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Aquarium’s new day of the dolphin

The CEO of the National Aquarium Institute isn’t expecting the redesigned dolphin program and additional interactive features that launch in Baltimore Friday to bring in more visitors — but he’s hoping it’ll pull at the heart strings of the ones who do.

The National Aquarium’s more-than-1,000-pound sculpture of a jellyfish cost $140,000 and was paid for by an anonymous donor.

“Our mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, and the only way you can accomplish that is if you capture people emotionally, if you capture their fancy or their imagination,” said CEO John Racanelli. “These changes allow us to have a … much better exchange with our guests, and that’s how we’re going to be able to get them to be inspired to be part of the solution.”

The changes include a $250,000 renovation of the dolphin amphitheater. While the space previously held 1,200 people and offered three to four 30-minute shows per day, the redesigned space holds 900 people and will be open all day. The aquarium is adding two binocular and spotting-scope filled platforms where some seats used to be, as well as panels with dolphin images on each side of the amphitheater.

There won’t be scripted shows of back flips and tricks, but visitors will be able to drop in on lectures, feeding, training and play sessions that will occur every hour to hour and a half. That’ll help with accessibility, Racanelli said, noting that on peak summer days, only about half of the aquarium’s visitors could see the dolphin show.

The change is the first major overhaul of the aquarium’s dolphin program.

“The dolphin amphitheater’s been here for 20 years, and in those 20 years, although the kinds of behaviors and the nature of the show changed, the basic format has been the same … and a lot of things have changed in 20 years in terms of especially people’s interests,” said Racanelli, who also leads the aquarium in Washington, D.C. and started in his position in July.

The more intimate space and redesigned program makes the new “Dolphin Discovery” area “an exhibit with really good seats,” said Nancy Hotchkiss, senior director of visitor experiences. The dolphins are housed in a 24-foot deep, 1.5 million-gallon tank.

The amphitheater has been closed since Monday, with a day and night crew working on the renovation. The space simultaneously had cleaning and maintenance work done and is scheduled to reopen Friday.

The aquarium has also more than tripled its offerings of interactive features. It will now have 40 staff-led interactions per day, including educational talks, feedings and encounters with the animals.

“The animals are an incredible magnet, but the people are the storytellers,” said Hotchkiss, who has worked at the aquarium for 18 years, though not consecutively.

“That first morning, the line went all the way around the aquarium, down to the Science Center,” said Hotchkiss, recalling the peak crowd opening day on August 8, 1981. The first person got in line at 4:30 a.m.

Last month, the aquarium also installed a more-than-1,000-pound sculpture of 600 individually painted jellyfish in the atrium of Pier 4, outside of the “Jellies Invasion” exhibit. The $140,000 piece was paid for by an anonymous donor and created by Seattle-based artist Stephen Seigel.

The aquarium also changed its pricing and will no longer charge a separate fee for seeing the dolphins.

“People were confused by the multiple prices and even wondered why we referred to one price as a ‘total experience,’ and what did it mean about the other prices, those seemed like less than total experiences,” Racanelli said.

Adult, child and senior citizen tickets are now $29.95, $20.95 and $26.95, respectively. Admission into the aquarium and dolphin show used to be $27.95 for adults, $22.95 for children and the same $26.95 for senior citizens. Base admission was $24.95 for adults, $23.95 for senior citizens and $19.95 for children.

Racanelli said the aquarium is expecting about 1.32 million visitors to its Baltimore location this year, about the same number it had last year.

Changes to the dolphin area are only part of the more than $5 million in capital improvements planned this year for Baltimore’s aquarium, which received $2.5 million from the state for capital improvements. That money has to be matched by the aquarium.