Virgin Holidays to invest in America's first dolphin sanctuary

National Aquarium promises new facility will have a 'dolphin-first' approach

Ronan J. O'Shea
Monday 23 April 2018 15:29 BST
Maya is one of seven dolphins set to move to a more natural environment in Florida
Maya is one of seven dolphins set to move to a more natural environment in Florida (National Aquarium)

Getting close to dolphins and whales has been popular with tourists for decades, but in recent years the pursuit has been mired in controversy, thanks to concerns over the animals’ welfare and living conditions.

Virgin Holidays has announced plans to invest $300,000 (£210,150) in conjunction with the non-profit National Aquarium in Baltimore to create the first dolphin sanctuary in America.

The development will see seven captive dolphins moved from an indoor dolphinarium to a larger, outdoor setting with hopes that the move will inspire more natural environments for dolphins in tourism.

The National Aquarium plans to relocate its seven dolphins (Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Foster and Beau) from their indoor pool in Baltimore to a much larger sanctuary habitat.

Virgin Holidays has spent the previous year assessing various sanctuary projects in development, ultimately settling on the National Aquarium’s initiative as the best option.

While the exact location of the project has yet to be confirmed, it will be in Florida, providing the animals with more space, a seaside location including ocean tides, temperature variations, and other natural ocean life such as fish, crabs and seaweed.

The company hopes to welcome visitors to the completed site in 2020, while also leading a shift in how tourists interact with dolphins.

An artistic rendering of the National Aquarium’s Dolphin Sanctuary in Florida (Studio Gang)

Joe Thompson, managing director of Virgin Holidays, says of the move: “We strongly believe the way tourists interact with captive whales and dolphins needs to change – and have been engaging with existing suppliers to improve their product offering and encourage a move away from theatrical shows. Today we’re pleased to announce our second focus – which is working with the wider industry to develop alternative forms of tourism that place a greater prominence on the welfare of these animals.”

Thompson adds that the project aims to prove the advantage of more natural settings for dolphins compared to captive environments.

For its part, the National Aquarium is embarking on a three-year acclimatisation plan alongside Virgin Holidays to teach dolphins new behaviours and prepare them for the move.

“This includes encouraging them to drink water so their system can be flushed if they eat the wrong thing,” says Thompson. In addition, they’ll raise the temperature in the tank to 26 degrees Celsius and allow algae to grow, plus teaching the dolphins to swim onto stretchers so the eventual transportation to their new home is successful.

“We have created individualised acclimation plans for each of our dolphins, as each of whom has a distinct personality and learning style, just like people,” John Racanelli, CEO and president of National Aquarium, told The Independent. “Some are quick learners, while others take more time to learn these new skills. We are working to allow each to advance at his or her own pace.”

After consultation, Baltimore’s National Aquarium decided to partner with Virgin Holidays on its ‘dolphin-first’ facility in Florida (Getty Images/iStock/bouillabaisse)

He added: “We’re creating a new option for dolphins in human care. In nearly 30 years of caring for dolphins, we’ve learned so much more. Although they receive superb care, we now know we can provide even higher quality care for the dolphins in a natural seawater habitat.

“A pioneering effort of this magnitude requires a deliberate and science-based approach. For us, that means following a principle called ‘dolphin-first’, where the needs of each dolphin are taken into consideration.”

The Aquarium hopes that research undertaken during the project will enhance human understanding of dolphins and how we interact with them.

“Our goal is that the sanctuary will advance scientific knowledge of dolphins, both in human care and in the wild,” says Racanelli. ”By this we mean non-invasive, meaningful research that cannot otherwise be conducted in a typical aquarium setting, nor in the wild. Our hope, ultimately, is that this work will benefit dolphins by instilling a greater ethic of care for all cetaceans, globally.”

Spirit is one of seven dolphins set to move to the Florida facility (Heather Moran, National Aquarium)

After analysing over 30 sites around the world, the National Aquarium decided that the new facility should be located in Florida.

“The ideal sanctuary location will be a flexible, seawater habitat that offers the dolphins opportunity to interact with natural stimuli and more room to express innate behaviours. The Florida Keys are of particular interest as they offer a number of man-made, saltwater lagoons with the ocean just a stone’s throw away, and they’re very accessible.”

Racanelli elaborated on what the Aquarium envisages with its dolphin-first principle.

“It’s the driving force behind the why, how and what’s next for this project. Put simply, we place the welfare of the dolphins above all else – science, the public, donors, whatever.

“This in turn drives a set of practices intended to allow the dolphins the greatest levels of choice and control, and to enable them to express natural behaviours like social groupings and foraging.”

A dolphin undergoing stretcher training to prepare it for transportation (National Aquarium)

When asked about concerns regarding the Aquarium working alongside a commercially driven partner such as Virgin Holidays, Racanelli was unequivocal in his approval for the British company’s involvement.

“We’ve been very selective in determining whom we want to partner with, whether NGOs, foundations or corporations. In some cases, we’ve had to forego working with those whose purposes were not in alignment with our mission.”

He added: “We could not be more pleased to be working closely with Virgin Holidays. They understand the importance of what we’re working to accomplish.”

The National Aquarium CEO says he feels it important to emphasise the importance of protecting what he describes as the “treasures of the sea.”

“Dolphins have survived on this planet for around 50 million years, and impacted on it far less than we humans have. I think it’s important for us to keep that in mind.”

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