Baltimore is home to a shrinking population of about 575,000 humans and a growing population of six bottlenose dolphins — five of them born and raised at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor.

However, not long after the birth of the youngest, Bayley, the Aquarium decided to stop breeding dolphins. Nor does it plan to expand the pod by accepting captured dolphins or those from other facilities. Which means these six will be the last dolphins to live in Baltimore.

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Rather than wait for each to die of old age, the Aquarium announced plans seven years ago to relocate them to a seaside sanctuary to be chosen and built at a future date. It would be designed for their care and not for the curiosity and amusement of people. The requirements for such a place are numerous and complicated.

Progress has been “steady and maddeningly slow,” said John Racanelli, the CEO and president of the Aquarium. After considering more than 50 places in the Southern U.S. and the Caribbean, he said this week the aquarium has narrowed the list to one place in the U.S. Virgin Islands and two in Puerto Rico.

The relocation would be among the first like it in the country, and presages a coming dilemma facing other facilities that care for captive dolphins. For now, cultural attitudes generally tolerate captivity, allowing dolphins to perform and even interact with humans for entertainment and monetary purposes. But those attitudes, like those toward orca whales, are evolving.

Racanelli said the Aquarium’s goal is to have its dolphins in the ocean by the end of 2026, still contained and cared for by people, but in a natural setting 275 times larger than the Aquarium pool. No such facility exists, so the Aquarium’s planned home for dolphins could become the first of its kind and provide both a blueprint and a path forward for others.

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

“We feel we know enough now that this is the right thing to do,” Racanelli said.

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The sanctuary will cost an estimated $15 and $20 million to build, and between $2 and $2.5 million a year to operate. Racanelli said the Aquarium is in talks with a potential partner institution (he declined to name it) about sharing some of the construction costs, and is seeking benefactors to help pay for the yearly care of the dolphins.

The Aquarium’s farfetched idea appears to have legs.

“One never knows,” Racanelli said, “but the good news is that these dolphins in this colony are incredibly stable. The vast majority have all been together their entire lives. That stability is important.”

“Dolphins are joy inducing, that’s true. The way we translated that joy in this 90-year experiment was to put them in settings in which they performed for us. We created settings centered around our needs, not theirs. This will provide them with a life that starts to emulate the life they would have had in the wild. They’ve earned it.”

A captive dolphin could do worse than the National Aquarium. A wall of glass floods the exhibit with light on sunny days. Through the glass, visitors get views of Pier 5, the Patapsco River, and beyond, and perhaps the dolphins benefit from the view, too. On a recent afternoon, with the harbor as a backdrop, dolphins leaped, flipped, and pirouetted above the surface of the tank they call home. Here, captive life looks its best: abundant food, unfettered play, constant attention.

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“All of that happens in full view of the public,” said Stephanie Allard, the Aquarium’s animal welfare officer. “You’re getting to see the trainers work with the dolphins. You might see a dolphin leaping out of the water, but it’s not happening as a way to entertain people. There’s no music, no lights, it’s not a show.”

The sobering limitations of captive life are more obvious below the surface, witnessed by visitors from a large underwater window as they pass through a dimly lit anteroom that leads into the aquarium café. Dolphins glide in laps around a featureless tank that leads nowhere. These dolphins have never seen sand, a reef, a starfish, seagrass, or a horizon.

The search for a new home began as ethics in the U.S. related to whales and dolphins changed and scientific understanding of their capabilities grew. The change can be largely traced back to a 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” about a wild orca captured off Iceland to entertain visitors at marine parks that was later involved in the deaths of three people. The film sparked a national debate about orca captivity.

In 2015, with the writing already on the wall, SeaWorld ended orca shows at its park in San Diego. In 2016, it announced it would stop breeding orcas and phase out performances. In 2017, a California law went into effect that ended breeding programs for orcas and banned their captivity for entertainment.

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Around that time, the National Aquarium took its own steps, ending its dolphin breeding program, then ending performances. The next obvious step was relocation.

Spectators watch the dolphins swim and play on Nov. 13, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Early this year, the Miami Seaquarium announced plans to relocate the whale it called Lolita to the wild. Almost 60 years old, she was the oldest living orca in captivity. She died in August before a plan could be devised to return her to Puget Sound near Seattle where she was captured as a juvenile. The consensus in the scientific community is that releasing captive whales and dolphins into the wild is usually not beneficial for the animals if they were born or lived most of their lives in captivity.

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The dolphins have play time at the National Aquarium on Nov. 13, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“It’s still a very young science. It’s still controversial and there’s still so much to learn. But everything we’re learning emphasizes they don’t belong in captivity.”

Dr. Naomi Rose

The public display of dolphins in tanks began about 90 years ago, and they were a huge hit from the start. In captivity, scientists could also study them up close. Before then, scientists had studied only dead dolphins and dead whales. Studies of dolphins in the wild did not begin until the 1970s, when scientists discovered dolphins possess unique, individual markings.

“It’s still a very young science,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist who works for the Animal Welfare Institute. “It’s still controversial and there’s still so much to learn. But everything we’re learning emphasizes they don’t belong in captivity.”

The scientific community, she said, continues to resist the idea that captivity is detrimental, although the sentiment is shifting.

“There are many more people who are now on my side, but they are very quiet about it,” she said.

When killer whale capture and breeding were still allowed, an orca might be worth $5 million and a dolphin worth $500,000, such was their box-office value at marine parks. While orca shows have ended in the U.S., dolphin performances continue.

The science of large whale species like orcas and belugas is less equivocal, Rose said. They don’t breed well in captivity, and they tend to languish and die young. Bottlenose dolphins, she said, tend to cope better in captivity. They breed readily, are more easily trained, and tend to live relatively long lives.

“Just because we can do it, does that mean we should do it?” Rose said. “They cope in captivity, but is that thriving?”

Rose said there are about 3,000 dolphins in captivity around the world, most of them in China. South Carolina is the only state to ban the public display of all cetaceans — the scientific name for dolphins, porpoises and whales. Similar legislation has been introduced in Washington state, New York, Connecticut, and Hawaii, but none has been passed.

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

Canada recently banned the breeding and captivity of all cetaceans and is the only country to have a nationwide policy. Mexico City and Barcelona have independently shut down displays of cetaceans; Russia has banned the capture of cetaceans for public display, Rose said.

Although policies and practices have shifted sharply for captive orcas in the U.S., it is not likely to change as quickly for captive dolphins. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the largest in the world, displays bottlenose dolphins in its Dolphin Coast Presented by Margaritaville Vacation Club by Wyndham exhibit, a partnership announced in June — a testament to the their drawing power.

The country’s other preeminent aquariums, Shedd in Chicago and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, do not display bottlenose dolphins, although Shedd does display beluga whales (as does the Georgia Aquarium) and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Monterey Bay keeps no cetaceans as part of its displays; the only marine mammals residing at the aquarium are sea otters, which it said have been “deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” As for cetaceans, Monterey Bay said in mic-drop fashion that “we’re fortunate visitors can see them swimming off our back deck, in Monterey Bay.”

For now, the display and breeding of cetaceans are a local matter, not a federal one. Conditions under which dolphins are kept, however, are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which adheres to the standards set by the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NOAA Fisheries, does have some jurisdiction over the display of captive cetaceans and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), tracking the inventory of those animals in the U.S. That can include deaths, births, imports, exports, captures and their transportation. NOAA Fisheries also requires facilities to offer an education or conservation program, open to the public on a regular basis, and be licensed or registered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

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

Currently, there are nine facilities in the U.S. that display dolphins in outdoor pens or fenced lagoons. One is in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; two are in Hawaii; most are located in the Florida Keys and designed to provide interaction between people and dolphins, like the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key near Marathon. For $70 you can shake hands/flippers with a dolphin. For $120 you can play with a dolphin from the dock. The $475 “VIP Experience” allows visitors to get into the water with a dolphin. According to its website, all dolphins “choose to participate in sessions … None are ever forced.”

The National Aquarium’s proposed sanctuary will allow for some interaction with paying visitors, Racanelli said. Viewing of the dolphins in the lagoon from an elevated walkway is a possibility. Donors might also be allowed to participate in some of the care and feeding of the dolphins, alongside staff.

“Dolphins will interact mostly with dolphins in the sanctuary,” Racanelli said.

Both he and Rose conceded that a very small percentage of captive dolphins will ever end up in a sanctuary setting.

“There’s no happy ending,” Rose said. “We’re going to create very few of these sanctuaries. Most dolphins will have to stay where they are.”

Ending capture and breeding will allow the practice to come to a natural end. But that will take decades. Releasing captive dolphins into the wild would be a mistake, Rose said, for all but those who were captured later in life and did not spend a lot of time in captivity. Those dolphins have a good chance of retaining their wild ways, and if returned close to where they were taken from, could even rejoin their former pods.

Those who have spent their lives in human care will likely never learn the skills they need to survive in the wild.

“I personally released a dolphin as part of a project,” she said. “That dolphin went into a fishing net to look for food, got entangled, and drowned. I think about that dolphin all the time.”

hugo.kugiya@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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