Get to Know Dolphin Discovery

Published January 19, 2014

For the 1.3 million people who visit us annually, there’s a lot to see and do at the Aquarium. However, there’s even more going on with our animals and staff behind-the-scenes.

Although our blog often offers sneak peeks into the everyday lives of our 17,000+ animals, we thought it would be fun to give our readers a breakdown from the perspective of our exhibits!

This week’s highlighted exhibit is Dolphin Discovery:

Dolphin Discovery, the Aquarium’s largest exhibit, first opened in 1990 and is home to our colony of eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins!

The Animals:

  • Six females: Nani, Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley and Chesapeake
  • Two males: Beau and Foster

Nani, our eldest dolphin at 42, is the mother of Beau and Spirit. Chesapeake was the first dolphin born at the National Aquarium, and she is the mother of our youngest dolphin, Bayley. Maya is a half-sister to Chesapeake (via dam or mother) as well as half-sister to Spirit (via sire or father). Jade is the mother of Foster. All but one of our dolphins were born right here at the Aquarium. Nani came to us from another aquarium that had to close.

This colony structure represents a complex social group for the dolphins and provides them with essential relationships. Bottlenose dolphins live in a matriarchal society due to the level of care that females provide to their young; the males live in separate social groups consisting of a few members that are called bachelor groups or alliances. Here are at the National Aquarium, we house our animals in what we call a nursery group, which consists of all six of our females (ranging in age from 5 to 42) and our two pair-bonded males.

Exhibit Staff: In Dolphin Discovery, we have 13 marine mammal trainers, a Director of Marine Mammal Staff, Allison Ginsburg and our Director of Animal Programs, Sue Hunter. Our marine mammals team is responsible for the everyday care of our dolphins including medical care, diet and nutrition, teaching and learning, research and of course a lot of playtime.

We have staff who work in this exhibit full time and we also have team members who assist with the care of the dolphins. Our veterinary team, led by Dr. Leigh Clayton, provides state-of-the-art medical care to each animal on a routine basis. It’s not unusual for guests to come in and see our vet team checking in.

A Typical Day: A day in the Marine Mammal Department can start as early as 6:30 in the morning. It takes two full hours to sort and weigh out the 200 pounds of frozen fish that make up the dolphins’ diet. The dolphins are fed between 7 and 10 times a day, roughly every hour and a half.

Sorting fish for the dolphins

Food is an essential part of their learning through positive reinforcement. Our experts work with the animals to create an enriching environment where they can develop new behaviors through play. Play is also a great way for us to build our relationship with the animals, which is key in all of the teaching that we do. We even help the dolphins learn certain behaviors that help us take care of them. For example, as part of their regular physicals, our veterinary team needs access to the dolphins’ flukes, or tails, in order to take blood samples. Our marine mammal team works with the dolphins through a series of play/reward sessions to obtain the desired fluke-raise behavior.

Our staff does some of this work behind-the-scenes, but most is done during the day while guests are in the exhibit. They facilitate a number of different sessions: some are focused on teaching brand new behaviors, others are dedicated to husbandry and some consist entirely of playtime

When our team is not working directly with the animals, they spend the majority of their time cleaning. This includes buckets, toys, the kitchen, all of our back-up areas and even the animals’ habitat. All specialists are SCUBA certified, which allows them to enter the water to scrub and vacuum each and every day.

In 2012, we changed the format of our Dolphin Discovery exhibit to allow our guests more access to the animals and to our expert staff. Every day, our dolphin exhibit is open for visitors to stop in as many times and to stay as long as they’d like during operating hours!

Stay tuned for next week’s highlight of Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes!

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