Day Of The Dolphins The Aquarium' Marine Mammal Pavilion Opens To Controversy

December 30, 1990|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

Having finally opened its long-delayed, $35 million marine mammal pavilion, having put in a 1,300-seat amphitheater for people to watch dolphins and whales cavort on command, having spent long hours training their animals to adhere to a carefully orchestrated script, the people who run Baltimore's National Aquarium have one small request to make.

Please don't call it a show.

And don't call it a performance.

Or entertainment.

Fun is sort of OK, as long as you don't mean the kind of fun you'd have at a circus.

But what they'd really like you to call what goes on in the newest wing of the 9-year-old aquarium is a presentation. Seriously. On a Saturday morning when Uncle Bob, Aunt Lucy and the twins are visiting from Binghamton and getting fidgety, you can raise an index finger, cock an eyebrow and say, "What ho! Let's motor down to the aquarium and observe a dolphin presentation."

Sound a little silly?

Well, there was nothing silly about the bitter controversy a year ago over the aquarium's frustrated plans to capture dolphins off the coast of Florida. There was nothing silly over the threatened criminal charges by the state of Florida against the aquarium in connection with that incident, nor the attendant negative publicity -- most of it fueled by animal rights activists opposed to taking dolphins from the wild -- which removed some of the sparkle from the longtime jewel of the Inner Harbor.

And there was nothing silly about the way Nick Brown, the aquarium's executive director, warned his colleagues at this year's convention of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums -- the national body that accredits and sets standards for such facilities -- to pay more attention to the battle being waged by animal rights activists.

That battle, while it has included some acts of vandalism -- cut fences at the aquarium's facility in Florida -- has largely been one fought in the realm of public opinion. (Several groups picketed outside the aquarium on the night of its posh, black-tie fund-raising gala.) And it is a battle that Mr. Brown does not wish to lose. Hence the sensitivity to anything remotely suggesting that the dolphins in the National Aquarium in Baltimore are doing the kind of through-the-hoop circus acts performed at places like Sea World -- favorite targets of animal rights groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Yes, those people have impinged on us," admitted a weary Mr. Brown in a recent interview. "Our operations have been disrupted." In fact, activists have been around every corner in the past year and a half as he and the aquarium have sought to increase their dolphin collection so that they would have something to put into their new pavilion and amphitheater.

At the AAZPA convention he told his audience that zoos had largely escaped the concentrated wrath of activists and that aquariums, and specifically their capturing of dolphins, have taken the most heat. "It's a question of sensitizing the membership of the AAZPA that it may be dolphins today, but it could be marmots and egrets tomorrow," Mr. Brown recalled. "I was one of four speakers in a two-hour session [at the convention] and I said, 'Dammit, wake up and make a case and enlist the support of your membership or they [activists] will divide and conquer.' "

For the moment it appears that Mr. Brown and the aquarium have conquered. Their new pavilion has finally opened in spite of the controversy and in spite of a half-year's delay caused by design problems in the walls of the facility's main pool. They had hoped to have the pool enclosed by the first-of-its-kind seamless acrylic window, affording visitors an unbroken view of dolphins and whales swimming underwater in the 1.2 million gallon tank. Thirty feet deep and 110 feet across, it contains more water than all the rest of the aquarium combined. But the technology just didn't work, and so the acrylic walls have windowlike dividers.

That doesn't keep Mr. Brown from freely using the term "state-of-the-art" to describe the facility. In the old days of aquariums, he said, "we simply didn't have the means of filtering our water and treating our environment carefully. But now, water quality and life-support techniques are better than ever."

There has also been a major change in the way marine life is displayed in public aquariums, he said. "There has been a whole explosion in the world of exhibiting. We know how to make a more emotionally charged exhibit today."

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