National Aquarium to move dolphins to seaside sanctuary

CBS News

Dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore could help transform the way sea life is held in captivity. The aquarium plans to permanently move the mammals out of their surroundings by the end of 2020, going to what is called the nation's first seaside dolphin sanctuary, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.

Six of the eight dolphins were born right here in the aquarium, and the only one born in the wild is about 44 years old. So most of the animals only know captivity. But soon, they will be able to take in that fresh salt water.

More than a million people a year come through the National Aquarium, and the dolphins are a major attraction. In a 1.3 million-gallon pool, they glide around and flip, interacting with kids and adults.

Trainers keep them occupied and give them daily check-ups and endless supplies of fish.

Chesapeake is 24 years old. She was the first dolphin born in the aquarium.

"You see how calm she is with this," the trainer said.

"So how long have you had a relationship with her?" Dahler asked.

"I have been here for 10 years and we are constantly building that trust relationship," the trainer said.

But that relationship will soon change. Within five years, the aquarium wants to move the dolphins to a sanctuary along an ocean front. They are looking at places like Florida and the Caribbean where the site will allow the dolphins to interact with other sea life.

"There'll be crabs on the bottom and lobsters perhaps finding their way into crevices, jellyfish will drift in and out, but these dolphins need to learn how to cope with every single one of those natural features," National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli said.

Since most were born in the aquarium, Racanelli said they'll have to teach the dolphins how to be dolphins.

"The good news: They're really smart. They've got incredible cognitive capabilities," Racanelli said.

It's that intelligence that humans have started to grasp over the last 50 years.

In the '60s, Americans were captivated by "Flipper" and wanted to see dolphins as well as other large and intelligent marine mammals like orcas up close. In the '90s, "Free Willy" showed the amazing escape of an orca whale, and in 2013 ,the documentary "Blackfish" exposed what captivity can do to marine animals.

"All whales in captivity are all psychologically traumatized," according to the film.

SeaWorld is phasing out their orca show and even the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has ended its elephant show.

"Really this has been a reaction to the fact that times have been changing dramatically from generation to generation," Racanelli said. "As attitudes change, we think that our attitudes should too."

These dolphins won't be strangers to the Baltimore community once they travel down south. The aquarium hopes to have 24-7 live web feeds of the sanctuary.