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The dolphin exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore last summer. Credit Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

After years of research into dolphin behavior and countless protests from activists about their life in captivity, the dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore will be moved to an oceanside sanctuary.

The aquarium announced its decision on Tuesday, noting that the new environment would become the nation’s first dolphin reservation, and said the transition is expected to be complete by the end of 2020. Although there are already sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees and other animals, this will be the only one in North America for dolphins.

The change is the result of a five-year debate among aquarium officials, who weighed various options on how best to deal with the animals. The aquarium stopped offering shows in which the dolphins performed a few years ago, but tourists and visitors can still watch them in captivity.

Scientists say dolphins, which are highly intelligent, need the freedom to express themselves in their own habitat, and need to be able to form the tight social groups essential to their well-being.

A site-selection team is evaluating locations in Florida and the Caribbean, which will be significantly larger and have more natural stimuli like fish and marine plants than the dolphins’ living space in the aquarium pool.

The animals will remain in human care for the rest of their lives, as only one of the aquarium’s eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins has ever lived in the ocean. Still, the conditions would be an improvement for the warm-blooded marine mammals, which can suffer psychological damage and exhibit aggressive behavior when kept in captivity.

“Up until now, the alternatives did not include having an oceanside seawater facility that dolphins could go to and not be engaged in something like a swim program or some other kind of revenue-producing model,” said John Racanelli, the aquarium’s chief executive officer. “We’ve set the criteria that the needs and interests of the dolphins will come first, and that hasn’t really been tried yet.”

An artist rendering of a seaside dolphin sanctuary. On Tuesday, the National Aquarium announced plans to retire its dolphins by the end of 2020. Sites in Florida and the Caribbean are under consideration. Credit Studio Gang, via Associated Press

The Marine Mammal Pavilion at the National Aquarium has been operating for 25 years as a tourist attraction, and the decision is something of a philosophical change for the institution as it shifts toward running as a nonprofit aquatic conservation organization.

The announcement is also widely seen as a victory for animal welfare activists, who have made sustained efforts over the past few years to raise awareness about animal captivity and turn public opinion against it. Documentaries like “Blackfish”, which depicted the treatment of orcas within the sea-park industry, have also helped fuel that notion.

“We’re thrilled, and we think that this is really a breakthrough decision,” said Lori Marino, the president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. “This is going to improve the animals’ welfare enormously. It’s going to restore to them a little bit of what was denied them all these years, living as performers in an aquarium.”

Aquarium officials said they had yet to determine how much the new sanctuary would cost, and hoped to rely on philanthropic donations to cover the expense.

In the meantime, as arrangements are made for the big move, the public will be able to view the dolphins’ transition process, which includes watching as they learn to swim in and out of the transport unit, as they are lifted to docks by cranes and as they adjust to a temporary outdoor tank intended to acclimate them to being outside for the very first time.

nytimes.com

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