Today, the National Aquarium announced that it will build a sanctuary for its Atlantic bottlenose dolphins by the end of 2020. 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.
National Aquarium's proposed rendering of what a potential site could look like. (Courtesy of Studio Gang)
"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," said John Racanelli, chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. "This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary."
The National Aquarium and its board of directors began exploring new ways to care for the dolphins five years ago. A variety of options were weighed, ranging from rebuilding the existing 25-year-old Marine Mammal Pavilion in a more naturalistic style to moving the dolphins to other accredited facilities. After careful consideration, the decision was made to create a protected, year-round, seaside refuge with Aquarium staff continuing to care for and interact with the dolphins. The work effort defines the sanctuary not just as a place, but also a set of corresponding practices and principles.
"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 special 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."
The National Aquarium has formed an expert site selection team whose number one 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
Outdoor location with natural sea water, with more space and depth than current facility
Tropical or sub-tropical climate
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, National Aquarium board chair.
The board of directors, National Aquarium staff and a group of external experts will be continuing to work through the important questions raised by this decision.