WALKING ACROSS the enclosed footbridge that connects the National Aquarium's original structure with the new Marine Mammal Pavilion islike going from night into day. The new $35 million structure is surrounded by glass that spills natural light inside and offers picture postcard views of the harbor and city skyline from nearly every corner.
Its airiness is in stark contrast to the murky atmosphere of the nearly 10-year-old aquarium's main building. That environment suggests being underwater and channels visitors on a one-way course past thousands of creatures, from angelfish to puffins to sharks.
When the new 94,000-square-foot pavilion on Pier 4 officially opens Wednesday, its only live exhibits will be eight mammals -- three beluga whales and five Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. It's as though the city facility that took so much heat in its early years for housing stressed-out dolphins in small, dark, noisy quarters has decided to showcase the product of its hard-learned lessons for all the world to see.
Chief among its modern facilities is the 1,300-seat Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater where 30-minute presentations featuring the dolphins and using high-tech video displays will be given about every two hours initially. Focal point of the amphitheater is the 1.2 million-gallon cluster of four connecting pools that the dolphins and beluga call home.
The largest pool, a 22-foot-deep demonstration tank that stretches 110 feet wide, is where Akai, Nalu and Nani will be performing on opening day. Purchased from a marine park in Galveston, Texas, these three dolphins have been in oceanarium demonstrations for nearly 16 years and are accustomed to crowds, says their trainer Doug Messinger, who moved to Baltimore with them and is now the National Aquarium's assistant curator of dolphins.
The other two younger dolphins -- Hailey and Shiloh -- arrived in Baltimore in October from Hawk's Cay in the Florida Keys. Not quite performance-ready yet, they can be seen on opening day in one of the smaller resting tanks, Messinger says.
The beluga -- Kia, Anore and Sikku -- will be swimming in a third adjoining pool while various video techniques will be employed on the two 9 by 12 foot screens to supplement the mammalogists' descriptions of their behaviors.
A fourth pool can be created at the back of the cluster of pools should any of the animals ever need to be isolated from the others. It connects to a larger isolation tank on a lower level where the animal can be moved for closer observation or medical examination.
The 93,000-gallon isolation tank also makes Baltimore a potential facility for emergency treatment of marine animals stranded on the East Coast, says Nancy Hotchkiss, assistant director of education.
The new pavilion's opening comes at a time of heated controversy over the captivity of marine animals. Ben White, Atlantic director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says no amount of public education can justify the "imprisonment" of dolphins.
"The assertion that people need to see dolphins and whales in captivity to care about them is wrong," he says. "A prison is a prison is a prison."
White founded Dolphin Rescue Brigade, a grass-roots group that has fought the National Aquarium's efforts to capture mammals off the coast of Florida. All aquariums, he says, operate on the premise that "an animal's right to freedom is secondary to our right to entertainment."
Aquarium staff members, obviously sensitive to the groundswell of criticism, are taking great care to avoid words like "show" or "performance" in reference to the new amphitheater. Instead they describe the 30-minute exhibitions as "behavior presentations." The flips, spy hops and fluke waves the dolphins on cue are simply "natural behaviors" that have been adapted to the demonstrations, they explain.
Messinger, in fact, is quick to point out how different the new pavilion is from the Aquarium's previous dolphin habitat, which was plagued with problems in the early '80s when two dolphins died there and three others had to be transferred to a Florida facility because of ulcers.
"We have a state-of-the-art facility here based on husbandry techniques learned over 10 years," he says. "This building was built around caring for marine mammals. We've got natural light here, we've got four times the space" of that in the original building.
Indeed there's an obvious emphasis on education and conservation as the mammals parade before the public. Mammalogists cue the dolphins to "teach" such things as how they communicate with other dolphins through signature whistles; how they use their sonarlike "echolocation" to find food, companions and predators in the water; and how they would rescue a wounded or lost member of their pod.
The presentation ends with a short conservationist speech about ocean pollution and environmental risks to marine mammals.