Among the possibilities: Creating an underwater forest with swaying kelp seaweed stalks, leopard sharks and wolf-eels or a habitat that emulates the southern
The fate of the
The process has been undertaken not only to determine what's best for the dolphins but also how to create a modern-era aquarium that appeals to the millennial generation,
"They have a real high level of desire to see action," Racanelli said of millennials. "They don't want to hear a lot of platitudes. They want to see institutions that are saying what they are going to do and then actually doing it.
"I think we get left behind if what we say is, 'We want to inspire you to care about the ocean,' and then we come across as a place just trying to make a buck off of sea life."
Racanelli said the aquarium doesn't have a timetable for deciding whether to keep its dolphins on display. He plans to host a series of workshops with scientists and aquatic experts, beginning with an invitation-only Dolphin Summit this month.
Another possibility for the amphitheater would be to the space an animal care center, where rescued turtles would recover, or some behind-the-scenes operations, such as food preparation for the 17,000 animals who live at the
The idea for an underwater forest comes from a similar exhibit at the
"I don't know if they'd be more compelling -- that's the inquiry we have to do," Racanelli said of the possible replacement exhibits.
The aquarium expects to conduct extensive surveys this summer and are sift through feedback being submitted online, Racanelli said. More than 570 comments have been submitted through the aquarium's website, aqua.org/future, since the aquarium announced last week it was considering retiring its dolphins.
Racanelli said no retirement sanctuaries currently exist for dolphins or other marine mammals. He said the aquarium is investigating the possibility of creating a National Dolphin Center somewhere along a shore in a warmer climate.
There, the dolphins could live behind an ocean fence, where they could interact with other sea creatures and hunt but also have access to food provided by trainers.
Many for-profit companies operate ocean-side attractions featuring dolphins, but those are all built around tourist experiences, primarily swimming with the dolphins, Racanelli said.
Only a handful of more than 30 aquariums in the U.S. have dolphins and other marine mammals, including beluga whales, on display, Racanelli said. They are the
Racanelli said a review of the aquarium's annual reports shows it focused much attention during the 1990s and 2000s on the dolphin exhibit.
And, in turn, visitors have come to see the dolphins as the aquarium's major draw.
"We have trained them to expect dolphins at the
But Racanelli said that surveying shows that while visitors older than 45 would rather go to an aquarium that features dolphin shows, visitors younger than 37 are less likely to express that preference.
Whatever the aquarium decides comes with high economic stakes.
Since the attraction opened 33 years ago, nearly 50 million visitors have toured its exhibits, Racanelli said. The aquarium, which supports more than 3,300 jobs, is tied to
"We don't want to do anything that jeopardizes the value of the aquarium to the
"The aquarium has definitely earned our trust," Evitts said. "It's been an anchor for downtown for a generation.
"It's an exciting conversation they're having."
The aquarium's strategic planning process, called BLUEprint, is intended to help the attraction transition into a full-fledged conservation organization. A team of consultants plan to evaluate how to "re-imagine" the
"We need to be sure that whatever we're trying to tell, the story we believe is important, is also relevant, or you're the fool on the hill singing loudly to no one," Racanelli said.
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