Looking back: Dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

1981: The National Aquarium, a $21.5 million city-built facility, opens to crowds. The attraction drew 1.5 million visitors its first year, double what was expected, with its four dolphins one of the most popular exhibits. Shortly after the opening, one of the dolphins died and the tank was found to have leaks.

1982: The National Aquarium sends its three dolphins to Florida to recover from ulcers. The 250,000-gallon tank, which was poorly lit and lacked a place for the dolphins to seek respite from the crowds and one another, was cited as the major cause of the ailments.


1984: A dolphin, in Baltimore as a visiting attraction to boost attendance, dies of illness four days after arrival. The death was later tied to a pre-existing infection.

1989: The National Aquarium's capture of two wild dolphins in Tampa Bay draws protests from animal rights activists. Florida officials also weigh misdemeanor charges because part of the operation occurred without the proper permit. The dolphins ultimately remained in Florida, with one later dying. That same year, one of the Aquarium's beluga whales dies.


1990: The National Aquarium buys three captive dolphins from a Texas aquarium. The animals were captured in the 1970s.

December 1990: More than 4,000 people attend the opening for National Aquarium's new Marine Mammal Pavilion, which launches with three beluga whales and five dolphins inside a 1.2 million gallon tank. Animal rights groups also protested at the opening. The pavilion cost $35 million, with $16.5 million paid for with state and city taxes.

Aquarium officials told The Sun the primary purpose of the dolphin shows, which would occur three to six times daily and involved trainers swimming with the dolphins, was education. They vowed to avoid a "circus-like atmosphere."

November 1991: Protesters stage a two-hour demonstration at the aquarium, with Ric O'Barry, who trained dolphins for the "Flipper" television series in the 1960s, escorted from a dolphin show by police.

Dec. 1991: One of the aquarium's beluga whales dies, after being attacked by a dolphin during a training session. The incident prompted more protests about keeping animals in captivity and the aquarium later removed the suriving whales.

March 1992: The aquarium hosts the births of two dolphins. By the end of the year the calves — named Cobie and Chesapeake — were in training for the dolphin show, performing spins, somersaults and other feats. Aquarium staff bristled when a reporter called them tricks:

"'Tricks' is degrading. Pets do 'tricks,'" said trainer Duncan Whittier.

April 1993: An infant dolphin born at the Aquarium that March dies. Even in the wild, baby dolphins have high mortality rates.


July 1993: After the opening of the hit movie "Free Willy," demonstrators protest at the Aquarium.

May 1999: Hailey, a 20-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin dies after a long battle with liver disease.

April 2000: The Aquarium resumes its breeding program and three dolphins are born in 2001.

2004: The Aquarium launches a new dolphin show called "Play." That same year two dolphins died, including a 4-month-old who was roughed up by two adult dolphins. That death prompted the aquarium to review its breeding program.

2005: Two dolphins die at the aquarium.

2009: The Aquarium unveils a new dolphin show with more of a conservation focus.


Sept. 2010: Shiloh — one of the dolphins that opened the Marine Mammal Pavilion in 1990 — dies at the age of 31. Shiloh had been captured in the wild using practices the aquarium later distanced itself from.

June 2011: The Aquarium cancels dolphin shows after two baby dolphins die and the group's matriarch, Nani, refuses to eat.

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Of the 14 calves born at the aquarium since 1992, five died within their first year and two more died as juveniles. Both in the wild and in captivity, mortality rates for dolphin newborns are high — about 33 percent.

May 2012: The National Aquarium eliminates dolphin shows instead allowing people to visit the tank and see the animals. At the time, a maximum of 4,800 people a day could see the dolphins.

May 2014: The National Aquarium says it is considering moving its eight dolphins to an ocean-side sanctuary, making public an internal debate that had been occuring since the fall.

May 7, 2016: Protesters call for dolphin release.


June 14, 2016: The National Aquarium announced that it will build a seaside sanctuary for its dolphins by the end of 2020, ending their display at the Inner Harbor attraction.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this story