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YES: The National Aquarium Is Retiring All Its Dolphins To A Sea Sanctuary

Eight captive dolphins have just earned their freedom.

On Tuesday, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, announced that it would be retiring its captive bottlenose dolphins to an ocean sanctuary.

"We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change," John Racanelli, CEO of the aquarium, said in a statement. "This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary."

National Aquarium

According to the aquarium, the sanctuary will be located in subtropical or tropical waters and will provide more space for the dolphins to swim and dive, as well as natural stimuli like fish and marine plants.

As most of the dolphins were born into captivity, they will continue to be under human care, but the sanctuary will allow them to live out their days in an environment much closer to their natural habitat.

The oldest dolphin, a female named Nani, is the only wild-caught dolphin, and was captured in the Gulf of Mexico in 1975. Jade, a 17-year-old female, was born at SeaWorld Orlando and was transferred to the National Aquarium in 2006. The other six dolphins, including Nani's daughter, Spirit, and son, Beau, were born into captivity at the National Aquarium.

"The sanctuary [will be] ... defined by a set of principles and corresponding practices, ensuring that a 'dolphin-first' approach is the guiding philosophy," the aquarium said on its website. The aquarium is also "open to accommodating dolphins from other facilities."

The aquarium spent five years considering the future of its dolphin exhibit, and looked at options including rebuilding the dolphins' current enclosure and moving them to another facility before deciding to create a sanctuary.

"We've evaluated this for five years and have decided that this is the right decision for the dolphins, and, thus, for our organization," Colleen Dilenschneider, a member of the aquarium's board, said in a statement.

The announcement not only marks a change in the lives of these eight dolphins, but is a momentous step forward in the history of captive whales and dolphins. The sanctuary will be the first of its kind, and is all the more significant as it's being spearheaded by the nonprofit National Aquarium, which has been designated as the official national aquarium of the U.S. by Congress, though it receives no federal funding.

It also throws into sharp relief the excuses of some places like SeaWorld, which have refused to release their cetaceans to sea sanctuaries by arguing that it's never been done before or that it would be bad for the whales and dolphins. Back in March, SeaWorld said sea sanctuaries would be a "death sentence" for its orcas, and that they'd be "sitting ducks" for worst-case scenarios like hurricanes and oil spills.

The company's excuses were roundly criticized. "The idea that sea pens in and of themselves are dangerous is utterly ludicrous," Dr. Naomi Rose, Ph.D, a marine biologist and orca expert with the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo at the time. "They have no data to support that."

A group of scientists and welfare experts, Rose among them, have since banded together to establish their own sanctuary for whales and dolphins, with the tacit hope that it could eventually host some of SeaWorld's captive mammals.

But at least one SeaWorld cetacean - Jade, the dolphin who was transferred to the National Aquarium - could receive a taste of freedom soon through the National Aquarium's own initiative, which the facility plans to complete by 2020.

And, if all goes well, the decision's reach could stretch even further, as placing whales and dolphins' welfare first becomes increasingly accepted among nationally recognized institutions.

"As we look at the future of the dolphins in our care, we are working very hard to provide them the best possible place to live out their years," Tom Robinson, chair of the National Aquarium's board, said in a statement.