For more than two years, the National Aquarium’s seven bottlenose dolphins have been training for a drastic move in 2020, from their home in a Baltimore amphitheater to the nation’s first oceanside sanctuary in Florida or the Caribbean.
Aquarium staff members wear flip-flops and sunglasses around the Pier 4 Marine Mammal Pavilion in hopes of acclimating the highly intelligent mammals to warm-weather sights and sounds.
A 4-foot, fake blue heron named Douglas adorns the dolphins’ tank, mimicking new friends the pod might meet in a wildlife setting.
Some of the dolphins have even started eating their food directly from the water, instead of being fed by staff members.
However prepared the pod might be for the move, National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli says they will likely have to wait beyond the 2020 target moving date to leave Baltimore, in part, because of climate change.
Aquarium officials have reviewed — and vetoed — more than 50 potential locations for the new sanctuary from consideration in part because of unclean water caused by human development or the threat posed by climate change-related events such as sea-level rise, rapid seaweed blooms in warming waters and extreme storms.
“It's all about resiliency and finding sites to withstand whatever is going to happen in terms of climate,” Racanelli said.
In 2016, Racanelli announced plans to build a protected, year-round, seaside refuge in a tropical or semitropical locale so the animals, all born in captivity, could live in a habitat as similar as possible to the wild. The announcement came amid a national debate over the merits of keeping intellectually advanced marine species in captivity.
Racanelli said this week that he has set a new target move date for the end of 2021, but added the search for an appropriate location is still under way and might take longer.
In the Florida Keys, some sites were eliminated from consideration because nearby housing developments emptied septic systems into the waterways and saltwater ponds.
Other sites were too prone to severe blooms of sargassum seaweed, which are becoming increasingly problematic as the ocean warms, Racanelli said.
Islands in the Keys are also close to sea level, meaning buildings would need to be constructed at least one story aboveground to withstand rising waters. And in the case of extreme weather, sanctuary staffers will need to have multiple levels of response to hurricanes, including the ability to hunker down on-site, Racanelli said.
Climate change should not prevent the dolphins from being relocated, but it does pose challenges, said Janet Mann, director of the Potomac-Chesapeake Dolphin Project. The project studies wild bottlenose dolphins to better understand and protect the migratory species that spends six months a year in the region.
“We're not going to protect dolphins by taking them all into captivity to protect them from climate change,” Mann said. “These are animals that don't belong in captivity. They cannot be released into the wild — they would die — so a sanctuary is one possible alternative.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the dolphins is their compromised immune systems, a result of years spent living in a controlled environment. And with warming waters, the risk of disease is higher, Mann said.
“It's the small things in the water you have to worry about: bacteria, small organisms that cause disease — not so much the big ones like sharks,” she said.
With Florida proving to be a less hospitable region in the face of climate change, Racanelli is looking to more mountainous locales, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, for possible sanctuary locations.
Both islands’ status as U.S. territories makes them ideal for maintaining the aquarium’s permit to care for dolphins, which is issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Racanelli said.
“The primary driver is water quality and suitability of the site for the dolphins; will this provide them with a healthy, safe environment for the rest of their lives?” Racanelli said, adding that the aquarium’s youngest dolphin is about 10 years old and will likely live in the new sanctuary for decades.
The average life span for dolphins in human care is 35 to 40 years, according to aquarium spokeswoman Kimberly Lacomare. NOAA reports the average life span of dolphins in the wild to be 30 to 50 years.
Aquarium officials plan to spend $12 million to $15 million to construct the sanctuary, which will need to stand for 50 years, and have a fully equipped veterinary hospital, room for proper food storage and the ability to house 20 dolphins. The officials hope the extra space will accommodate rescue dolphins.
Dolphin captivity opponent Ric O’Barry, who formerly trained dolphins for the “Flipper” television series in the 1960s, says a proper sanctuary should be in a remote location with clean water.
“[Sanctuaries are] better than anywhere that has a dolphin in a tank,” O’Barry said of the Baltimore pod.
In past years, protesters including O’Barry have staged demonstrations outside the National Aquarium for putting on dolphin shows during which the animals perform tricks. The aquarium eliminated dolphin shows in 2012, instead allowing people to visit the tank and see the animals.
O’Barry was in Greece this week, where he said he is working with a local zoo to create a sanctuary for captive dolphins that he hopes will serve as a model in Europe. He believes Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands will make a good home for the National Aquarium’s sanctuary, provided it is in a secluded location.
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The dolphins should see nature above the water line, not tourists, he said.
O’Barry worries about sanctuaries that allow the public to pay to view or interact with the mammals.
“My point is: If it's a commercial operation, it's not a sanctuary,” he said. “Dolphins don't need an audience … You should never applaud a wild animal performing for us.”
The aquarium’s permit issued by NOAA requires a public display of the dolphins, Lacomare said, but the nonprofit will not have scheduled viewings, nor opportunities to swim alongside the pod like at other commercial operations.
“You can come and try to see [the dolphins], but they’re going to do what they want to do,” she said.
Racanelli said aquarium officials plan to take as much time as is needed to find an optimal new home for the dolphins.
“We're talking about sites that are tens and hundreds of times larger than the tank they live in today,” Racanelli said. “The important thing is they'll continue to receive the same quality of care.”