'Blackfish' casts long shadow as aquarium weighs retirement for dolphins

BALTIMORE -- Ghosts of the National Aquarium's dolphin show live on two years after its shutdown. The amphitheater -- now called the Dolphin Discovery exhibit -- still has seats marked "splash zone," posters of performing dolphins and large video screens that were used to rev up the crowd for the entrance of the performing animals.

Aquarium visitors often ask staffers when the next show will start. The answer: never.

The eight bottlenose dolphins that entertained several times a day now enjoy a life of leisure, interacting with their handlers in what used to be the center ring of a marine circus. The animals -- Nani, Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Beau and Foster -- swim around their tank, eat fresh fish and participate in "enrichment programs."

And a more dramatic change for the dolphins may be in the offing. Aquarium officials are considering removing the animals from display and moving them to a seaside sanctuary. The announcement in May that aquarium leadership is exploring options for the dolphins' retirement is the latest chapter in a long saga about marine mammal displays that date to the great showman P.T. Barnum in the mid-1800s.

Driving the current debate about captive marine mammals is the 2013 documentary film, "Blackfish," which criticizes marine parks for their treatment of marine mammals by focusing on the captive killer whale named Tilikum and the circumstances surrounding the death of his SeaWorld trainer. The film sparked protests of SeaWorld and an effort by the marine park to challenge the documentary's accuracy.

National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli said aquarium leadership's discussions on having the dolphins go to a sanctuary predate "Blackfish" and were already going on behind the scenes when he arrived at the Inner Harbor attraction in 2011.

"We were not trying to make a social statement," he said of his May announcement. "We are a conservation organization. And any decision we make will be about what is best for the dolphins."

The decision, he said, will be made against a backdrop of a society that's grown resistant to the notion of captivity, making them less likely to visit institutions that have captive marine mammals. It's something the aquarium has tracked for the past eight years and will consider as it moves forward with deciding the fate of its own dolphins.

There are also financial considerations for the aquarium. Marine mammals are big moneymakers, raking in billions of dollars nationally. Just last year, even with the heat of "Blackfish," SeaWorld's three locations brought in a reported $1.46 billion. That the National Aquarium -- which has admitted to losing revenue since closing its dolphin shows -- is considering shutting down a prime attraction has grabbed headlines.


But keeping marine mammals isn't cheap. Racanelli said renovating the animals' living space at the National Aquarium is expected to cost $100 million, a project he says would require broad community support to get off the ground.

There are at least 715 cetaceans -- whales, dolphins and porpoises -- living in captivity in the United States, according to a Greenwire review of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal National Database.

The leader in displaying the animals is SeaWorld, which has at least 203 dolphins, orcas and other cetaceans at its parks. The business also has the permits for another 20 animals held around the country, from Miami to Las Vegas.

The second largest permit holder for captive marine mammals is the Navy, which uses most of its 84 animals to detect underwater mines and guard its bases.

Another 209 or so captive dolphins and whales were either exported from the United States or are the progeny of those exported animals, according to the database. An additional 69 captive cetaceans that live in or trace their origins to the United States have transferred to other permit holders, leaving them with "unknown" records in the system.

Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the animals can be taken for scientific research, public display, photography for educational or commercial purposes and enhancing the survival or recovery of a species, said Michael Gosliner, general counsel for the federal Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), which oversees marine mammal conservation policies and programs.

As an independent federal agency, the commission hasn't taken a position on the release of captive animals, but Gosliner notes that it's not a simple matter.

"Release probably doesn't work very well for captive bred animals, and even for wild-caught animals," he said, pointing to the release of Keiko, the orca star of the 1993 film "Free Willy."

Captured in Iceland waters in 1979, Keiko spent 23 years in captivity at an Icelandic aquarium, an Ontario marine park, a Mexico City amusement park and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. He was released in August 2002 but failed to integrate with wild whales and died in December 2003.

'Who can say they aren't better off?'

P.T. Barnum is regarded as the father of marine mammal exhibitions, putting two beluga whales on display in August 1861 at his museum in New York City.

"We owe the presence of two whales in our midst to the enterprise of Mr. P.T. Barnum," the New-York Tribune reported. "He has had them in tow for a long while, but has kept his secret well."

Accustomed to the cold, brackish waters of the St. Lawrence Estuary, the animals reportedly died soon after, apparently because the showman placed them in freshwater.

Their deaths didn't deter Barnum, however. He'd go on to capture and display several more, and those animals would continue to die.

While other exhibitors would follow suit over the years, the advent of the marine mammal show didn't come until decades later, as one consequence of the golden age of Hollywood.

Marine Studios opened in 1938, just south of St. Augustine, Fla. The intent for the site was to act as a underwater set for motion pictures and newsreels. Scenes from the 1950s classic "Creature from the Black Lagoon" were filmed there.

Visitors came to Marine Studios to see dolphin feedings and that eventually evolved into training cetaceans to perform for audiences. It was at this site that the first cetacean, a dolphin named Spray, was born in captivity.

Renamed "Marineland of Florida" in the 1950s, it soon became a top attraction in the Sunshine State. But its attendance plunged when SeaWorld opened its Orlando park in the 1970s.

Owned by the Georgia Aquarium since 2011, Marineland last year celebrated its 75th anniversary. Despite a decline and some financial issues since its heyday, the park -- now with Dolphin Adventure as a part of its title -- offers programs that allow visitors to interact with dolphins, including swimming with the animals and acting as a "trainer for the day."

"Gone are the days when the emphasis was on performing animals," Marineland says on its website. "Now the guests join our animals in their habitats and make the physical and emotional connection that inevitably leads to a true understanding of why we need to protect these incredible animals and their marine environment."

Scott Higley, vice president of communications and external affairs at the Georgia Aquarium, said he's heard others describe their dolphin interactions at the park as life-changing. Such experiences are why he has continued to advocate for the importation of 18 belugas from Russia, despite being denied a permit by NOAA (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2013).

The aquarium filed a legal petition against the government and is now waiting for oral arguments to be scheduled.

"We remain as committed to those belugas as we were when we filed for the permit more than two years ago," Higley said. He contends that captive marine mammals thrive in captivity, pointing to Marineland's Nellie, a bottlenose dolphin that died at the age of 61 last month.

But Lori Marino, a neuroscientist who has studied cetacean intelligence for the past two decades, argued that isn't the case for a number of reasons, from the constraints of their physical enclosures to a lack of social interactions with others of their kind.

That in turn means more stress, disease and, in the end, mortality, she said. Up until a few years ago, mortality rates for bottlenose dolphins in captivity were higher than for wild populations.

When she compared modern practices now to the time when P.T. Barnum displayed his belugas, she said, "I'm not sure that things have changed that much."

She agreed there have been improvements as people learn more about the biology of the animals, but their overall well-being goes beyond that.

However, Grey Stafford, director of conservation of Phoenix's Wildlife World Zoo, maintained it's not that simple. He pointed to the issues that face wild populations from habitat destruction to unusual mortality events. Just in the past year, more than 1,300 wild bottlenose dolphins -- the same species found at the National Aquarium and easily the most common cetacean held in captivity in the United States -- have stranded along the East Coast, many of whom were already dead. Scientists believe this may be caused by cetacean morbillivirus, which damages the immune system.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't need to know about that," said Stafford, who spent many years working with captive cetaceans. "But the reality is, the animals [in captivity] get health care and aren't threatened by disease. Who can say that they aren't better off?"

SeaWorld battles back

The 1970s had the "Save the Whales" campaign. The 1990s had "Free Willy."

The 2010s have "Blackfish."

The film, released last year, tells the story of the circumstances surrounding the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Jeff Ventre, a former trainer who started working for the business the same year as Brancheau, said he was contacted by another former SeaWorld employee, John Jett, following Brancheau's death. Both were disturbed by the incident and the reports SeaWorld made in the days afterward.

"He said, 'What do you want to do about this?'" Ventre, now a medical doctor, recalled. They decided to get more people aware of what they believed was the true situation -- that Brancheau, who had worked for SeaWorld for several years, was pulled into the water by the orca Tilikum, resulting in her death.

Eventually, that meant getting in touch with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and agreeing to interviews that would later appear prominently in "Blackfish."

When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, SeaWorld did not immediately issue a statement. Some pushback began with its U.S. release last July, including the company sending out a letter to film critics to note Blackfish's "egregious and untrue allegations."

In the months afterward, SeaWorld went silent. Meanwhile, the movie started to receive more attention and was broadcast on CNN, whose motion picture division produced the documentary.

But with musical acts canceling performances at its parks and attendance rates dropping -- a recent report showed numbers down by 13 percent for the first few months of this year -- SeaWorld began its challenge again. It issued an open letter in December to explain the origins of its animals and the millions of dollars it has spent on its killer whale habitats.

It has also designed a website called "Truth About Blackfish," launched earlier this year. The site features information about its care for its animals and detailing moments in the film that it says are "false and emotionally manipulative."

For example, it criticizes the film for using information from trainers who have not worked at the park in nearly 20 years, including Ventre and Jett.

Samantha Berg -- another former trainer featured in "Blackfish" who SeaWorld says misrepresents herself because her voiceover played during footage of another trainer interacting with a cetacean -- disagreed with SeaWorld's perspectives.

"It's not forcing an agenda," she said. "It's just telling the story, one that sparks something in people."

SeaWorld did not return requests for comment.

'Times are changing'

Whatever SeaWorld says about "Blackfish," National Aquarium's Racanelli said anyone involved with captive cetaceans can't deny the film has become a catalyst for a debate over their care.

The debate has reached Capitol Hill.

First came a letter sent by 40 House lawmakers in May to the Department of Agriculture. Led by California Democrats Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman, the lawmakers called on USDA to update regulations regarding indoor and outdoor facilities, water quality, space requirements and swim-with-the-dolphin program (E&E Daily, May 30).

USDA -- which has jurisdiction over captive cetaceans on display through the Animal Welfare Act -- started working on updating marine mammal standards in 1993, said Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist for the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

That work led to a final rule in 2001 that, among other things, created some enclosure-construction requirements and established recordkeeping rules for veterinary care and feeding.

But the department was unable to reach consensus on language regarding other parts of the standards -- namely, those mentioned in this year's letter from members of Congress. While it published a 2002 notice that it intended to propose a rule to update those parts of the Animal Welfare Act, APHIS has yet to actually move forward in the process.

Espinosa said the agency has worked with the Office of Management and Budget since then to update the rules but notes that there are "no changes at this time."

"APHIS takes its duty to protect the health and safety of animals, including marine mammals, very seriously and will continue to do everything within our power to protect marine mammals' well-being," she said in an email to Greenwire.

However, the delay from the agency has prompted Schiff and Huffman to take their concerns a step further. Last month, the pair successfully amended to the fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations bills to provide the department with $1 million to study how captivity affects marine mammals.

Schiff's office has said the amendment is meant to provide the means for APHIS to finally propose a rule on updating standards (Greenwire, June 12).

And throughout the members' crusade -- which included an impassioned speech by Schiff on the House floor earlier this week -- they have emphasized the importance of "Blackfish."

"For decades, there has been a growing debate among marine biologists and other professionals over maintaining marine mammals in captivity," Schiff said when he introduced the amendment. "But it was last year's release of the documentary 'Blackfish' that spurred a broader public discussion over whether the conditions in which marine mammals, particularly orcas, are held for public display are humane and whether these animals should even be held in captivity."

The response has exceeded expectations he and Jett had when they first sought to spread the word about Dawn Brancheau's death, Ventre said.

"We didn't envision the movement that has occurred," he said. "But we've reached a critical mass of awareness. ... Times are changing. 'Blackfish' is a part of that."

Twitter: @jmestepa | Email:

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