Cetacean Save

National Aquarium in Baltimore to build North America’s first sanctuary for “retired” dolphins

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A concept rendering of the sanctuary. (Courtesy Studio Gang)
A concept rendering of the sanctuary. (Courtesy Studio Gang)

Designers have created sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees and big cats. The National Aquarium in Baltimore announced today that it will design and build North America’s first “sanctuary” for dolphins.

The project will enable the institution to move its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins out of public display and into the protected seaside habitat by the end of 2020, paving the way for major changes to its Inner Harbor campus.

A location for the dolphin sanctuary—likely farther south, in warmer climates closer to the equator—has not been selected, but aquarium officials say it will provide a new option for how dolphins can live in human care. No designer has been selected, but the aquarium has been working closely for the past two years with architect Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang Architects. Gang’s office has prepared a rendering showing what the dolphin sanctuary might look like. Several years ago, she led an architecture class at Rice University and her assignment for the class was to design a dolphin sanctuary off the coast of Texas.

Aquarium Chief Executive Officer John Racanelli announced the decision about the dolphins in a press release and an email message to members of the National Aquarium’s extended community. “Through more than 25 years of dedicated care for dolphins, we have realized that the relocation of our dolphins to a natural sanctuary setting is the best way to offer them an environment in which they can thrive,” Racanelli said in his email message.


“We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change,” Racanelli said. “This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary.”

“There’s no model anywhere, that we’re aware of, for this,” Racanelli told the  Associated Press. “We’re pioneering here, and we know it’s never the easiest nor the cheapest option.” The aquarium disclosed two years ago that it was considering retiring its dolphins, as part of a movement in which institutions are rethinking the idea of holding cetaceans and other living creatures in captivity.

Because the dolphins may not be able to survive if released into the wild, the aquarium has explored the idea of creating a sanctuary for them, in the same way Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus maintains a sanctuary for its retired elephants. As part of its evaluation, the aquarium hired Studio Gang to propose ways to repurpose a $35 million marine mammal pavilion that opened in 1991 and was designed specifically for the display of dolphins.

Gang has proposed converting the building, on Inner Harbor Pier 4, to an attraction that would focus on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Drawings were made public last month.

Studio Gang's proposal for Pier 4 (Courtesy Studio Gang)

Studio Gang’s proposal for Pier 4 (Courtesy Studio Gang)

(Courtesy Studio Gang)

(Courtesy Studio Gang)

In its announcement today, the aquarium released some details about the proposed animal sanctuary. According to the aquarium, it will be in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, possibly in the Florida Keys or the Caribbean. The National Aquarium has formed a site selection team whose top priority is to ensure the health and welfare of the dolphins.

The location will be chosen based on a list of criteria, including: ability to provide lifetime customized care for each dolphin; an outdoor location with natural sea water, with more space and depth than current facility; a warm weather climate, and natural stimulus for the dolphins, such as fish and aquatic plants

“As we look at the future of the dolphins in our care, we are working very hard to provide them the best possible place to live out their years,” said Tom Robinson, the National Aquarium’s board chair. According to the aquarium, the institution and its directors began exploring new ways to care for the dolphins five years ago. Numerous options were weighed, ranging from rebuilding the existing Marine Mammal Pavilion in a more naturalistic style to moving the dolphins to other accredited facilities. After careful consideration, officials said, the decision was made to create a protected, year-round, seaside refuge with aquarium staff continuing to care for and interact with the dolphins.

(Courtesy National Aquarium)

(Courtesy National Aquarium)

“We’ve evaluated this for five years and have decided that this is the right decision for the dolphins, and, thus, for our organization,” said aquarium board member Colleen Dilenschneider, who also served on a separate board committee that assessed this project. “We are excited to introduce this new option along a spectrum of human care for dolphins.”

“This is a special time in history concerning evolving attitudes about treating all forms of life with dignity and respect—other humans very much included,” said Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer and author. “The idea of providing sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees, big cats—and now dolphins—is a sign of a maturing ethic of caring unthinkable in past millennia, centuries and even decades.”


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