Q&A: National Aquarium CEO Discusses Dolphins' Retirement

The colony of eight would be moved from Baltimore to the first seaside sanctuary in the U.S.

Last week the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, announced that it may retire its eight bottlenose dolphins. The animals would be moved to a seaside sanctuary—the first one for dolphins in the United States.

Although it's not clear where the sanctuary would be or how it would be created, the idea has met with enthusiasm from conservationists and the public.

The announcement also puts the aquarium at the forefront of a debate about keeping dolphins and whales in captivity—a discussion that gained momentum last year following the release of the documentary film Blackfish, about an orca that kills its trainer at SeaWorld.

National Geographic caught up with John Racanelli, the National Aquarium's chief executive officer, to find out more about what inspired this bold move.

Was this announcement prompted by the public's growing concern for the health and well-being of captive dolphins and other cetaceans?

Times have changed, and our understanding of the needs of the animals in our care has changed. A lot of very valid research has been done in the last 20 years to open our eyes to the cognitive and social behavior of dolphins. It's incumbent upon us to avail ourselves of these findings, and that means figuring out how we can better care for these dolphins in the future.

Also, as part of our mission, we're trying to focus [attention] on the plight of dolphins and whales in the oceans, and the great threats they face. More than one million cetaceans are being killed annually due to such things as bycatch [species caught unintentionally by fishermen], intentional killing, ship strikes, seismic surveys done for oil exploration, and naval sonar.

If this colony of eight dolphins can help people grasp what is happening to wild populations, then it's incumbent upon us at the National Aquarium to bring that about.

You became CEO of the National Aquarium in 2011. Was there something in your background that made you think that keeping captive dolphins was wrong?

I studied biology but ended up earning a degree in business. I'm an avid diver, and one of my first jobs was as a dolphin-tank cleaner—basically an underwater janitor—at Marine World, near San Francisco. At that time [the early 1980s], I thought it was unlikely that we'd still be doing this—having dolphins in captivity—in the future. Later, I worked as director of marketing and communications for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which didn't have captive dolphins, and then helped build the Florida Aquarium, which also doesn't have dolphins but has a dolphin-watching cruise. I also co-founded [the global conservation initiative] Mission Blue and Google Ocean with [oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence] Sylvia Earle.

So I gained my perspective on dolphins from different angles.

But this particular inquiry—about the possibility of making a dolphin sanctuary—was under way at the National Aquarium before I arrived. It was brought into bright relief for me when two calves were born that summer [in 2011] and both quickly died [one from pneumonia, the other from internal bleeding]. It wasn't because of the quality of our care; the calves were born to two naive mothers. But it was a tragic time. The dolphins were depressed, the humans here were depressed, and the people visiting were depressed, because they love the dolphins and the dolphin shows, [which] we stopped to let the dolphins and our staff recover.

But that cost us. We lost $1.9 million of business because we canceled the dolphin shows. I realized that if the aquarium was going to be a successful enterprise, it needed to be in [a less] vulnerable financial position. And that meant changing things, starting with the care of the animals.

What did you change?

We did away with the shows entirely, raised the entry fee [to compensate financially], and opened up the dolphin viewing area, so people can hang out with them all day if they want.

We also rolled out Dolphin Discovery, where people can still watch the dolphins being trained.

But it isn't a show—there's no music, no playing with balls.

People want to know why dolphins do what they do. So the dolphins [don't do] unnatural things in Dolphin Discovery; they do things they would do in the wild, such as porpoising together [making high-speed ballistic jumps out of the water] or lobtailing [slapping the surface with their tail], and our trainers explain why. We still have the dolphins splash the audience. But now it's in context: The trainers explain that in the wild, dolphins [do this] to distract predators, to communicate, or [to] create bubble nets to catch fish [by confusing and startling them].

It's been very stimulating and positive for the dolphins. And people's overall satisfaction has gone up. There are those who ask, "Where's the show?" But others say, "This is cool. We can stay here with the dolphins all day."

Shows are antiquated. No animals at zoos perform in shows any more. We somehow reached a level of enlightenment with chimpanzees, elephants, tigers, and lions. Why are we still interested in having dolphins do shows?

Does the National Aquarium still have a dolphin-breeding program?

No. It's part of the response to that tragic summer [of 2011]. We declared a moratorium for two to three years, and at this time the moratorium is indefinite.

If the dolphins are moved to an off-site sanctuary, will the National Aquarium be able to survive financially?

We take seriously that we're one of Baltimore's star tourist attractions, and we would never do anything to jeopardize that. Some say that the bottom will fall out if we don't have dolphins. But our mission—to show the ocean's treasures—[is what] attracts our visitors. We have more than 17,000 animals for people to see. People love the sharks, and the exhibits that re-create the real world. Our far-and-away most popular exhibit right now shows people what a real Indo-Pacific coral reef looks like. But trying to replicate the world of most marine mammals is pretty hard to do.

So we have to look at other alternatives.

It would be wonderful to build a dolphin sanctuary right here for our dolphins. But they don't naturally live in these waters; they would head south. If we have to move them to another location, we'll only do so if our plan can meet two requirements: One, the dolphins must be kept together, and two, visitors here must be able to see them and interact with them digitally.

Only one of the aquarium's dolphins, Nani, was born in the wild. How do you prepare captive-born dolphins for life in an ocean-side sanctuary?

Nani is now 42 [wild and captive bottlenose dolphins live between 30 and 50 years, as a rule]; she's worked all her life. The ocean she'd be returning to is much changed [in the 39 years since she lived there], and not for the better. There are risks for the animals—from oil spills, morbilliviruses, and other pathogens. These guys have never seen jellyfish drift by or watched spiny lobsters crawl on the ocean floor. So, if we are to do this, it must be a very carefully prepared and researched project. That's why we're holding a dolphin summit at the end of this month.

What will happen there?

The summit is a workshop to figure out how to develop an off-site dolphin sanctuary. What would be the best environment? What type of husbandry will the dolphins require? What kind of corporate partners might exist? We're thinking of it as a National Dolphin Center, like the National Elephant Center, where zoo elephants can retire.

Had you thought about dolphin sanctuaries before coming to the National Aquarium?

I actually began to think about the need for these when I was at Marine World in the '80s. There was a dolphin there named Shiloh who was in her mid-20s. [One day after she'd done a show she was] returned to her tank, where she lived with three other dolphins. She looked fine, and after feeding and caring for her, the staff left.

But when they returned later that day, they found her on the bottom of her tank, dead—probably from cardiopulmonary failure. People said that it was probably because she was old. I thought, "That doesn't seem right. She had to work until she died? Why wasn't she moved to a sanctuary to live out her life?"

Well, there weren't any dolphin sanctuaries. There still aren't, although there are [sanctuaries] for dang near every other megafauna species that's in a zoo. If this one succeeds, it will be the first.

Do you feel that it's important for the National Aquarium to develop the first sanctuary, to set an example?

We're not trying to be an example—to say to other aquariums, "You need to do this." We want to do right by our dolphins and by our audience, and do a better job of serving our mission. We want to change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. Everything we do is centered on that mission.

The sanctuary idea isn't unique or our own. But we are the first to make a deep inquiry—and at this stage it is [still] an inquiry—into how to do it. We are committed to doing whatever is best for the eight dolphins in our care.

[Of course, we] hope to develop a way for our peers to also do this, if it works for them. If we figure out a way to do this and raise the money for it to happen, I can't imagine not offering it to others, so that their animals could go to [the sanctuary] as well.

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