November 8, 2017

aqua.org
National Aquarium will end its dolphin program in Baltimore.

aqua.org National Aquarium will end its dolphin program in Baltimore.

FLORIDA KEYS — National Aquarium in Baltimore is eyeing seaside sites in the Caribbean and Florida to house its prospective dolphin sanctuary by the end of 2020. The facility currently keeps seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in tanks.

John Racanelli, National Aquarium CEO, announced his decision last June, but only recently confirmed that they are looking in the Florida Keys for a location to place the retired dolphins. Aquarium officials haven’t given any details as to where.

“To date, the Aquarium has visited more than 20 sites in Florida and the Caribbean, searching for the future home of its dolphin sanctuary. Members of aquarium leadership and the marine mammal team continue to make trips to prospective sites, including areas of interest in the Florida Keys,” said Corrine Weaver, media relations coordinator at the aquarium.

The island chain hosts six of the 15 dolphin education or attraction sites in the state and leads the U.S. with the most marine mammal sites.

If National Aquarium chooses the Keys for its site, it would add seven to the 61 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins already here. That figure includes the five that were relocated to SeaWorld in Orlando ahead of Hurricane Irma from Duck Key. Confirmation whether those dolphins are coming back could not be made by press time.

National Aquarium’s website, aqua.org, says that it will evaluate the site based on environmental appropriateness, community interest in hosting the sanctuary, environmental protection and the ability to get the proper permitting, and workforce housing and sustainability.

“In terms of a current status, we continue to consider a number of possible sites, which includes the Florida Keys area, and will certainly aim to keep you appraised as that progresses and we get closer to finding the new home for our dolphins,” Weaver wrote in an email to the Free Press last week. “As many have, we’ve reached out to our colleagues and friends in the Keys after Irma, and are focused doing what we can to support the community as it recovers and rebuilds.”

In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Racanelli wrote: “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. The sanctuary would be the first of its kind in North America and will provide the dolphins with a protected, seaside habitat, creating a new option for how dolphins can thrive in human care.”

But anti-captivity activist Russ Rector said it’s not the first.

“I’m hoping this isn’t going to be a repeat of the failed Sugarloaf Sanctuary,” Rector said. “The Keys have the perfect environment. If it’s done well and they don’t have to do stupid pet tricks everyday, then maybe it will work.”

The Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary was a natural environment enclosure to which four dolphins were transferred in 1996. The sanctuary caused discord among dolphin advocates, splintering it into two factions: those who called for the immediate release of the dolphins into the wild and those who favored a more scientific approach to determining the sanctuary’s value.

The sanctuary folded after facility director Ric O’Barry, who was the former “Flipper” trainer, released two male Navy-trained dolphins, Buck and Luther, miles offshore. Both dolphins emerged from the wild, dehydrated and injured. Buck went on to live at the Dolphin Research Center and Luther was flown out to San Diego.

O’Barry was fined $19,500 as well as his fellow activist, Lloyd Good III, along with the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, totaling $58,500.

Racanelli in an interview with NPR said National Aquarium will slowly acclimate its dolphins to being transported in trucks as well as to the natural ocean environment.

“Once we’ve selected a site, we will begin to integrate that water into the water they live in here so that eventually, when they leave here, they will be in water that almost completely matches the water that they’ll be moving to.”

For more information about National Aquarium’s plan to retire it dolphins, visit aqua.org.

tjava@keysnews.com