I was 17 when I met a dolphin named Spock, the first of many that I've known in my lifetime. As a SCUBA diver at a marine park on San Francisco Bay, I had the job of scrubbing algae off the concrete walls of the dolphin tank — Spock's home — for hours at a time. I loved it, of course, but even then, I wondered what Spock's previous life in the blue vastness of the open sea must have been like.
I left that marine park in the early 1980s, and it wasn't until I came to the National Aquarium 30 years later that I found myself once again responsible for the care of dolphins. By then, I had a very different outlook. Times had changed, as had our understanding of the unique welfare needs of these intelligent animals.
With that knowledge, we at the National Aquarium are today announcing our decision to create the nation's first seaside dolphin sanctuary and to move our colony of dolphins there before the end of 2020.
Our quest to find a new way to care for the dolphins began five years ago. Working closely with the aquarium's board of directors, an internal team weighed many options, ranging from rebuilding our existing pools in a more naturalistic style to moving the dolphins to other accredited facilities. In the end, we decided that the best way forward was to create a protected, year-round, seaside refuge for the dolphins. We didn't make this decision because it was the cheapest or easiest option — it was neither — and it wasn't a decision we could have made quickly or without thoughtful consideration. For us, the belief that this is the right decision came down to three things: the dolphins, our community and our own mission.
It's right for the dolphins.
We are committed to creating conditions for all of the animals in our care to thrive. In the dolphins' case, we know far more today than 25 years ago, when the aquarium's Marine Mammal Pavilion, the dolphin's current home, first opened on Pier 4. Emerging science and consultation with experts have convinced us that dolphins do indeed thrive when they can form social groups, have opportunities to express natural behaviors and live in a habitat as similar as possible to that for which nature so superbly designed them.
It's right for the communities we serve.
We owe our very existence to the broader public, and attitudes have evolved. While baby boomers grew up watching "Flipper," for millennials it was "Free Willy." Through feedback painstakingly gathered over 10 years, we have learned that the American public is increasingly uneasy with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity. These beliefs matter to us.
It's right for the National Aquarium.
We, too, have evolved — from an entertaining sea life attraction to a nonprofit aquatic conservation organization. We have built a remarkably talented team of people who know how to tackle this complex task, and their dedication to the dolphins' welfare is inspiring. We have already begun imagining ways to repurpose the space the dolphins will vacate in a few years, many of which will better achieve our conservation goals. Ultimately, both those new facilities and the sanctuary itself can serve to advance our mission to inspire conservation of the world's aquatic treasures.
While we have more work to do, our research has identified several specific criteria necessary for the sanctuary to succeed. It will be an outdoor, seawater facility in a tropical year-round climate, ideally located where dolphins already exist in the wild. The site we choose will be significantly larger than the dolphins' current living space, in a setting that provides more natural stimuli for the dolphins, such as fish and marine plants. Humans will care for and interact with the dolphins for their entire lives, and the operating principle will be "dolphins first" with emphasis on the individual needs of the dolphins. An important function of the sanctuary will be to allow qualified scientists to carry out studies not feasible in either an open-ocean or aquarium setting, in fields like communication, behavior, cognition and bioacoustics.
We face unique challenges in this endeavor, not the least of which is that all but one of the dolphins in our care have never lived in the ocean. They have never before felt the rain on their dorsal fins, chased a mullet along a mangrove shore or teased a startled crab. They will need to learn how to be ocean-dwelling dolphins, in a place with its own set of risks like pollution, noise, jellyfish and red tides, and we will help them build those skills.
The aquarium team, which includes a staff of 450 and 960 volunteers, is working to overcome the challenges and advance our understanding of dolphins, starting with a set of principles and practices that will guide the development and operation of this sanctuary. Concurrently, a site selection team is evaluating locations in Florida and the Caribbean. We are studying things like microbiomes, immunology and habitat enrichment to ensure that the decisions we make are the right ones.
With today's announcement, we are taking the next step, and I am both honored and humbled that our aquarium, a Baltimore institution, is leading the way. Although this decision is about a group of dolphins, it is every bit as much about our humanity; for the way a society treats the animals with whom it shares this planet speaks volumes about us.
I often think about how much we have learned since those long-ago swims alongside Spock and his mates. Yet, I am struck by how much we have still to learn if we are to secure a healthy future for dolphins, whales and the natural systems that give us all life. Building this dolphin sanctuary is the right step to take, and now is the time to take it.
John Racanelli (JohnRacanelli@aqua.org), chief executive officer of the National Aquarium since 2011, is an ocean conservationist who has led and supported U.S. aquariums for nearly 40 years.