The National Aquarium's eight dolphins are no longer a show unto themselves.
After two decades of dramatic leaps and crowd-pleasing stunts, aquarium officials are eliminating the 20-minute dolphin shows in favor of a more open-ended exhibit. Beginning Friday, aquarium visitors will be able to visit the dolphin amphitheater throughout the day and interact with trainers. Instead of charging a separate admission price for the dolphin show, the aquarium is raising general admission ticket prices.
"We needed solutions, after 20 years, of how to make this new and different," said aquarium CEO John Racanelli. "At the same time, we needed to make it so that everyone who comes here gets to feel that they, too, could experience the dolphins."
On an ideal Saturday, more than 10,000 people visit the aquarium, one of Baltimore's most popular tourist sites, Racanelli said. With four scheduled dolphin shows a day, a maximum of 4,800 people could see the dolphins.
"Fully half of our guests could not even see the dolphins if they wanted to," Racanelli said. "You really can't make the dolphins do show after show after show. It's stressful, and it's not appropriate."
Dubbed "Dolphin Discovery," the aquarium's redesigned dolphin program will be open continuously, allowing visitors the chance to observe the dolphins, regardless of whether the animals are eating, working with trainers or simply mugging for the audience.
"It's a matter of making it so that everyone has access to the dolphins," said Nancy Hotchkiss, the aquarium's senior director for visitor experience and education.
Dolphin shows have long been big draws at aquariums and marine parks, many of which are depending more and more on the intelligent, playful mammals to bring in visitors. In recent years, attractions in San Diego and Atlanta have spent millions of dollars to make their dolphin shows splashier.
The aquarium's decision to scale back on its shows would seem to run counter to that idea. But Baltimore is mirroring a trend toward less gaudy and more intimate performances, said Marilee Menard, executive director of the 65-member Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums.
"The trend has been toward interactive programs," she said. "They are so fantastic when it comes to educating people."
Many animal activists, however, maintain that forcing captive dolphins to perform is wrong. Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist who's studied dolphins and their intelligence for 20 years, believes dolphins don't belong in captivity because they can't thrive there.
"They don't live as long," she said. "And there is evidence of boredom, depression and psychological disturbance."
Marino had mixed feelings about the aquarium's plans.
"On the one hand, I think it is a step in right direction — they won't be asking highly intelligent animals to be doing stupid pet tricks anymore, over and over and over again," she said.
Ideally, Marino said, Baltimore and other aquariums should retire the dolphins and let them live out their lives in a more natural ocean pen environment or even rehabilitate them for release into the sea if possible.
"There's certainly a better environment for them than where they are now," she said.
Besides making the dolphins accessible to more visitors, the aquarium will increase staffing at the amphitheater to make at least five staffers available at any given time to talk about the dolphins and increase human interaction with the popular marine mammals. Visitors will be able to observe the dolphins from a pair of platforms that have been added to the front of the exhibit; some may even be able to play catch with the dolphins, she said.
"It's never going to be dull in there," Hotchkiss said.
Racanelli said any decrease in revenue from elimination of the separate dolphin shows will be offset by the increased admission price. Beginning Friday, adult admission will climb from $24.95 to $29.95, children from $19.95 to $20.95.
Changes in the dolphin exhibit come less than a year after a pair of baby dolphins, both born at the aquarium, died within days of each other. One calf died of pneumonia, a necropsy revealed, the other from internal bleeding. In the weeks and months after the deaths, aquarium officials scaled back the dolphin shows, to reduce stress on the remaining animals, and tried to make the atmosphere surrounding the shows less raucous.
Both Racanelli and Hotchkiss, however, denied the new Dolphin Discovery was a reaction to the deaths. Unlimited access to the dolphin tank was tried last December, during the aquarium's popular dollar-days promotion, and proved a hit with visitors, Hotchkiss said. Instead of spending 20 minutes watching the dolphins swim, jump and dive on command, Hotchkiss said she saw people spending 40 minutes or even an hour in the amphitheater, watching the animals.
On Thursday afternoon, aquarium visitors said they would miss the shows, but were generally supportive of the new policy.
"I guess it should be up to them to decide what they want to do, when they want to do it," said Jackie Ghirardello of Rosedale. "If they have two or three shows a day, it might be too much, you never know. They always have that happy look on their faces, so it's hard to tell."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jill Rosen and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun