The Aquarium is currently open to the public. In response to COVID-19, we’ve made some essential changes to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all.
The Dolphin Sanctuary's mission is to advance understanding and protection of cetaceans by offering a natural environment in which the colony of dolphins in our care will thrive.
Care, Compassion, Collaboration
Through the creation of North America's first dolphin sanctuary, the National Aquarium is introducing a new option for human care of dolphins.
The health and welfare of the dolphins is our enduring priority, and a dolphin-first approach is the guiding philosophy of all that we do. Expert staff at the Sanctuary will provide a lifetime of customized individual care, ensuring that the needs of each dolphin are understood and met. Researchers will advance studies not feasible in either open-ocean or aquarium settings, expanding our understanding of wild dolphins and those in human care.
Defining the Dolphin Sanctuary
The Dolphin Sanctuary is more than just a place; it's also defined by a set of principles and corresponding practices.
The Dolphin Sanctuary is a new option for dolphins in human care—an outdoor facility, in natural seawater, with a flexible habitat configuration that can be customized to meet individual dolphin needs. The Sanctuary is also a center for applied science that advances knowledge and conservation, with independent and sustainable funding for dolphin care.
We are a dolphin-first facility. The principle of dolphin-first calls for the needs of the dolphins to be held above all others, including those of caregivers, donors or the public. In respect for their inner lives, the dolphins are afforded the highest levels of choice and control over their living environment; they are free to form natural social groupings and explore novel stimuli. Dolphins under our care are never asked to entertain the public or engage in "swim-with" encounters. They are free to be dolphins.
At the Sanctuary, expert staff will provide customized, individual care for each dolphin. We will enable and participate in studies that benefit dolphins in the wild and in human care, and are open to accommodating dolphins from other facilities. Our practices including preventing pregnancy while allowing natural behaviors among the dolphins, and sharing our work with others through on-site and remote education opportunities.
Sanctuary Criteria: Designing a Place to Thrive
The dolphins will live in natural seawater in a tropical or sub-tropical location, mirroring the habitat in which wild dolphins thrive.
The design will be flexible to allow for different spatial configurations to keep the dolphins engaged and able to form social groupings that suit them.
The setting will provide the dolphins with opportunities to express natural behaviors while exposing them to stimuli, such as fish and marine plants.
Marine mammal experts will provide full-time, individual care to the dolphins, supported by a full-time veterinarian and on-site clinical care facilities.
We hope to foster a collaborative learning environment that will develop techniques and technologies that advance our ability to study dolphins in the wild.
Frequently Asked Questions
Our decision to build a sanctuary is rooted in what we believe to be best for the dolphins in our care. We have studied the issue and explored multiple solutions, ranging from rebuilding our existing tanks in a more naturalistic style to moving the dolphins to other accredited facilities. After careful consideration, we've concluded that the best way forward is to create a protected, year-round seaside refuge.
Our site selection team is currently evaluating several possible locations and working towards securing, designing and completing a site with the goal for the dolphins to move into the Sanctuary by early 2023.
Our site selection team is currently evaluating locations in Florida and the Caribbean, focusing on those with excellent seawater quality, a protected seaside site, and appropriate air and water temperatures in a year-round climate.
Our vision is to create an outdoor facility where the dolphins will swim in natural seawater, with a vegetated shoreline (mangroves, sea grapes, etc.), in a flexible habitat configuration featuring pools that can be customized to meet individual dolphin needs. An on-site clinic will be fully staffed with marine mammal experts and a full-time veterinarian. The Sanctuary will also serve as a center for applied science that advances knowledge and conservation.
We are open to accommodating dolphins from other facilities, though our focus is on the dolphins in our care. We are committed to sharing our work at the Sanctuary with others, and to fostering research that will benefit dolphins in the wild as well as those in human care.
Beginning in 2011, the Aquarium enlisted a number of experts and stakeholders, both internally and externally, to evaluate this option. Teams of staff, board members, external researchers, scientists, animal care experts, veterinarians and biologists have been involved in the decision-making process, which began with a comprehensive inquiry into the future of the National Aquarium's physical space, visitor engagement and role in ocean conservation.
The decision was not made in response to recent news made by other cetacean-holding entities or pressure from animals rights groups. This decision is exclusively about our colony of dolphins. We spent five years studying options for establishing new ways to care for the dolphins and, because we now know more than ever before about them, their needs and our audiences, the time is right for this initiative.
It is too early to give a precise figure, as the cost will be very specific to the site chosen, reflecting both the price of the land as well as the design and construction expenses particular to that location.
We are seeking philanthropic support to create and sustain the Sanctuary. You can help us turn our vision into a reality with a contribution to the National Aquarium.
The safety of the dolphins is our highest priority. A team of experts is already in place to evaluate all associated risks and provide our colony of dolphins with the safest possible transport and transition to the Sanctuary.
The National Aquarium discontinued breeding in 2011 and has no plans for breeding at the Sanctuary.
A team is currently evaluating options for repurposing our space on Pier 4 and will be testing the most promising concepts based on their ability to inspire conservation, delight guests and ensure the Aquarium's continued success.