada is the only country to do so.

The lives of captive animals have “improved over decades, and there’s not a lot of conversation about that,” Bruck said. “We need to look at zoos not as they were, but as they are now. Animals are living better lives than they ever have…I’m comfortable with those places persisting. The animals are healthy, the calves are healthy. The sociability is good. Animals in human care are doing better, I’m not worried about them, I’m worried about the wild animals.”

Meanwhile, the Aquarium continues to prepare its dolphins for relocation to their hypothetical forever home in the tropics. The pod is being trained to be comfortable leaving the water and being lifted and moved. Jade has flown once before; the others haven’t. Staff has introduced artificial approximations of features they will encounter in a natural setting, Racanelli said, like algae, shade, mangroves, birds, and changes and water temperature.

“The dolphins,” he said, “have responded very well to these changes.”

Children watch a dolphin swim by them at the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Monday, June 26, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times. 

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