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National Aquarium expects to maintain visitor attendance without dolphins

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, one of the city's most popular tourist attractions for more than three decades, expects no drops in attendance once it closes its dolphin exhibit to retire the mammals to a seaside sanctuary.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore expects no slowdown in visitors once it closes its popular dolphin exhibit to retire the mammals to a seaside sanctuary.

The aquarium, which has drawn more than 1 million people a year since helping spur downtown's renaissance more than three decades ago, said Tuesday that it will build a first-of-its-kind sanctuary for the eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins by 2020.

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Attendance this year is on pace to rise 7 percent above projections of about 1.3 million visitors, with no short- or long-term impact expected once the animals relocate, CEO John Racanelli said in an interview.

"We take our role as an anchor of the Inner Harbor and an economic engine for the state very, very seriously," Racanelli said. "We would never do anything to jeopardize that. The aquarium has a strong following of visitors throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Eastern seaboard, and they're coming for the full experience. … Sometimes dolphins are part of that."

The Inner Harbor attraction opened the Pier 4 Marine Mammal Pavilion 25 years ago but has housed dolphins since opening in 1981. Now, as public sentiment about keeping such large, intelligent animals in captivity has shifted, the facility is exploring seaside sites in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean for a sanctuary.

The site will be open to the public but not as a revenue driver, Racanelli said. It will operate under a "dolphin-first protocol," with dolphins' needs coming first and a public observation area, but no stadium or performance-type setting.

Some visitors on Tuesday expressed disappointment about the decision. Ruth Greene, a former city elementary school teacher, called the exhibit a "major attraction" and said it had been an annual trip for her students. Her schoolchildren loved seeing the animals up close, she said. She wondered whether the move was too late for the dolphins.

"I understand their rationale [for moving], but I wonder what effect having the dolphins there all these years had on them," she said.

Others were encouraged by the increased freedom for the mammals. Eric Porter, 60, said the dolphins should be able to go where they can thrive, not kept where they are forced to do tricks.

"Dolphins naturally come from the ocean," he said. They "have personality."

Aquariums are never big enough for large mammals, such as dolphins or whales, said Valerie Chaussonnet, who was visiting from Texas.

"I think the dolphins should be in the sea, not an exhibit," she said.

Lee Murray, who took his 6-year-old daughter to the aquarium Tuesday, said he would return regardless of the dolphin exhibit. While disappointed, Murray said the oceanside sanctuary would offer the aquarium a chance to spread knowledge, expand its reach and promote sustainability.

"It's a good move for the well-being of the animals," he said. "I could see it being a base of operations for beach cleanup."

The empty space should be filled with something unique, he added.

Aquarium officials said they studied options for the space.

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Sam Rogers, Visit Baltimore's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said he expects the aquarium to continue to be popular with visitors, even after the dolphins relocate. He cited the success of new exhibits after the cancellation of the dolphin shows about four years ago.

"We support their conclusions and realize that some program had to be put in place to provide the best environment for the dolphins," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

Removing the dolphin exhibit likely will have less impact on attendance than factors such as the strength of the economy and suburban residents' perception of the city's safety, said Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of Sage Policy Group Inc., which found the aquarium had an annual economic impact of $320 million in a 2012 study.

"It's an opportunity to offer newer attractions and a different experience for patrons and to stay relevant," he said.

Racanelli said while many visitors come to see the dolphins, the aquarium has 20,000 animals in more than 100 exhibits.

"There are still a million stories to tell here, and we will always make sure the aquarium is compelling, educational and entertaining," he said.

The aquarium's decision follows years of protests by animal activists. Heather Rally, a veterinarian for the PETA Foundation, called the aquarium's plans "historic."

"This is the first time a zoo or aquarium within the professional industry has come forward and acknowledged the fact that a seaside sanctuary can provide a perfectly viable model to improve the welfare of animals in our care," Rally said. "The National Aquarium's announcement is going to force every facility in the U.S. that houses whales or dolphins in concrete tanks to re-evaluate that inhumane practice."

Only six of the 22 aquariums that belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have dolphin exhibits, said Rob Vernon, an association spokesman. A handful of zoos and four Sea World parks also have dolphin exhibits, he said.

"The members of the association that have dolphins will be watching what the National Aquarium does over the coming years with great interest," Vernon said. "It's never been done before. It's new territory and one that everyone is going to be watching closely."

Racanelli defended the decision to close the popular exhibit, saying it's based on "what is best for the dolphins and what is most right for our mission and what is most right for our audience. We've picked this new option in great measure because it gives the dolphins a chance to thrive to an even greater degree than they do here now."

The aquarium plans to maintain links, likely digital such as live video, between the Inner Harbor attraction and the dolphin sanctuary planned to open in 2020.

The four-year timeline will allow the aquarium's staff to prepare the dolphins to make the move and adapt to a new habitat. While the Marine Mammal Pavilion's amphitheater pool allows them to express natural behaviors and form social groups to some extent, the new setting will aim to most closely approximate the open ocean, Racanelli said.

Six of the eight dolphins were born in captivity at the aquarium, another was born at Sea World, and the oldest, Nani, was taken from the wild in 1972 and later moved from another marine park.

"It's important that the dolphins are completely ready for this transition when we make it, and over the next four to five years, we'll be helping them get acclimated," Racanelli said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Wyatt Massey and Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.

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