If dolphins depart the National Aquarium, officials are contemplating what to do with the 1.2 million-gallon pool where the marine mammals have been on display for more than two decades.
Among the possibilities: creating an underwater forest with swaying kelp seaweed stalks, leopard sharks and wolf eels, or a habitat that emulates the southern Pacific Ocean, where groupers and other marine life inhabit rusting fighter airplanes and other war wreckage.
The fate of the $35 million Marine Mammal Pavilion, which opened in 1990 and takes up one-third of the aquarium's footprint, is one of many deliberations the National Aquarium has undertaken. Through a strategic planning process, aquarium officials will decide whether to keep its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on display or allow the marine mammals to retire to a protected sanctuary in the ocean.
The process has been undertaken not only to determine what's best for the dolphins but also how to create a modern-era aquarium that appeals to the millennial generation, John Racanelli, who runs the attraction, said Monday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun's editorial board. Millennials are commonly considered as those born between 1981 — when the aquarium opened — and 2000.
"They have a real high level of desire to see action," Racanelli said of millennials. "They don't want to hear a lot of platitudes. They want to see institutions that are saying what they are going to do and then actually doing it.
"I think we get left behind if what we say is, 'We want to inspire you to care about the ocean,' and then we come across as a place just trying to make a buck off of sea life."
Racanelli said the aquarium doesn't have a timetable for deciding whether to keep its dolphins on display. He plans to host a series of workshops with scientists and aquatic experts, beginning with an invitation-only Dolphin Summit this month.
Another possibility for the amphitheater would be to use the space as an animal care center, where rescued sealife could recover, or some behind-the-scenes operations, such as food preparation for the 17,000 animals who live at the Inner Harbor attraction.
The idea for an underwater forest comes from a similar exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where Racanelli previously worked. In Monterey, schools of sardines swim among kelp stalks 28 feet high.
"I don't know if they'd be more compelling — that's the inquiry we have to do," Racanelli said of the possible replacement exhibits.
The aquarium expects to conduct extensive surveys this summer and sift through feedback being submitted online, Racanelli said. More than 570 comments have been submitted through the aquarium's website, aqua.org/future, since the aquarium announced last week it was considering retiring its dolphins.
Racanelli said no retirement sanctuaries currently exist for dolphins or other marine mammals. He said the aquarium is investigating the possibility of creating a National Dolphin Center somewhere along a shore in a warmer climate.
There, the dolphins could live behind an ocean fence, where they could interact with other sea creatures and hunt but also have access to food provided by trainers.
Many for-profit companies operate oceanside attractions featuring dolphins, but those are all built around tourist experiences, primarily swimming with the dolphins, Racanelli said.
Only a handful of more than 30 aquariums in the U.S. have dolphins and other marine mammals, including beluga whales, on display, Racanelli said. They are the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Cristi. The Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has belugas but not dolphins.
The National Aquarium has heavily promoted its dolphins in the past, but two years ago discontinued the dolphin show. Visitors now observe the mammals in the amphitheater and can interact with their trainers.
Racanelli said a review of the aquarium's annual reports shows it focused much attention during the 1990s and 2000s on the dolphin exhibit.
And, in turn, visitors have come to see the dolphins as the aquarium's major draw.
"We have trained them to expect dolphins at the National Aquarium," Racanelli said. "For the longest time, it was our biggest message."
But Racanelli said that surveying shows that while visitors older than 45 would rather go to an aquarium that features dolphin shows, visitors younger than 37 are less likely to express that preference.
Whatever the aquarium decides comes with high economic stakes.
Since the attraction opened 33 years ago, nearly 50 million visitors have toured its exhibits, Racanelli said. The aquarium, which supports more than 3,300 jobs, is tied to $320 million in annual economic activity and $20 million in tax revenue.
"We don't want to do anything that jeopardizes the value of the aquarium to the Inner Harbor, to Baltimore and to the state," he said.
Michael Evitts, vice president with the Downtown Partnership, said the aquarium's desire to design its future role around what millennials want makes good business sense. By 2020, members of that generation will make up one-third of all eligible voters and 46 percent of the workforce, he said.
The aquarium's strategic planning process, called BLUEprint, is intended to help the attraction transition into a full-fledged conservation organization. A team of consultants plan to evaluate how to "reimagine" the National Aquarium experience as well as determine whether the institution also should have a satellite presence in Washington.
"We need to be sure that whatever we're trying to tell, the story we believe is important, is also relevant, or you're the fool on the hill singing loudly to no one," Racanelli said.