Sanctuary State 

As we continue work to establish North America's first dolphin sanctuary, we're sharing what we've learned and collaborating to define what a sanctuary should be.

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When the National Aquarium announced plans in summer 2016 to embark on the development of a first-of-its-kind oceanside sanctuary for our dolphins, we knew we had our work cut out for us. After all, what we are proposing has never really been done before. Even with public attitudes toward holding marine mammals in captivity evolving to favor the idea of discontinuing the use of dolphins like ours as human entertainment, the question of how to do right by the remarkably intelligent cetaceans in our care loomed large.

Current data suggests that there are about 3,000 dolphins in captivity worldwide, and in the years since we announced plans to create a sanctuary setting, more than 15 governments and corporations have banned the practice of holding cetaceans for entertainment purposes or patronizing parks and aquariums that provide such programming. Knowing that the momentum of public opinion was in our favor, we set out to establish the guiding principles, practices and, not least of all, the proper place for our sanctuary.

Three of the National Aquarium's Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, Bayley, Chesapeake and Jade, with Their Faces Out of the Water Looking Up at the Edge of a Pool in the Aquarium's Dolphin Discovery Habitat.
Three of the National Aquarium's Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Bayley, Chesapeake and Jade, look up out of the water from their pool in Dolphin Discovery.

From the outset, our dolphin sanctuary working group—which includes experts from our own staff and respected consultants within the field of cetacean research—has been working to establish the key components necessary for a sanctuary site. Since announcing our plans for an oceanside sanctuary for our colony of six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, our team has visited more than 40 potential sites in four countries, including sites in Florida and several Caribbean locations. With travel to explore various sites interrupted by a global pandemic, we were also able to focus on establishing appropriate criteria for what a sanctuary should be—as well as what it should not.

Knowing that nothing exactly like our intended sanctuary had ever been created before, we looked within our industry to learn from the progress made in other places—and on behalf of other species. This research led us to forge a relationship with the experts at SEA LIFE Trust, a British organization mirroring our efforts with a focus on beluga whales, and the Whale Sanctuary Project, another whale-focused sanctuary project based in Canada. We worked with these partners to establish guidelines for marine mammal sanctuaries that were then submitted to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), the only globally recognized organization providing standards for identifying legitimate animal sanctuaries.

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins Spirit and Chesapeake in Dolphin Discovery
Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Spirit and Chesapeake swim together in Dolphin Discovery.

After careful review by a panel of additional expert contributors, GFAS announced the approval of these guidelines as the first-ever officially adopted set of best practices for cetacean (whales and dolphins) sanctuaries this month. GFAS certifies and oversees dozens of sanctuaries on five continents that provide sanctuary for animals from bats to bears to horses to apes and now, marine mammals.

As we embarked on this groundbreaking project, we quickly determined this was about more than our dolphins alone; it concerned all captive cetaceans. Hence, it was imperative that we work with other experts in the field to outline the places, principles and practices that would define authentic cetacean sanctuaries.

"We have a duty to the animals in our care to ensure that when they move, it is to a new home designed around their social, physical and emotional needs—one that comes as close as possible to their native habitat," National Aquarium President and CEO John Racanelli said. "To that end, we're incredibly proud of our work with our partners SEA LIFE Trust and the Whale Sanctuary Project, as well as our collaboration with GFAS, to develop the world's defining standards for cetacean sanctuaries."

Here at the National Aquarium, our dolphins remain at the heart of the matter as our sanctuary site research resumed post-pandemic. Recent updates to our Dolphin Discovery habitat continue to prioritize the dolphins' autonomy in how and where they spend their time throughout their daily routines. Guests are welcome to sit, relax and observe as our dolphins and the marine mammal professionals who care for them go about the daily business of feeding, caring for and engaging with our six spectacular dolphins. Preparations for their eventual transition to sanctuary life continue. Since announcing our sanctuary plans, more than 3,940 hours of poolside dolphin training sessions focused on moving and acclimation have taken place, and work continues to prepare our dolphin colony for sanctuary life every day.

While Beau, Foster, Chesapeake, Bayley, Spirit and Jade are the inspiration for our work, they are just a few of the many animals that could benefit from our efforts. Since announcing our sanctuary plans, 10 other dolphin-holding institutions—homes to 66 individual animals—have contacted us about potential space for their pods as humankind continues to look forward to a better future for these remarkable animals.

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