Having finally opened its long-delayed, $35 million marine mammal pavilion, having put in a 1,300-seat amphitheater for people to watch dolphins and whales cavort on command, having spent long hours training their animals to adhere to a carefully orchestrated script, the people who run Baltimore's National Aquarium have one small request to make.

Please don't call it a show.

And don't call it a performance.

Or entertainment.

Fun is sort of OK, as long as you don't mean the kind of fun you'd have at a circus.

But what they'd really like you to call what goes on in the newest wing of the 9-year-old aquarium is a presentation. Seriously. On a Saturday morning when Uncle Bob, Aunt Lucy and the twins are visiting from Binghamton and getting fidgety, you can raise an index finger, cock an eyebrow and say, "What ho! Let's motor down to the aquarium and observe a dolphin presentation."

Sound a little silly?

Well, there was nothing silly about the bitter controversy a year ago over the aquarium's frustrated plans to capture dolphins off the coast of Florida. There was nothing silly over the threatened criminal charges by the state of Florida against the aquarium in connection with that incident, nor the attendant negative publicity -- most of it fueled by animal rights activists opposed to taking dolphins from the wild -- which removed some of the sparkle from the longtime jewel of the Inner Harbor.

And there was nothing silly about the way Nick Brown, the aquarium's executive director, warned his colleagues at this year's convention of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums -- the national body that accredits and sets standards for such facilities -- to pay more attention to the battle being waged by animal rights activists.

That battle, while it has included some acts of vandalism -- cut fences at the aquarium's facility in Florida -- has largely been one fought in the realm of public opinion. (Several groups picketed outside the aquarium on the night of its posh, black-tie fund-raising gala.) And it is a battle that Mr. Brown does not wish to lose. Hence the sensitivity to anything remotely suggesting that the dolphins in the National Aquarium in Baltimore are doing the kind of through-the-hoop circus acts performed at places like Sea World -- favorite targets of animal rights groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Yes, those people have impinged on us," admitted a weary Mr. Brown in a recent interview. "Our operations have been disrupted." In fact, activists have been around every corner in the past year and a half as he and the aquarium have sought to increase their dolphin collection so that they would have something to put into their new pavilion and amphitheater.

At the AAZPA convention he told his audience that zoos had largely escaped the concentrated wrath of activists and that aquariums, and specifically their capturing of dolphins, have taken the most heat. "It's a question of sensitizing the membership of the AAZPA that it may be dolphins today, but it could be marmots and egrets tomorrow," Mr. Brown recalled. "I was one of four speakers in a two-hour session [at the convention] and I said, 'Dammit, wake up and make a case and enlist the support of your membership or they [activists] will divide and conquer.' "

For the moment it appears that Mr. Brown and the aquarium have conquered. Their new pavilion has finally opened in spite of the controversy and in spite of a half-year's delay caused by design problems in the walls of the facility's main pool. They had hoped to have the pool enclosed by the first-of-its-kind seamless acrylic window, affording visitors an unbroken view of dolphins and whales swimming underwater in the 1.2 million gallon tank. Thirty feet deep and 110 feet across, it contains more water than all the rest of the aquarium combined. But the technology just didn't work, and so the acrylic walls have windowlike dividers.

That doesn't keep Mr. Brown from freely using the term "state-of-the-art" to describe the facility. In the old days of aquariums, he said, "we simply didn't have the means of filtering our water and treating our environment carefully. But now, water quality and life-support techniques are better than ever."

There has also been a major change in the way marine life is displayed in public aquariums, he said. "There has been a whole explosion in the world of exhibiting. We know how to make a more emotionally charged exhibit today."

A perfect example is the life-sized model of Scylla the whale, suspended from the skylight just outside the amphitheater in an immense atrium. Patterned after a real-life whale now living in the North Atlantic, the model was designed as a teaching tool, allowing visitors to train specially equipped telescopes on certain parts of the animal to see close-up detail. They can also interact with the model through devices that show how to identity a whale by its fluke and another that challenges them to a quiz game called "Whales in Jeopardy."

Mr. Brown and other officials at the aquarium feel such exhibits not only enhance the aquarium's reputation as an ultimate marine educational center, but clearly positions them as champions of the environment.

"We think the presentation we make in our new building is going to be powerful enough to validate the involvement of these animals," said Mr. Brown. Neatly avoiding the word "show," he added, "The theatrical side is very carefully controlled to enhance the total experience."

BUT IT'S PRECISELY THAT TOTAL EXperience that bothers Benjamin White Jr., East Coast director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "I frankly can't understand how Nick Brown isn't as touched by these animals as everyone else who sees them," he said. "Those dolphins in the aquarium are screaming to me, 'Get me the hell out of here.' That's what I am trying to do."

Mr. White, a longtime thorn in Mr. Brown's side, is one of the country's most vocal activists on behalf of dolphins. The Dolphin Rescue Brigade, which he founded, is dedicated to blocking the capture of dolphins and of releasing those in captivity. He has gone as far as climbing into the nets of dolphin capture teams to prevent seizure of the animals.

Last year, when the aquarium sent its teams to Florida -- under permit by the National Marine Fisheries Service -- to collect several dolphins, Mr. White was instrumental in fomenting the controversy that ultimately thwarted the plan.

At issue was whether the aquarium, which had captured two dolphins in Tampa Bay but whose permits allowed it to ship the animals only from nearby Charlotte Harbor, had misapplied or misunderstood its authority by moving the dolphins to a holding facility in the Florida Keys. (Under the 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, permits must be secured before any dolphin can be captured in American waters.)

Then-Florida Gov. Bob Martinez ordered the aquarium not to ship the dolphins to Maryland even as Mr. Brown was protesting that his team had done everything according to previous understandings with state and federal authorities. The two dolphins were ultimately left in Florida's Hawk's Cay marine mammal resort, where, according to an aquarium representative, one of them later died from a pre-existing malady. Activists claim the death was caused by stress.

In subsequent months the aquarium received three other dolphins on loan from Hawk's Cay and three others from a Texas aquarium that went out of business. One of the Hawk's Cay dolphins was sent back to Florida last month because, according to the aquarium, it could not get acclimated to its new surroundings.

Mr. White is clearly proud of his role in that Florida episode.

"Unfortunately, the most powerful educational message that comes out of the Baltimore aquarium is that obviously the right of those animals to freedom and their families is secondary to our right to see them in confinement," he said. "That is what is taught to every child or adult that goes through there. If anyone thinks this is proper treatment for an animal with a brain larger than humans, I suggest they try and stay in one room the rest of their life. I recently saw on TV a hostage who had returned from Iraq. He was asked if he had been abused and he said, 'Well, they took me from my home and family and freedom and there is no greater abuse to anyone.' That sounded familiar to me."

In Redondo Beach, Calif., the national headquarters for the Sea Shepherd organization, executive director Scott Trimingham dismissed as irrelevant the argument that dolphins or whales might survive longer in a captive environment -- such as the aquarium -- where their health is monitored daily by a team of medical experts.

"What if a human lived longer if you took away all of his freedom and he didn't have to work?" he asked. "What if it was true he could live longer isolated? That he wouldn't have to worry about getting hit by a car or lightning? I think that person would say, 'I'll take my chances in life.' And animals want their freedom just as humans do."

Sea Shepherd is not the only group raising such questions. The Silver Spring-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took part in the picketing of the aquarium's gala last month. "We feel it is not our right to take an animal out of its natural environment and cage it up just because we like to look at it," said Barbara Hale, a PETA spokeswoman. "It seems to be common sense that if you take an animal out of its environment it will suffer stress. I'm not sure what society gets out of it."

And at the Fund for Animals, the Maryland-based national group founded in the late 1960s by columnist Cleveland Amory, the feeling is the same. "You're talking about animals that range thousands of miles in the open ocean," said Kyle Owens, "and then you put them in a fish tank. Typically they die from stress."

Mr. Owens argues that a dolphin's ability to "echo-locate," that is, to send out a sonarlike wave, can work against it in an enclosed space. "Typically, in the ocean, the sonar wave goes out one way and hits a school of fish and comes back to them," he said. "In a captive situation it's completely different. The sonar waves bounce off the walls of the tank and it's very confusing to them. It can drive them insane."

Echo-location happens to be the centerpiece of the aquarium's dolphin presentation in their new amphitheater. It will feature a trainer encouraging a dolphin, whose eyes are covered, to use its sonar to echo-locate rings tossed into the pool.

Dave Pittenger, the aquarium's director of programs, dismissed the concerns over echo-locating strain, saying, "We have very acclimated animals in our pool. They are not disoriented at all and are echo-locating with each other."

The pavilion program was designed, he said, in response to questionnaires filled out by aquarium visitors who expressed a desire to know more about how dolphins communicate with each other.

"People are eager to learn about marine mammals," he said. "They are not just there to see a spectacular circus show. They are looking for more. It's not only exciting but they feel good because they are learning."

But in Redondo Beach Mr. Trimingham thinks little of the education defense. "If you went to a bullfight you could learn about bulls, perhaps even gain sympathy for bulls," he said. "If you saw a mule pushed off a platform into water you'd learn about gravity. Does the exploitation of animals justify any education the public gets?"

EVERY DAY FROM JULY 1 THROUGH April 15, school bus loads of children pour into the aquarium for a free tour. This year more than 120,000 schoolchildren -- 66,000 of them from Maryland -- will visit the aquarium. Many of them will go first to one of the classrooms set up to brief them on various aspects of marine life. And in many more cases they will already have learned much about all aspects of aquatic life from a textbook called "Living in Water." It was published by the aquarium through a National Science Foundation grant that allowed it to recruit leading scientists to assist on various chapters. The definitive text has been sent to schools across the state because, says Paula Schaedlich, the aquarium's director of education, "often the kids in here only get 30 minutes, but it has a lot more value if they're prepared. The problem is there's a lot of bad curriculum out there concerning marine biology."

Education is without question the heart of the aquarium's existence, or at least its approach to attracting visitors. "We don't use the word show, we don't really use the word entertainment," said Cathy Cloyd, the director of marketing. "We say it will be educational, enlightening, dynamic. Those are the words. If you just called it education . . . well, all you'd have to say to your kids is, 'We're going on an education trip today,' and the groans would be so loud . . . "

"We want it to be fun," said Mr. Pittenger. "But the justification for keeping these animals is to further conservation of their natural habitat [through education]. I'm thinking about the kind of world my kids will face. This business about the end of nature is more serious than we realize."

If that sounds like the same kind of message delivered by animal activists, don't be surprised, said Jackson Andrews, the aquarium's director of husbandry, or animal care.

"Many of the goals of most animal activists I share regarding health and well-being of the animals," said Mr. Andrews. "We wish to produce the best possible environment for them. There's just a lot of emotionality in this debate."

But, said Mr. Trimingham at Sea Shepherd, emotions are called for. "Hey, these animals are highly social and come from very complex family structures. You yank 'em out and throw them in a concrete tank and they're trapped. What if you customarily walked 100 miles a day and all of a sudden you were locked in a closet with no one to explain to you or anything?"

To this, Nick Brown says there is only one answer. "Adaptability. It's one constant factor we know about. Certain species adapt more readily than others to new environments. Human beings learn to adapt, all of us do. When we take animals out of the wild, we choose species that have a proven track record for adaptation."

And, he says, over years of observing captive dolphins "we now know what it takes to make a dolphin happy. Are they as happy as before? I don't know. We have to be careful not to apply human standards to these animals. They are in a different environment."

While several of the dolphins who have lived at the aquarium over the years have been moved elsewhere because they didn't seem to be adapting to the environment, others have adapted well, said Mr. Pittenger.

"Just like any undertaking, we are always striving to do better," he said. "Our new designs in the new building are patterned around our animals." They include a sophisticated water filtration system that uses ozone instead of chlorine to purify the water. Ozone does not remain in the water as does chlorine, which, activists argue, can harm a dolphin's eyes. Other features, designed to relieve dolphin stress, include sound and vibration absorbers that muffle the noise made by the filtration system.

But does that totally eliminate stress?

"Every organism on the planet experiences stress," said Mr. Pittenger. "It becomes a problem when the stress is predominant. None of our animals here has an ulcer. We feel very positive about what we are doing. You have to keep in mind it's also not an easy life for dolphins out in their natural environment, what with parasites and ocean debris."

And, he admitted, "whether we like it or not, dying is part of existence. Animals do die, from pre-existing diseases or they catch things. When they die it is not a happy time. We have to deal with it and try to understand it. But we have a healthy, robust group of marine mammals here. We hope someday to see a lot of babies. But we will also see animals die."

In fact, only two dolphins have died in the aquarium since it opened in 1981. One was among the first four dolphins in the building, and it was said to have died of a pre-existing condition. The other was a dolphin lent to the aquarium for a two-month exhibit and it also died of a pre-existing condition, according to aquarium officials.

There is much debate as to whether animals live longer in the wild or in an aquarium. A 1988 study by two members of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission concluded that data for making such a finding is inconclusive. It doesn't stop either side from advancing their claims.

"The hardest question to get an answer to," said Ben White, "is how long dolphins last in captivity. Nick Brown will say that they live as long in captivity as in the wild." His colleague, Mr. Trimingham, argues that "the average life span of a dolphin in captivity is just a fraction of what it is in the wild. That's quantity. We're not even talking about the quality of life."

Mr. Brown greets this topic with a scornful frown.

"There are a lot of people who don't want marine mammals in captivity," he said. "This is a religious question. A question of belief that is not debatable on scientific grounds. You cannot judge the correctness of what we are doing except in regard to what we are trying to accomplish. We are trying to show people that these are wondrous animals. Those who say this isn't education because we are teaching man's dominance over animals . . . so what? The Bible said the Lord gave dominance to man over the animal kingdom. Along with any authority there is responsibility. We are trying desperately to fulfill the responsibility that goes with our natural ability to dominate. We have to show people what to do with this power. But behavior modification is as hard as it gets."

EVEN AS THE NEW PAVILION OPENS, the aquarium is not finished with its projects. The coral reef tank, known to many as the dramatic tank that houses the sharks, is in need of about $10 million in repairs because the salt water over the past decade has slowly eroded the concrete that forms the simulated coral.

Rather than reacting with dismay, Mr. Pittenger sees it as an opportunity for the aquarium to be much more aggressive in its attempts at modifying public behavior regarding conservation issues.

"The design of this building," he said, referring to the original aquarium that opened in 1981, "left out the conservation message. The idea was that people would discover the conservation message on their own. But we feel we are past the point when we can rely on subtle messages. We have to be a little more direct. A little more defined and complete."

That, at least, was what the aquarium's board of directors recently decided was the way to go. The new pavilion's design, said Mr. Pittenger, allows more of an opportunity for the aquarium to push its environmental themes.

"For one thing we can stand in front of people and talk," he said. To bring the original building into line with that approach, there are at least two plans being considered. One is to put in a countdown clock just outside the Rain Forest section to inform visitors of the rapid rate at which rain forests are disappearing. The other is to completely rebuild the coral reef to simulate an actual coral reef off the Florida coast that is now in danger of extinction.

At the same time, said Mr. Pittenger, the aquarium is experimenting with having divers, who are often seen in the shark tank feeding fish, talk to visitors by means of special communications equipment.

"Conservation has to be part of the design," he said. "It's time to be a little less subtle, to give people a feeling that there's something they can do."

IN RECENT YEARS A LOT OF CITIES across the country have looked to Baltimore and decided they knew what they wanted to do: build an aquarium of their own.

"Almost every city that is in economic trouble wants to pattern their inner-city revival after Baltimore and anchor their renaissance to an aquarium," said Mr. White. "We are fighting aquariums in 50 different cities."

It's easy to see why an aquarium seems so attractive. According to a March 1990 report by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, $128.3 million in business revenue and more than $5 million in city and state taxes are traceable each year to the 13 million visitors who patronize the aquarium.

"That ain't too shabby," said Mr. Brown. Other than money, he attributes the recent boom in aquarium building around the country "without question to the hunger on the part of the general public to know about their environment more fully and to know the wild."

But in reply, Kyle Owens of the Animal Fund has some thoughts of his own on behavior modification.

"As a species we have to learn to leave things alone," he said. "We have to control our curiosity, to allow these animals to live in the ocean. We do enough damage to them with pollution and killing them in tuna nets. Why not educate people about these abuses and let them see dolphins on a theater screen instead of in a fish tank?"

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