The National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Maryland, is home to nearly 20,000 animals. Among them are seven bottlenose dolphins: Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Beau, and Foster. Chesapeake, the oldest, is 26. None has known life in the wild.
But the National Aquarium will close its dolphin exhibit by 2021. They will take the animals to a sanctuary that’s more like their natural habitat. It will be the first dolphin sanctuary in the United States. “We really are creating a new model for how humans and dolphins interact,” Leigh Clayton told TFK. She is the National Aquarium’s director of animal health and welfare.
AN UNNATURAL HABITAT The National Aquarium is in downtown Baltimore.
RICHARD T. NOWITZ—GETTY IMAGES
In the past 15 years, scientists have learned a lot about dolphins. New technology, like drones and GPS tags, has revealed how active dolphins are in the wild. In the ocean, dolphins dive down hundreds of feet. They travel up to 100 miles a day. They explore their world. They interact with other animals. Dolphins can’t do these things in an aquarium.
“Even if you’re the nicest trainer in the world and you love your animals, if you put them in barren tanks, they’re going to become what amounts to couch potatoes,” Naomi Rose told TFK. She is a marine-mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, in Washington, D.C. “They’re not going to get the exercise they need to be healthy. They’re going to be bored.”
BE FREE Bottlenose dolphins leap side by side in the Caribbean Sea.
STUART WESTMORLAND—GETTY IMAGES
As of January 31, there were 616 captive whales and dolphins in the U.S. and Canada. That is according to a database called Cetabase. Protesters have demanded that aquariums set them free.
Some animals born in captivity can simply be placed in the wild. Dolphins can’t. A dolphin’s mother teaches it how to eat, hunt, and stay safe. Humans can’t recreate those lessons.
LIFE INSIDE A trainer works with two dolphins at the National Aquarium.
© 2017 NATIONAL AQUARIUM
The National Aquarium still hasn’t decided where its dolphin sanctuary will be. But its search is guided by a dolphin-first philosophy. Dolphins will swim in an area much larger than the pool in Baltimore. It will be separated from the open ocean by a cage or natural barrier. But it will still be connected to the sea. It will be filled with marine plants and other animals.
“It’s more interesting than a concrete tank,” Lori Marino told TFK. She started the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, but is not involved with the sanctuary. “It’s still captivity, but they can actually have a life there,” she says. Trainers will still care for the dolphins. Visitors might be able to see them from a distance.
Trainers are preparing the dolphins for change. The trainers wear sunglasses indoors. That is so the dolphins won’t be confused when they see people wearing them at the sanctuary. To get them ready to see birds, trainers will swing something over the pool. Leigh Clayton says it “looks like a big cat toy.” And someday soon, Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Beau, and Foster will feel ocean water for the very first time.
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