GASPS of awe fill the sparkling-new amphitheater here at the National Aquarium as two bottlenose dolphins shoot out of the water and sail gracefully through the air in tandem. The dolphins easily wow the small crowd; their indelible smiles are infectious. But some animal-rights activists and conservationists aren't smiling about the growing numbers of these marine mammals being held in captivity. The explosive popularity of aquariums over the past decade has sparked controversy.
About 350 bottlenose dolphins are now captive in the United States, says Nancy Daves of the Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, Calif. ``Going out and capturing dolphins from the wild is an activity whose time has come and gone,'' Ms. Daves says. ``There are enough of them in aquariums at this point.'' Aquariums should set up cooperative breeding programs to help fill the demand for dolphins with captive-born animals, Daves suggests.
Animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argue that dolphins never should have been taken into captivity in the first place. ``We're opposed to any type of exploitation of animals,'' says Ann Chynoweth, national outreach coordinator for PETA in Rockville, Md. ``Aquariums take marine animals that typically swim thousands of miles [a year] and force them to live in closets. They live very stressful lives.''
All sides of this debate profess the same goal: educating the public about marine life and the need to preserve it. But aquarium advocates and animal-welfare groups disagree on how best to achieve that end.
The National Aquarium recently completed this $35 million Marine Mammal Pavilion, which is now home to five bottlenose dolphins and three beluga whales. The aquarium is owned by the city and operated by a nonprofit corporation. Aquarium officials and supporters say the new facility and the animals it houses are powerful partners in an effort to educate the public.
``Our heart and soul for existence is to draw people in so we can teach them,'' says Nicholas Brown, the aquarium's executive director. ``We tempt them through the recreational and entertainment side and try to inspire them and instruct them about the conservation-education side.''
``People can be educated through films and other means,'' counters Jenny Woods, outreach manager for PETA.
During the opening celebrations of the new facility here, animal-rights activists from several organizations gathered outside the National Aquarium carrying signs proclaiming, ``Dolphins Die in Captivity.''
``We wanted to be there because a lot of people who love animals go to the aquarium,'' says Ms. Chynoweth of PETA. ``But what we want to let them know is that this is not how marine mammals live naturally and that there are other ways to show your appreciation for animals.''
PETA supports the idea of teaching children respect for animals and encouraging an interest in science, Chynoweth says. ``But,'' she insists, ``they are not going to learn respect for animals or our environment by seeing these beautiful marine mammals in sterile bathtubs.''
AQUARIUM professionals give the new facility high marks. ``The National Aquarium at Baltimore is without question one of the finest aquariums in North America. There's no question, it's state-of-the-art,'' says David Jenkins, deputy director of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in Bethesda, Md.
Inside the glassy, sunlit pavilion, 20-minute ``presentations'' - the aquarium avoids such terms as ``show'' or ``performance'' - are given several times a day. Aquarium mammalogists combine informational commentary with the live action in the water. Two large screens on either side of the room allow for illustration and elaboration. During each presentation, one brave youngster in the audience is invited to touch one of the dolphins.
``We use gimmicks unashamedly to get people's attention and get them learning,'' Mr. Brown says. ``It's all very carefully dosed to soften people up and then hit them'' with the educational message.
In this age of television and high technology, the argument goes, you have to be engaging to educate. ``Good education is entertaining,'' Mr. Jenkins says. ``A great deal of the present attitude and concern about cetaceans has been due to the fact that over the past 10 to 15 years a number of these very large aquariums have been able to show people what these animals are really like.''
Scientists confirm that they've been able to learn a great deal about dolphins and other marine mammals through aquariums. ``Most of what we've learned about these animals is because of the research programs that are conducted in relation to aquaria,'' says William A. Watkins, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.
Species such as the bottlenose dolphin adapt well to captivity, Dr. Watkins says. ``You don't see aberrant behavior - banging their heads into the walls and that sort of thing.''
Nedra Foster Hecker, who has been a mammalogist at the National Aquarium for two years, trains and cares for the marine mammals here. ``You can look at the gestalt of an animal and judge whether or not they are happy,'' she says. On the basis of the animals' attitudes and eating patterns, she is convinced that they are well-adapted to captivity.
But the National Aquarium has a less-than-perfect record with their marine mammals. Soon after opening in 1981, one of the aquarium's original bottlenose dolphins died. Others were evacuated after developing ulcers attributed to the stress of their environment. In addition, a visiting dolphin died soon after arriving in 1984. And in 1989, a beluga whale died of a bacterial infection.
A fiasco in Florida in 1989 perpetuated the sour situation. In the process of capturing two dolphins off the Florida coast, the aquarium ran afoul of state authorities. Brown refers to the situation as a ``substantial misunderstanding.'' In the end, one of the dolphins died and the other is still in Florida.
Executive Director Brown explains that over the years aquarium managers have learned a great deal about how to keep marine mammals in captivity. In the early days of its operation, the Baltimore facility was rented out almost every night of the week for private parties. The light and noise adversely affected the living inhabitants.
``We just simply overstressed the animals and we very quickly figured that out and stopped doing it,'' Brown says.
The new Marine Mammal Pavilion is an effort to provide more light, space, and soundproof facilities.
Watkins, the scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, suggests that, like humans, dolphins adapt fairly easily to their environment. ``I was just recently forced to stay in a hotel room that was too close to a highway,'' he says. ``I didn't sleep very well at all the first night but the second night I did well. That kind of accommodation is true of all mammalian systems.''