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Baltimore’s dolphins moving from concrete tanks to seaside sanctuary

The eight dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore live in sterile concrete tanks that bear no resemblance to their natural habitat, but soon they’ll be moving on up — down, actually — to an outdoor marine mammal sanctuary in Florida or the Caribbean. The sea change comes amid growing opposition to keeping dolphins and orcas in captivity. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: our weekly science segment.

    There's a sea change coming to one of the country's most popular aquariums. As many have grown concerned about keeping dolphins in captivity, Baltimore's National Aquarium today announced that it will move its pod of dolphins to the first sanctuary for these mammals in the world.

    The decision to end the dolphin exhibit comes after SeaWorld and Ringling Brothers have announced their own changes.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien broke the story for our Leading Edge series.

  • MAN:

    This is Chesapeake.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Oh, it's Chesapeake. Hi, Chesapeake. Hey.

    It's time for a quick physical exam, and Chesapeake, the bottlenose dolphin, appears to be doing fine. She is one of eight dolphins held by the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

  • MAN:

    We're going to take a look in her mouth. And they have teeth and they grab each other and they break teeth.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    She doesn't need the orthodontist. They're nice and straight.

    Born into captivity 24 years ago, she has always lived indoors, in a concrete tank, a sterile, artificial world that bears no resemblance to the natural environment where dolphins belong. But it appears she and the rest of this pod are destined for a sea change.

  • JOHN RACANELLI, CEO, National Aquarium:

    We're announcing today that we are moving our dolphins to a sanctuary, a seaside natural seawater sanctuary by the end of the year 2020.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    John Racanelli is CEO of the National Aquarium, and he's announcing something that has never been done before. The aquarium plans to build a large outdoor Marine mammal sanctuary in Florida or the Caribbean, a seaside pen carved from nature.

  • JOHN RACANELLI:

    This is a million-and-a-half gallons. This, we'd be looking at tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of gallons of water, seawater, not manufactured saltwater, as we do here.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    The decision comes amid a rising tide of opposition to dolphinariums all over the world.

    Heather Morris is a frequent protester at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

  • HEATHER MORRIS, Animal Rights Activist:

    I think that is a crucial step in them pioneering a path to what is the right thing for us to do with these animals now, to get them back into an environment that is like their natural habitat. There is no OK scenario for them to be in captivity.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    And yet the National Aquarium is alone in taking this bold, expensive step. There are about 30 other dolphinariums just in the U.S.

  • NARRATOR:

    Leaping three feet out of water and through a small hoop is only one of the accomplishments of Flippy the pride of the studios at Marineland Florida.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Humans have been capturing and training dolphins for entertainment for about 80 years. Over time, the shows got more elaborate, even garish, the crowds larger, and the venues added the dolphins' cetacean cousins, orcas, to the marquees.

    A multibillion-dollar business evolved that forces wild animals and their progeny to perform for humans in exchange for food. They are trained to do circus tricks, give thrill rides, and be docile with customers in glorified petting zoos, often called a dolphin experience.

    Looking at their permanent smile, it is easy to misconstrue what this experience is really like for them.

  • RIC O’BARRY, Founder, Dolphin Project:

    It's really the dolphin smile that has created this multibillion-dollar industry, and it's literally an optical illusion.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Ric O'Barry was once the highest paid dolphin trainer in the world. He began capturing, training and breeding dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium in the 1960s. He eventually became the head trainer for a TV series that launched the cetacean show business to a new level.

  • WOMEN (singing):

    They call him Flipper, Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    "Flipper" aired on NBC from 1964 until 1967. Flipper was actually five female dolphins. The pressure to perform and the stress of captivity took its toll on the dolphins' health. One of them became despondent.

  • RIC O’BARRY:

    Flipper died in my arms of suicide. Yes, I know that's a very strong word to use for an animal, but it's the only animal that is not an automatic air breather. Every breath they take is a conscious effort.

    Think about that for a second. Every breath is a conscious effort, which means they can end their life any time they want to if it becomes too difficult, too stressful, by simply not taking the next breath.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    By 1970, O'Barry had a complete change of heart. Ever since, he has tirelessly traveled the world crusading to shut down the shows, and end the era of captivity.

  • RIC O’BARRY:

    We have to admit we made a mistake.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    We found him at The Hague, testifying before the Dutch Parliament, which is pondering the fate of a controversial dolphinarium.

  • RIC O’BARRY:

    It's been a failed experiment. It's time to admit that. And we're going to do the best we can. And it's going to phase it out. It's going to take many years to phase it out.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    His long campaign picked up a lot of steam in 2009 with the release of the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Cove." The film reveals the brutal reality of the annual corral of wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Fishermen there identify the more desirable dolphins, separate them from their families, and sell them to dolphin shows for big money. The rest of the animals are slaughtered and sold as meat.

  • MAN:

    They only get $600 for a dead dolphin, but they can get more than $150,000 for a live show dolphin.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    While the Taiji capture and slaughter has not ended, O'Barry believes it is just a matter of time before the dolphin shows will, and sanctuaries are built.

  • RIC O’BARRY:

    When I first started doing this work trying to educate the public, I was coming from a place of guilt. Yes, there is no question about that. People thought I was crazy. Dolphin captivity issue? What are you talking about? That's not a problem. Well, today, it's a mainstream issue. And so I see a lot of change. I'm encouraged. I'm very encouraged.

  • JOHN RACANELLI:

    Baby boomers grew up on "Flipper," and millennials grew up on "Free Willy." So attitudes are changing. And that is certainly a factor. It's something we pay close attention to.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    So are the researchers who make it their mission to seek out these fascinating, intelligent mammals in the wild. Marine mammalogist Denise Herzing is founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida.

  • DENISE HERZING, Founder, The Wild Dolphin Project:

    It's definitely time we looked at creating dolphin retirement centers. We have done it for other species. We have done it for chimps, elephants, giraffes. You name it, we have done it. Dolphins are hard. It's a different environment, in a big sea pen. It's expensive. But we owe it to them, I think.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    For more than 30 years, she and her team have studied wild spotted dolphins that live in shallow water off the Bahamas, hoping to understand their behavior and the depths of their intellect.

    Over the years, they have built a catalog of 300 dolphins. In a typical field season, they will carefully track, observe and record video of about 100 individuals. Herzing is focused on dolphin communication. What might the whistles and clicks mean?

    How smart are they?

  • DENISE HERZING:

    Very smart. They problem-solve. They can think in the abstract and recognize that. They have very good comprehension and cognitive skills, so they can understand artificial languages that are presented to them. They understand word order, word meaning.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Smart and adaptive as they are, captive dolphins will need a lot of help moving from indoor confinement to a sanctuary, even one that is cordoned off and human-tended.

    In Baltimore, the man in charge of the transition is veterinarian and chief science officer Brent Whitaker. He's been here since the first dolphins arrived in 1990.

  • BRENT WHITAKER, Chief Science Officer, National Aquarium:

    These animals have been born in pools without fish, without rocks, without seaweed, without natural sunlight, without thunderstorms, without hurricanes, without all sorts of things that other natural dolphins have already experienced from growing up with.

    They don't know that. They are going to have to learn those things, and we're going to have to help them learn the best we can, but we're not dolphins. So, there is a challenge there.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    And if all goes as planned, by 2020, parents and children will no longer be able to see the dolphins here in the flesh. Will future generations be missing out on a teachable moment?

  • DENISE HERZING:

    I really wonder, what are you really teaching your kids? Are you teaching your kids it's OK to confine an animal, to capture an animal for human viewing?

  • JOHN RACANELLI:

    I think we will be able to ensure that people still get a chance to tune into the lives of these dolphins in a way that still inspires them, yet not have to have them here in Baltimore. Maybe dolphin Skype is in our future.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    And maybe then, when people dial up the dolphins for a virtual visit in their more natural habitat, their smile will be more than an illusion.

    Miles O'Brien, the "PBS NewsHour," Baltimore.

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