National Aquarium

Dolphin trainer Kerry Martens (right) gets some help from Julia Brodowski, 8, of Macumgie, Pa.,down near the dolphin tank. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / May 18, 2014)

The big question facing Baltimore's National Aquarium — whether to keep Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the amphitheater pool or release them to an ocean-side sanctuary — is the latest twist in the decades-long evolution of American zoos and aquatic attractions from circus-like menageries to portals into the natural environment.

Much of the change is driven by emerging scientific evidence that shows the advanced intellect of marine mammals compared with species such as sharks and puffins. That has led officials at the 33-year-old Inner Harbor anchor to rethink the dolphin display as they seek to emphasize conservation.

The debate resonates among scientists, activists and some members of the public who see the consequences of containing dolphins — which sometimes show signs of chronic stress and self-mutilation — as a crisis of conscience.

It's also a high-stakes issue for the aquarium — and Baltimore. The aquarium, where adult tickets run upwards of $30, risks losing visitors and revenue if the popular dolphins are moved. And Baltimore would be hurt by any dropoff at the aquarium, whose 1.3 million annual visitors make it one of the city's biggest tourist destinations.

Pikesville resident Bunny Bernstein said that when she took her grandchildren to the aquarium five years ago her "stomach got upset" by the acrobatic stunts the animals were performing.

"I couldn't stand to watch it," the 71-year-old said. "I've never been back. "I just think it's terrible. It's like the elephants at the circus."

In recent years, documentaries such as "Blackfish," a CNN film about orcas in captivity and the 2010 killing of a Sea World trainer, and "Keiko: The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy," have given the debate more prominence among the public.

Scientists and activists say that if the National Aquarium moved the dolphins to a sanctuary, it would be the first major institution to take such a step. Many still believe, however, that putting animals on display in zoos and aquariums brings a significant societal value, especially for inspiring children.

"What I am really worried about is, kids are getting totally separated from the natural world," said Temple Grandin, a renowned animal science professor at Colorado State University and the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic.

"Kids get interested in things they get exposed to. I am worried that if people don't get exposed to dolphins, they are just not going to care about them."

The National Aquarium's move comes even as attractions in other cities have spent millions of dollars in recent years to develop bigger dolphin shows. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, for example, touts its AT&T Dolphin Tales show's actors, costumes and an original score "performed and recorded by a 61-piece orchestra at Sony Studios in Hollywood."

The National Aquarium announced last week that under the direction of CEO John Racanelli, who came to Baltimore in July 2011, a team of consultants is evaluating the dolphin attraction's future role.

The process, called BLUEprint, is focused on exploring how the aquarium can show the connection between humans and the environment, and motivate action toward preservation.

"We're trying to open people's eyes to the ocean and the aquatic places in their lives," Racanelli said Friday. "That's our life support system."

BLUEprint will also assess the aquarium's presence in Washington, perhaps with the creation of an "ocean embassy," and re-imagine the aquarium experience with more cohesive exhibits. Specifically, aquarium leaders will decide whether to relocate the dolphins, create a Chesapeake Bay wetland exhibit in the water between the piers and develop collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution.

Aquarium officials have not determined potential locations for a dolphin sanctuary, but Racanelli said one would have to be created in a warmer climate to suit the marine mammals.

No timeline has been set for their decisions.

The aquarium eliminated its 20-minute dolphin performance show about two years ago. Officials said at the time that they wanted the exhibit to offer something new and different, while increasing the number of visitors who could engage with the dolphins.

Now, the eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in its care — including 5-year-old Bayley and 42-year-old Nani — can be observed continuously in the amphitheater, where the public can also interact with trainers.

The dolphins have always been a big draw, but many aquarium visitors come for the overall experience, Racanelli said. The key to the BLUEprint process, he said, is ensuring that the aquarium maintains "our roots as a catalyst for the Inner Harbor."