Where Should “Retired” Dolphins Go to Live?

Though captive dolphins generally “work” up until the day they die, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is taking a progressive stance and wants to retire the eight dolphins currently on its premises so that they can live the rest of their lives peacefully and with minimal human intrusion.

While the sentiment is commendable, it raises a problem: where do retired dolphins live? John Racanelli, the CEO of the National Aquarium, and his staff are exploring the options of establishing a sanctuary for dolphins. With no precedent to guide them, however, the logistics are pretty complicated. “There are [sanctuaries] for dang near every other megafauna species that’s in a zoo!” points out Racanelli to National Geographic, emphasizing the need to create something similar for dolphins.

Having spent their lives in captivity, the older dolphins are probably ill-equipped to handle being liberated into the ocean.  With threats like oil spills, ship collisions, fishing nets, viruses and pathogens, and jellyfish that they’ve never previously been exposed to, sending them to fend for themselves in open waters is probably not the best option.

Racanelli listed two priorities for setting up a sanctuary for the dolphins:

  • The dolphins must be able to stay together as a family unit
  • Hooking up digital capabilities so that visitors at the National Aquarium can still see the dolphins even though they’re not on site.

From a financial perspective, it is a risk for the National Aquarium to willingly part with its dolphins. The mammals are definitely a big draw to the location, but there are plenty of other popular attractions featuring species that are not as confined in an aquarium setting. Furthermore, they hope that having technological capabilities that showcase the retired dolphins remotely will prove exciting to visitors anyway.

The National Aquarium already reduced the performative nature of dolphins a few years ago. “Shows are antiquated. No animals at zoos perform in shows any more,” said Racanelli. “We somehow reached a level of enlightenment with chimpanzees, elephants, tigers, and lions. Why are we still interested in having dolphins do shows?”

Rather than having dolphins swim in time to music or toy around with a ball, the aquarium staff now puts the emphasis on activities that dolphins naturally do in the wild like jumping out of the water and slapping the surface of the water with their tails. As these behaviors occur, staff members explain to visitors why dolphins do these actions in the wild.

Overall, both aquarium-goers and aquarium staff have regarded the change positively. While some visitors miss the flashy shows, most seem to appreciate the heightened authenticity of the new dolphin experience, considering it not only entertaining, but also educational.

With a growing number of Americans realizing the cruelty of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, it’s likely that whatever kind of sanctuary the National Aquarium ends up creating will become a prototype for similar facilities. Although Racanelli insists that the first priority is figuring out how to care for these particular eight dolphins, he adds, “If we figure out a way to do this and raise the money for it to happen, I can’t imagine not offering it to others so that their animals could go as well.”


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Yeah, Baltimore for coming up with such a great idea.

Let's just hope that they do NOT capture any more dolphins to perform in these stupid shows!!

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Good start.
I hope they continue in this vain.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

I just watched a debate with Sea World about their whale and dolphin care and housing and the possible options of sea pens for larger living space and retirement. The SW representative/expert had all kinds of excuses for SW to not even consider any other options for the whales and dolphins. He tried to look official with his binders and charts but really had nothing worth while to say. A trainer was also at the debate trying to expel the myth that the whales and dophins had to work for food and that they are really happy!

Maybe if Baltimore is able to pull off a retirement package for its dolphins it will be an example for others, including SW to follow.

Yrna Miryana
Yrna Miryana3 years ago

Thanks for the article and for those who care to free the dolphins from the inhumane industy. I have nothing further to say but, Godspeed!

Charlene Rush
Charlene Rush3 years ago

Where should they go to live?


Bonnie Bowen
Bonnie Bowen3 years ago

A pen open to the sea, with expanding borders, and if visited by other pods, eventually released, this sounds ideal..Good luck

Michael Martin
Michael Martin3 years ago

Get start-up idea....I hope it works as an example that flows smoothly. Just releasing this group into open waters not being an option at all, this seems like some real effort is being made.

Mandy H.
Mandy H3 years ago

While it's ideal not to capture dolphins in the first place it doesn't help those currently captive who are unable to return to the wild (for the reasons mentioned in the article). Personally I think the fact that an aquarium is asking this questing and trying to work out what's best for the dolphins is a huge step forward, it's also important. It's fine for us all to say how terrible it is to keep dolphins captive but it's just as terrible to release animals into the wild who won't survive because they were captured in the first place. This solution seeks to do the best possible thing for the dolphins in a sustainable way, I'm not completely in favor of digital monitoring so that people can see the dolphins but I understand that in order to run a sanctuary you need to get funding somehow and hopefully they can find a non-invasive way to do this. I wish them luck.

Jeannet Bertelink
Jeannet B3 years ago

We, humans,create their problems, so time to stop .
Really sad for all animals in this situation!