I grew up going to the National Aquarium, and I never felt like a visit was complete without the dolphin show. Going to the dolphin show was just like going to a circus—there was music, laughter, audience participation, and animals performing astounding and dazzling tricks.
Last month, after a 20-year run, the National Aquarium discontinued the dolphin shows. However, what is taking their place is just as good, and might be better for the dolphins.
The dolphin show is now a “dolphin exploration.” Visitors can drop in whenever they like. The dolphins will perform stunts every hour and a half or so, but they will be simpler and shorter, and in between visitors can see the dolphins go about their daily lives of training and just hanging out.
The emphasis is on education and environmental awareness rather than astounding feats, though there will still be a few of those.
John Racanelli, CEO of the aquarium, explained the change. He does not feel that the dolphin shows “provided the total experience” that visitors want, and that they might have made visitors feel separate from the dolphins.
Now, the price of the dolphin experience is included in the price of admission and visitors can come and go in the dolphin exhibit as they please, viewing whatever is going on at the time, whether it is training, a demonstration, or a little finny rest and relaxation.
There has been some talk that the changes at the aquarium are designed to relieve stress and improve the health of the dolphins.
A trainer named April said that this might be true eventually, but right now the dolphins are wondering why they are not performing four times a day like they used to. Dolphins, like us, are creatures of routine.
April talked about Nani, the aquarium’s oldest dolphin. Nani is 40 years old and has been performing the show for 20 years.
Since the shows stopped two weeks ago, Nani has been a little confused. “She keeps looking at us like, ‘aren’t we supposed to be doing a show now?’” April said, smiling. “[The dolphins] are trying to figure out what to do with their time.”
Even without the formal dolphin show, the Aquarium is still a great place to visit and a great place to distract people from out of town. If you need to get rid of Aunt Mildred and Uncle Harry for a few hours, you need look no farther than the National Aquarium at Pier Four.
The Aquarium is not just a collection of fish tanks—there is an incredible range of animals from an incredible range of environments, all of which are very happily situated.
It’s mind-boggling to think that an exhibit of Arctic Puffins and an exhibit of Amazon rain forest plants and animals can exist side-by-side in the same building, but they do, and the exhibits successfully evoke the environments.
However, contrary to popular belief, the ‘Aquarium experience’ isn’t all about the animals. The people at the Aquarium are just as important as the exhibits – they can make or break your time there. Generally they make your time.
The employees and the volunteers are always friendly, outgoing, and excited about their work. One volunteer walked up to me as soon as I came by the puffin exhibit and introduced himself. After we talked for a few minutes he started cracking jokes. “I always tell people that those noises aren’t the puffins,” he said, commenting on some low groaning noises that played through the speakers. “That’s me getting up in the morning!” he laughed.
Another volunteer I met was able to tell me stories about animals from all over the aquarium. He talked about the monkeys, the dolphins, and the Amazon Rainforest, among other things, but the story that was my personal favorite was about the octopus.
One day there was water leaking from the ceiling of an exhibit, and no one could figure out why. After scratching their heads for a while, the Aquarium volunteers went upstairs to look for the source of the leak. When they went upstairs they found out that the octopus was the cause of the leak – the octopus was playing with the lid of its tank by pushing on the lid, and that caused water to slosh out of the tank and leak through the floor. Now, in order to keep the octopus occupied, the volunteers give it jars of food to open and play with.
The people at the Aquarium do their absolute best to entertain everyone who comes through, and that’s what the ‘Aquarium experience’ is about. They walk a fine line at the Aquarium – they try to keep people entertained, but they also try to keep the animals happy.
For example, the Australian exhibit, which opened on December 16, 2005, got a lot of criticism for being too short. It was more of an environment for the animals than an exhibit for the people, which caused some visitors to misunderstand use of space in the exhibit.
The new dolphin exhibit is a step away from an exhibit and a step towards an environment, which may annoy a few visitors who liked the old dolphin shows. However that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘Aquarium experience’ (the charming people and interesting animals) is still very much alive.
The price for an adult ticket (ages 12-59), which now includes the dolphin experience, is $29.95. The price of a child ticket (ages 3-11) is now $20.95, and the price of a senior ticket (ages 60 and above) is $26.95. Children under the age of 3 are admitted for free.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 E. Pratt Street, is open Sunday-Thursday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Fridays from 9: a.m. – 8 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Call (410) 576-3800 or check www.aqua.org. for info on specials and programs.
BY EVE G. GILLISON
SPECIAL TO THE BALTIMORE GUIDE