Flip Side

New dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore tests the waters with a conservation spin

April 09, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Its stars may be as frolicsome and endearing as ever, but designers of the new dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore say the idea is to do more than simply show the aquatic charmers at play.

"In the old show, Play, we tried to show play as a form of learning," says Nancy Hotchkiss, the aquarium's senior director for visitor experiences. "We wanted people to see that with the dolphins, and realize that for themselves."

The new show, titled Our Ocean Planet, tries for something a little more serious, she says. "It focuses more on the dolphins' life underwater. We hope the show will remind people that there is so much going on beneath the surface."

The show, which debuted Friday, still features the jumps, splashes and chattering sounds audiences love - stuff done either high in the air above or along the surface of the aquarium's 1.2 million-gallon dolphin tank. But it also includes activities best seen through the tank's clear walls.

Like blowing bubbles underwater. Now there's a talent Flipper never seemed to master. And when Chinook the dolphin starts blowing bubbles out of his blowhole - looking for all the world like Grandpa sitting on his favorite couch, smoking his pipe and blowing smoke rings - the effect is undeniably cool.

"This was absolutely a new game for them," says senior dolphin trainer Shannon Daisey. "It's a whole new thing for them. They had absolutely no idea what was going on at first."

That's not all the new stuff sharp-eyed dolphin-show devotees will notice. There's the bit where a dolphin swims along the edge of the tank, close enough to the surface so that just its dorsal fin is showing (not the most exciting trick, but it does replicate what most people see of dolphins in the wild, as schools swim close to the shore). There are underwater somersaults. And there's a very impressive crowd-pleaser during which an upright dolphin skims along the water's surface, balancing a globe atop its snout. All that is new, says Daisey, the result of some six months of specialized dolphin training.

Before the show, pictures submitted by friends of the aquarium (via Flickr) are displayed on two video screens. So far, Hotchkiss says, some 200 people have submitted photos - mostly of animals at the aquarium, although some of the best show people watching animals at the aquarium.

There's also an underlying ecological message to the show. With the oceans covering 70 percent of the Earth, messages displayed on the dolphin exhibit's video screens suggest it would behoove humans to take better care of them.

Of course, the old standbys are there; about 70 percent of Our Ocean Planet is behavior the dolphins already know. After all, what dolphin show would be complete without ball tosses and 10-foot leaps into the air? You still get to listen to the dolphins chatter and get to be jealous of the one lucky audience member who gets to touch one of them. And you still get to watch the flippered friends splash the first four rows or so of spectators.

"Those people that are sitting right over there," Hotchkiss says before the show, pointing to a group of dolphin enthusiasts sitting to the right of the tank. "They're totally in the splash zone, and they want to be in the splash zone."

Hotchkiss smiles and laughs, a laugh that is as incredulous as it is amused. In about 20 minutes, as the show nears its end, those people are going to be soaked. And they're loving it.

So, it seems, is just about everybody. Even those who get to leave the show dry.

"It was awesome, amazing," says 10-year-old Jordan Pinter, visiting with her family from Illinois. Her brother Corey, 6, agrees: "I thought it was cool, especially when the dolphins made this big jump, like, whoom!"

In its first few days, Daisey says, Our Ocean Planet seems to be proving a thought-provoking hit. Whereas the old show elicited a lot of laughter and amazement, the new one seems to be piquing people's curiosity more.

"People have had a lot more insightful questions about the dolphins," she says. "People seem to be taking a lot more away from the conservation message. They're asking more about what the dolphins really feel."

if you go

Showtimes for "Our Ocean Planet," the new dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, are 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets (aquarium admission plus dolphin show) are $27.95 for ages 12-59; $26.95 for age 60 and older; and $17.95 for ages 3-11. The aquarium is at 501 E. Pratt St. Call 410-576-3800 or go to aqua.org.

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