At the end of September, the National Aquarium shuttered the doors of its 81-year-old facility in the basement of the Department of Commerce building and began the process of relocating most of the 2,500 aquatic inhabitants to its location in Baltimore. Kojo talks with the National Aquarium’s CEO about its exhibits and programs in Baltimore, and about the prospect of bringing sea life back into the nation’s capital.


  • John Racanelli Chief Executive Officer, National Aquarium


  • 13:06:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Last month, a giant Pacific octopus was disturbed from his dwelling in the basement of the US Department of Commerce Building. National Aquarium workers picked up the eight legged sea creature, placed him in a box marked live fish, and sent him on the road. His new home would be the National Aquarium sister location in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

  • 13:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe pink cephalopod is just one of 2500 animals who are being transported out of the District since the National Aquarium permanently closed its doors in D.C. a month and a half ago. While the aquarium closed to make way for renovations, it won't be coming back when construction is done. At least not to that spot. So, what's next for the sharks, the electric eel, and the logger head turtle? The National Aquarium's Chief Executive Officer, John Racanelli joins me to talk about all of this.

  • 13:07:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe National Aquarium is nonprofit organization behind the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the now closed aquarium in downtown D.C. John Racanelli is the CEO. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:56

    MR. JOHN RACANELLIThank you, Kojo. It's great to be here.

  • 13:07:58

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call. 800-433-8850 if you have any questions on the National Aquarium. Let's start with what everyone cares about. The giant Pacific octopus. Apparently, his trip across the Maryland state line hit a complication. The truck that was carrying him broke down, had to pull over in the Ikea parking lot in College Park. How is he doing now?

  • 13:08:25

    RACANELLIHe's doing great after his tribulations getting the 50 miles from Washington to Baltimore. But, and it says a lot, I think, that we don't have a truck for that purpose. We have to rent them, because we're not in the business of moving them around very often. And so, we want to make sure that they build a home where they live. So, he'll be established in Baltimore. He's already settled in up there. But that's not to cause people to think that he or his kin will never be back in the Capitol.

  • 13:08:57

    NNAMDIThat's something we'll be talking about during the course of this broadcast. You wrote that you expected the move to last several months, overall. What has that process been like so far?

  • 13:09:05

    RACANELLIIt is quite a Herculean effort to move 2500 animals, even, you know, just up the highway. In fact, in some ways, it's no less difficult to do it for this short distance than it would if we'd been putting them on an airplane to go somewhere, to some other continent. Once they're into the transport boxes and tanks and the like, you know, you've done the hardest part of the work. All told, it's going well. And just about all the animals are now up to our animal care facility, which is in Baltimore, but not at the aquarium.

  • 13:09:41

    RACANELLIAnd it has been now, I think, about six weeks of solid effort. We have a great team here. And they've been really on it. They've really taken of them. There's been zero mortalities, thank goodness, and all the animals are successfully and safely moving. And the few that are left are also slated to go pretty soon.

  • 13:10:02

    NNAMDIYou've also succeeded, apparently, in moving the electric eel. This is an animal that can produce up to 600 volts of electricity, and moving it, well frankly, sounds dangerous. How did you do it?

  • 13:10:14

    RACANELLIThat one's a little trickier. What you do is you use a lot of insulation. So, literally, he was gently eased into a plastic bag, a big plastic bag, a very thick one. You don't wanna pick him up with anything that's, of course, metallic. He really can generate a jolt and it's a great prey strategy. This is a predator who uses that current to be able to capture prey, to stun them and then eat them. And with humans, there are those that would tell you that a human could be badly injured by it, but we didn't want to find out, even if it would be a small jolt.

  • 13:10:51

    NNAMDIOur guest is John Racanelli. You can ask him questions at 800-433-8850. Sorry I interrupted you.

  • 13:10:58

    RACANELLINo, it's quite all right. He has also settled in up there. We have an electric eel there, as well, in Baltimore, so he's got good company. You don't put them together, but the exhibit that the one lives in in the holding facility for this one, are, of course, equivalent. And designed for this kind of animal. Every single animal in the collection has different needs, whether it's the health and husbandry, the food needs, the actual size of the habitat.

  • 13:11:28

    RACANELLIThe bottom line for us always is that the health and safety of the animals is first and foremost. And, again, that team has done an outstanding job.

  • 13:11:37

    NNAMDIAs the aquarium explains, aquatic animals like a giant Pacific octopus are most comfortable at a certain water temperature. While adjusting the temperature of the water seems simple, overall, what does it take to get these widely varying animals acclimated to a new environment.

  • 13:11:55

    RACANELLIWell, that's -- I'm glad you brought that up, Kojo. There's really a lot of factors involved. Temperature is one of the primary ones. Salinity is another. The actual composition of the sea water has to be carefully monitored. We have a lab at the University of Maryland's Institute for Marine and Environmental Technologies up there in Baltimore, where we have four full time staff that handle the pathology and the water quality laboratory work. And they sample something like 600 samples per week of sea water from our various systems. Sea water and fresh water.

  • 13:12:30

    RACANELLIThe key with moving animals is you have to make sure first that you do acclimate them carefully to the water that they're going to move in. And then when they get to the other end, you have to make sure that they are carefully assimilated into the water they are about to move into. So, there's really three steps in that process, and that often involves gently warming the water with the animal in it. Or cooling it, depending upon what they're about to move into.

  • 13:12:55

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Please put on your headphones, because I am about to speak with David in Leesburg, Virginia who has, it would appear, a very specific question about a specific animal. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:13:10

    DAVIDYes, first I just wanted to say that my family and I have enjoyed the National Zoo for years. I was curious what happened to the Albino Alligator, and whether he moved up there to Baltimore as well, and whether he'll be put on exhibit.

  • 13:13:30

    RACANELLIThat's a good question. The albino alligator that was here was on loan from the Autobon Aquarium and Zoo down in New Orleans, and so he was here on limited engagement. And he was already back to New Orleans, I think last winter. So, he wasn't part of our permanent collection. We did have a small group of gators who were actually brought to us from one of the gator farms. And they went back to Louisiana and were released as juveniles into the wild. So they're out there somewhere doing what alligators do best, and happily for it.

  • 13:14:11

    DAVIDI got the impression, when Kojo started, that there might be a possibility that we might see the National Aquarium return to D.C. Is that a possibility?

  • 13:14:21

    RACANELLIWell, you raise a great question. There's a couple pieces to that answer. First of all, overall, we're committed to keeping a presence in the Capitol, in one form or another. And I want to talk, in a few minutes, about our blueprint. Our long range plan. We have also spent a good bit of time talking with our colleagues at the American -- or the National Museum of Natural History, which has a really, really progressive and intelligent new, relatively new director Kirk Johnson.

  • 13:14:54

    RACANELLIAnd even though he's a Paleo guy, he's not an aquatics guy like me, he gets our world. And he's also a diver, so he came up to Baltimore, and we took a dive together. And talked about the possibilities of possibly, at some point, helping them populate some of their galleries, particularly the Sant Ocean Haul with live exhibits. And that could happen in the future, so there's a number of possibilities that could take place. Stay tuned.

  • 13:15:20

    DAVIDI'm so glad to hear it.

  • 13:15:21

    RACANELLIThank you.

  • 13:15:22

    NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What memories do you have of the National Aquarium in the Department of Commerce Building? What do you think of its closure? Would you like to see the National Aquarium come back to D.C.? What would you want it to look like? A full size aquarium or a smaller facility? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. The aquarium first moved into the Commerce Building in 1932, and back then the aquarium was receiving federal funding.

  • 13:15:49

    NNAMDIWhat kind of a budget does the National Aquarium have today to set up shop again inside Washington D.C.?

  • 13:15:56

    RACANELLIWell, therein lies the greatest challenge, Kojo. It is an expensive business to be in. And that's one of the reasons it makes sense to be a not for profit organization, as we are, because if you're really committed to doing the kinds of things that we believe in, that is education programs, field conservation work, on site research, all of that. You really, you can't be in this business to make a buck because it is a very expensive business to be in.

  • 13:16:27

    RACANELLIWhen that aquarium opened in 1932 in the Commerce Building, which was then, I think, the largest government building in the world, it was state of the art. In fact, that's how it was announced was that this was the leading new aquarium employing the latest technologies. And one of the things about it that is fascinating is just how those technologies weathered the years. 81 years between that opening and this most recent closure.

  • 13:16:56

    RACANELLIThe tanks themselves have brass bezels and cypress wood seals because -- and then glass, of course, not acrylic. Back in those days, they didn't have the kinds of water proof adhesives that we use nowadays to seal the window to the tank. And they leaked like sieves. And it's always been that way. It's -- the technology has evolved dramatically. And, of course, with the opening of the National Aquarium in Baltimore back in the '80s, and then the real renaissance of aquariums that that spawned over the years since then, aquarium technology has taken off.

  • 13:17:32

    RACANELLIAnd with acrylics and non ferrous materials, non rusting materials that you can use, and the kind of interpretive opportunities we have, you can really tell a story now. But you need space and you need a lot of dollars with which to do it.

  • 13:17:46

    NNAMDITo visitor, the name National Aquarium can make it sound like the National Zoo. Indeed, our previous caller did have that slip of the tongue. But the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, and that means the government administers its funding. Do you think the public fully understands how their local aquarium works and how it's funded?

  • 13:18:06

    RACANELLII think that they do not, because one of things that we experienced during the recent closure, the federal government closure, was quite a lot of calls and texts and emails to the National Aquarium in Baltimore asking if the facility was going to remain open. So, one of the benefits of being the National Aquarium is that we do have both -- actually, I think it's both an opportunity, but also an obligation to be national. To do the right thing by the nation in terms of representing aquatic habitats and what we call aquatic treasures worldwide.

  • 13:18:43

    RACANELLIAt the same time, we have to overcome the potential for those kinds of misperceptions, because, as you noted earlier Kojo, we do not receive federal support. We have had some -- we do work closely with NOAA. That's why the aquarium has been in the Commerce Building. That's also NOAA's headquarters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We do do some programs with them, and we have received some grants for educational work that we do together.

  • 13:19:08

    RACANELLIBut we don't get annual operating support or capital support from the federal government, and haven't for some number of years.

  • 13:19:15

    NNAMDIWhich can help to explain this, but you probably can expand on it. Tickets to the Baltimore Aquarium can cost about 20 dollars for children, 35 for adults, which is more expensive than most zoos, like Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. What makes the aquarium more expensive?

  • 13:19:30

    RACANELLIIt's really a function of the cost of operating an aquarium. And if you look around the country right now, the leading aquariums are all, we all, we don't collude, but it seems that we all end up in about the same zone, 30, 29 to 35, and in some cases, 40 dollars per adult for admission. It is, if you think about it, we pump the entire two and half million gallon volume of the aquarium's water turns over every couple of hours.

  • 13:19:58

    RACANELLISo, and what you're doing -- salt water is actually identified as a corrosive substance so what we're doing is pumping a corrosive substance through the veins of our building on a consistent basis. And, as you can imagine, that does have its impact on the systems and the facilities of a big complex building. The cost of operation alone is the single most challenging part of running aquariums. And that's also why it's a very big decision to decide if we want to try to put a living aquarium back into the commerce building or anywhere else in the capitol. It's a very large investment.

  • 13:20:35

    NNAMDIOn to Sarah in Chevy Chase, Md. Sarah, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:20:41

    SARAHHi. A long time fan of Kojo and all of you all. My father worked for the Veterans Administration in D.C. for many years. And he took me to the aquarium in the basement of the commerce department many times. And I have a vivid memory of the piranha collection. Initially there were two piranhas staring at each other on opposite sides of a pane of glass. Then the next time I visited, the pane of glass was gone and there was a sign saying that piranhas had been misunderstood.

  • 13:21:14

    SARAHAnd then I went back another time and the pane of glass was back. So could you say something about the temperament and nature of piranhas, please? And it was such a wonderful aquarium. Thank you so much for keeping part of it going.

  • 13:21:29

    RACANELLIWell, thank you. And, yes, the poor piranha, they've always gotten a bad rap. Piranha are mostly schooling fishes so they actually can coexist. Like many species they do have those moment when they interact and they do have, I believe, some territoriality behaviors. So you can't always count on them to be completely comfortable with each other. But overall, Piranha do, in fact, exist in places like the Amazon Basin in schools and in large aggregation. So generally they are safer -- they're perfectly safe being in an exhibit together.

  • 13:22:09

    RACANELLII know that in the good old days of the original National Aquarium though there were some experiments. And I have a feeling that may have been the first time anyone tried to exhibit piranha.

  • 13:22:20

    SARAHYes. It was a rather small tank so I could understand. Anyway, well, thank you. Please keep up the good work. You all at WAMU also.

  • 13:22:28

    NNAMDISarah, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:22:29

    RACANELLIThank you.

  • 13:22:30

    RACANELLISpeaking of who can get along together, we got an email from Sandra in McLean who says, "If electric eels can't be put together, how do they mate?"

  • 13:22:40

    RACANELLIMany species -- that is also a great question.

  • 13:22:42

    NNAMDISpeaking of sparks flying.

  • 13:22:43

    RACANELLIThat's right. That's a good one. Many species of animals that are generally solitary will come together only during the opportunity to mate. And then they'll go back apart as quickly as they came together. And I don't know the specific mating habits of electric eels. I think I need to bone up on my electric eel natural history. But I can tell you that many animals from that family are, in fact, solitary throughout their entire lifecycle. And the only time you see them together is for a very brief moment when they mate.

  • 13:23:18

    RACANELLII think the tale of -- to come back to our giant Pacific octopus, that is a fascinating tale. And in brief what happens, they have a relatively short lifecycle, I think three to five years. They are solitary. In fact, they will defend their territory quite vigorously against other octopuses. And by the way, it is octopuses not octopi.

  • 13:23:42

    NNAMDINot octopi.

  • 13:23:44

    RACANELLIAnd then along comes that moment when they're going to try to perpetuate themselves and their species. And what happens then is really pretty wild. The male comes. He comes to the female. He has a long tentacle that is emplaced in the -- within the area of the female where her eggs are. They fertilize. And then oftentimes the female will then eat the male -- kill him and eat him providing great nutrition for her growing brood of eggs. She will then brood the eggs and eventually release the eggs in these interesting looking cases. And then often will die there at that location and be fed upon by the baby octopuses as they're born.

  • 13:24:32

    RACANELLISo it's quite an interesting kind of recycling approach to species (word?) .

  • 13:24:37

    NNAMDITalk about sacrificing yourself for your children, that's taking it a little too far for me.

  • 13:24:41

    RACANELLIWas it that good?

  • 13:24:42

    NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with John Racanelli. He's chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. And we'll be talking more about conservation. So you can start calling now, 800-433-8850. Have you visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore recently? What was your experience like? Or if you'd like to share thoughts about conservation, 800-433-8850 or send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:46

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with John Racanelli. He is chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. That's a nonprofit organization behind the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the now closed aquarium in downtown D.C. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Since you've been at the helm of the National Aquarium, you've increased the organization's focus on conservation. Just last May you created a position for a chief conservation officer. What do you think the aquarium's role should be in preserving the world's oceans and the animals that live in it?

  • 13:27:19

    NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Jake who says, "What do you see as the role of aquariums and museums when it comes to conservation?

  • 13:27:25

    RACANELLIA very important role. In fact, I think it is central to what we're all about. There was once -- once it was justification enough, somewhat as in the case of zoos, to simply exhibit the animals and maybe you had some natural history about the animals. And the storyline was mainly, gee aren't they interesting and look at these cool habitats. Well, times have evolved.

  • 13:27:47

    RACANELLIAnd as we were talking about earlier, we've never known so much about the oceans, about this -- actually I use the term the oceans since it's all interconnected -- we've never known so much. And yet, we've also never been -- the thin envelope in which we live and live comfortably as humans has never been so imperiled. And that's all about the health of the ocean. It provides for most of our oxygen. It takes in a lot of carbon dioxide. It provides -- it moderates the weather.

  • 13:28:18

    RACANELLIAnd as we've just seen in this terrible news from the Philippines, when ocean temperatures get out of balance you get these super typhoons that are frighteningly powerful. That's all about a warming ocean and it's something that we have to address. I think aquariums can occupy a very important role in getting people to both understand and care for the world ocean and all the aquatic places that are fed by or feed into the ocean. It's all interconnected. And as we tell people all the time, everybody's downstream of someone else.

  • 13:28:49

    RACANELLISo it's important that we remember that principle when we think about the things we put into or take out of oceans and fabulous bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.

  • 13:29:00

    NNAMDIThe aquarium's first big exhibit since you've been CEO always stresses conservation. It's called Black Tip Reef and it's an exploration of the Indo-Pacific Reefs. What do you think aquarium visitors can learn about conservation by looking at sea life up close?

  • 13:29:15

    RACANELLIA couple of very important messages that we're telling with Black Tip Reef now. It is a completely fabricated reef, human made, to use the correct terminology, because our team was about as many women as men. And they built a reef that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. And, in fact, the indicator of that is that the fish and other denizens, and especially our 20 Black Tip Reef sharks treat that reef exactly the way they would a reef in nature.

  • 13:29:47

    RACANELLIPart of the message there is that it take an incredible amount of effort to replicate a reef. And in fact, to have a reef that healthy in the ocean is something that nature appears to do effortlessly, but in fact is the function of a lot of processes that have to be just exactly right. So that's the first message, the importance of coral reefs.

  • 13:30:09

    RACANELLIThe second, and one that's not quite as common to people is the 20 Black Tip Reef sharks, after which the reef is named, are really as protectors. They are the ones keeping the reef healthy and free of dying animals, of detritus. They have a role too and they're actually really the reef's friend. And it's something for people to get their mind around the idea that sharks can be their friend. But that's in fact one of our most important messages. All those animals have a purpose in nature.

  • 13:30:40

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Tony in Ashburn, Va. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:49

    TONYHello, Kojo. And thank you very much for inviting me on. I'm a retired United States Navy and have heard stories -- or I've heard that there is a scuba diving opportunity at the National Aquarium. Could you speak to that, please? Tell us -- tell me a little bit more about it.

  • 13:31:12

    RACANELLII most certainly can and your information is correct. We do have a guest diver program. Of course the person has to be a certified diver. And you can find out about it by going to our website which is A-Q-U-A. And it is done with a partner, which is called Oceans Edge or Reef's Edge dive shop and dive school. Yeah, and it's a great program. And, by the way, apropos of the day today, one of the most interesting guest diver experiences that we've had in recent times at the aquarium occurred about a year ago.

  • 13:31:48

    RACANELLIIt wasn't on Veterans Day but it was during the summer and we had several members of the Wounded Warriors Program come to the National Aquarium and dive in a couple of our exhibits. Most of them were individuals who had lost limbs. And one of the first animals that they saw when they got there was Calypso, our 520-pound loggerhead sea turtle who was rescued 12 years ago in the Long Island Sound having been caught there as the temperature changed and she couldn't get out. She was cold, stunned and eventually lost one of her flippers to frostbite.

  • 13:32:28

    RACANELLIOur vets amputated the flipper. They sealed her up. She did well. She went from 18 pounds to 520 and she navigates around Black Tip Reef now like a champ using her three flippers. A couple of those guys, you know, who were heroes and veterans and had lost a limb saw her and said, all right, if she can do this, I can do this. And they had the best dive of their lives in the Atlantic Coral Reef. It was really a great story.

  • 13:32:54

    NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have any questions for the National Aquarium CEO? Do you have any favorite exhibits or animals, 800-433-8850? Or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. We mentioned the Black Tip Reef and the exhibit now includes sea animals like two carpet sharks, which just moved in to the exhibit. They normally live in those Indo-Pacific waters. How are animals like these affected by the ocean's health?

  • 13:33:26

    RACANELLIYou know, I think they are affected by it as much as any animals could be. And they affect it. The presence of those kinds of animals in the ocean is hugely important. And the more we look into the health of coral reefs around the tropical belt, the more we learn that when sharks are removed from that system, which -- and the carpet sharks are one of those species -- one of those animals from that large family -- you get significant changes which include actual diminution, a reduction in the number of reef fishes.

  • 13:34:00

    RACANELLIIt's counterintuitive but the sharks often are not feeding on the fish that are on the reef. They're feeding on the animals that are dying. They're feeding on the less robust ones. So they're integral to the health and safety of reefs. And one of the things that I think your listeners -- excuse me -- probably know is that sharks have been very much at risk over the last couple of decades due to something called shark fin soup. And shark fin soup is ultimately non nutritive. It has no nutritional value but there's symbolic value in certain Asian cultures.

  • 13:34:37

    RACANELLIAnd unfortunately, the fins are the only part that they'll put into the soup. And it costs a lot of money to get it. It's typically served at weddings. And ultimately sharks are being killed in huge numbers just for their fins and for this soup that no one really needs. It's a tough one. And at this point the numbers range between 65 million and 100 million sharks are being killed each year to get their fins, to dry them and render them and put them into this soup. And that is going to -- if allowed to continue would finish off the population of sharks in not very many years.

  • 13:35:13

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Pat in Washington, D.C. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:35:20

    PATYes. When I came here in the early '70's -- I have five children -- we would go down to the aquarium. It was a big thing. It was free. And also I was a teacher and I would take my -- the children that I taught there for a field trip. And then we would go back and we set up a fish tank in our classroom as kind of a follow up. But when they -- anyway, when the aquarium opened in Baltimore, that was kind of pricy for us, a single woman with her five children. Bye.

  • 13:35:55

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. I want to follow up on that because Angela in Manassas, Va. has a question about that. Angela, it is your turn. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:06

    ANGELAI'm a home-schooling mom, family of seven and the price to go to the Baltimore aquarium is quite prohibitive. And I'm wondering if you do have special days, home-school days or days when you can go in just for a donation. What do you have for those of us who can't afford to take a large group to the aquarium?

  • 13:36:22

    NNAMDIThere you go.

  • 13:36:22

    RACANELLIYeah, thank you for asking that question. We do have home-school days in the spring and the fall. Again, if you go to the education section of our website, you can find a link to that. And just incidentally whenever anybody in the listening area is interested in going to the aquarium, I'm going to betray my marketing guys and let you know a couple of insider tricks. First of all, Fridays after 5:00 are the best bargain there is. We charge $12 for adults, children, seniors, everybody instead of the 35, 15, 20.

  • 13:37:00

    RACANELLISo it's a significant discount. And it's the same aquarium. In fact, it's in many ways a more interesting aquarium at night than in the day because of the nocturnal animals like the octopus who are out and about. And that runs from 5:00 until about 9:30 every Friday night now until I think spring break and Easter.

  • 13:37:18

    RACANELLIThe other one is, if you're a Marylander -- and I know many people who listen to WAMU are -- we have Marylander mornings which are every morning except Saturdays, Sunday through Friday, again now until I think the Easter break. And if you come in before noon, you get a $10 discount. So it's a pretty good deal. And the idea is if you live here you ought to be able to get the better deal because you can come at a time when the tourists perhaps are not coming.

  • 13:37:47

    RACANELLISo those are good. And then finally we have the infamous dollar days. It's a mixed bag because you're only paying a dollar but there's an awful big crowd that shows up and it's almost always the first weekend in December. I believe that's the date again. It may be the second weekend in December this year because Thanksgiving is so late, but it's a Saturday and a Sunday. It's a dollar a person. It's a great day but it is a big crowd, I'll warn you on that right now.

  • 13:38:13

    NNAMDIAngela, thank you very much for your call. Good luck. The health problem -- addressing the health problem of the world's oceans means addressing problems of overfishing, problems of pollution. And problems like these often end up in hated political debates among the world's leaders. Do you think aquarium organizations like your own should take -- play an active part in these kinds of political discussions?

  • 13:38:38

    RACANELLII think we have to. I don't think we have a choice really, Kojo. We are places of information and awareness. And in some cases advocacy for intelligent science-based decision making. And the science is irrefutable. And again, to an NPR audience this is a bit of a, you know, what I call a BGO, a blinding glimpse of the obvious. But, you know, there is -- we are changing the climate globally. It is -- let's start here, it is changing. We can certify that there are anthropogenic causes for that. In other words, human-caused factors.

  • 13:39:14

    RACANELLIAnd primarily the release of so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is a primary cause. What we hadn't known until very recently was how remarkably the oceans have been dutifully taking in that carbon, huge, huge quantities. Billions of tons of carbon per day being locked into seawater by the ocean. The problem is -- and some would say it's in the vicinity of 35 to 40 percent of all the carbon that has yet been released into the atmosphere, has been fixed in the seawater.

  • 13:39:46

    RACANELLIThe problem there is that when you get that much carbon in the water, it actually changes the chemistry of seawater and it causes a change in the chemical makeup of the water which leaves those animals that rely upon calcium carbonate to exist, it causes them to lose the capacity to build shells and hard structures. So oysters, crabs and coral reefs are losing their capacity to protect themselves via their exoskeleton, their shell or their large coralline structure that they build.

  • 13:40:21

    RACANELLIAnd that could lead to huge problems for species, and therefore habitats throughout the oceans. We've got to -- just for the same reasons we've got to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, or at least arrest the growth of carbon in the atmosphere, we need to do the same thing in the ocean, and it's a much longer-term process.

  • 13:40:41

    NNAMDILet's go to Scott in Arlington, Va. Scott, cheer us up a little bit.

  • 13:40:46

    SCOTTHey, you were asking earlier about what our favorite things are in terms of coming to the aquarium, and we make a pilgrimage every summer up from Washington. And for my kids who are 11 and 7, definitely the dolphin show always ranks right up there, and -- but number two close behind it, since you guys introduced the 4-D theater, that's been a real highlight. That's just an out-of-this-world experience. You don't get those that often, particularly the fourth D there, the sensory, is great.

  • 13:41:19


  • 13:41:21

    SCOTTAnd then third on their list, they always -- you have a great gift shop and they love going there and buying gifts for their friends or even for themselves, and so they really appreciate those three things. But it's -- you got a great facility. I as an architect really appreciate the architecture of the building, and it's a great space and always a wonderful visit.

  • 13:41:44

    NNAMDIThat's one of the things we didn't have a chance to talk about. I said -- Scott, thanks for cheering us up, but the architecture of the building is also very important, is it not?

  • 13:41:52

    RACANELLIWell, Scott just cheered me up on all three counts by the way. Thank you. We love you, and we hope you guys will come back for years and years to come. You know, it is. And one of the best things about what we and other aquaria do throughout the country, is we really create a lot of joy and a lot of connections between people and the animals, and also the part that people don't realize until they've -- until you start to study it carefully, is how many connections people make with each other.

  • 13:42:21

    RACANELLII had a fascinating thing happen at the same dolphin exhibit just recently. We had a little guy named Bailey was down there, and Bailey was bouncing a ball out into the audience with some kids on the other side of the glass. And there was a group of kids who were Amish, and they were there with their mom and dad and they were catching the ball, and then Bailey just decided to bat it the other day and it went to family of people who are Muslim.

  • 13:42:47

    RACANELLIAnd the next thing I knew, they were all -- of course everybody had their cameras, their phones up taking pictures, and I realized, this little dolphin is creating a cultural crossover moment for people from central Pennsylvania, and people somewhere in the Middle East, in a way that would not happen anywhere else, and that's one of the magic things that happens in aquariums. That's part of what we're all about, I think, is creating those connections often between people who never would have thought that they would have a connection with others.

  • 13:43:16

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Scott, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments for the CEO of the National Aquarium. 800-433-8850. You can send email to, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:18

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Racanelli. He's chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. It's a nonprofit behind the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the now closed aquarium in DC. John we got an email from Kathleen who said, "Of all the museums and monuments in Washington DC, I have to say that visiting the National Aquarium was not my favorite experience. It made me so sad that all its inhabitants were combined in a dark basement of a government office building and relatively small tanks.

  • 13:45:44

    NNAMDI"Granted, I don't know how much space the alligator and the octopus might need, but it actually pleases me that they're now all headed to the wonderful aquarium in Baltimore. If the aquarium does come back to DC, I would like to see it given its proper due, its own space with proper facilities."

  • 13:46:00

    RACANELLIWell, thank you, Kathleen, for calling the question. That is true, and that was probably the single biggest challenge and pain point for all of us was that we share that same desire to give these animals the best possible homes they can. I mean, we use terms like naturalistic, and we mean something by that. We want them to be as close to nature as you can without being out in the ocean. And that wasn't able -- that wasn't possible in that old facility because it was designed to such a standard of so long ago.

  • 13:46:34

    RACANELLIOne of the things that we're looking at is, in these 81 years since that facility first opened, what kind of technology changes have occurred, and how do those present us with opportunities today in a place like Washington DC where some of the most important decisions about the planet are being made daily. And one of the ideas that we are looking at is whether we could use a different space in the commerce building or possibly elsewhere in the capitol to provide something that might be more of a convening space.

  • 13:47:06

    RACANELLII've been using the term digital aquarium to describe it. There are these fabulous new technologies now that allow -- there's something called a hyperwall which is a -- just imagine a wall that is crystal clear, high-definition video, and the technology for transmitting that information, those pictures and audio from the field, even from the bottom of the ocean at the end of a tether a thousand feet below a ship on a remote operated vehicle into a room in the capitol to help make the point with decision makers, policymakers about the importance say of the Mariana Trench or the coral reef of Pitcairn Island.

  • 13:47:44

    RACANELLIThese are all possibilities with the technology that's no available, and if in fact we could build a facility where that kind of convening could take place, it does get the mind stimulated about the possibilities for, you know, for doing the good work that we need to do to keep this ocean and this planet healthy.

  • 13:48:03

    NNAMDIAnna comments, and you may have just responded to Anna's comment, "It seems to me that the National Aquarium could do a great job of educating people about the human impact of global warming and its effects on the natural environment in general and oceans in particular. If children realize that the beautiful and fascinating creatures they see on exhibit are endangered in the wild, and that our wastefulness has a negative impact on these animals' wellbeing, perhaps we can create a more environmentally conscious citizenship. Funding might come from Al Gore, et al."

  • 13:48:33

    RACANELLIAl et al.

  • 13:48:34

    NNAMDIAl et al.

  • 13:48:34

    RACANELLIWe are really spending a lot of energy now and time and attention on trying to figure out what is the future of aquaria in the United States. What is the right role that we should all play in the years to come. And, you know, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has now been there for 32 years, which is amazing because I remember when it opened, and I have to admit, I was already an adult. And one of the things that, you know, has changed in that time is this awareness that she mentions, this awareness of natural processes.

  • 13:49:09

    RACANELLIAnd as my friend and mentor, Sylvia Earle, who is a wonderful, intelligent ocean scientist, has the best nickname around, she's called Her Deepness.

  • 13:49:21

    NNAMDIThat's cool.

  • 13:49:21

    RACANELLIAnd as Sylvia has said, the next ten years are probably as important as the last 10,000 in terms of the future of the ocean and the life support system that it creates that keeps us alive on this planet. So I think our job is in fact to do what we can to try to convey those messages, and we do. We do. We have -- one of the programs I'm most proud of at the aquarium is something called the Climate Change Interpreters, and it's a program where -- that's co-funded by NOAA, and we have some private support that we're starting to put into that as NOAA's available funds are diminishing.

  • 13:49:55

    RACANELLIAnd it trains high school kids to use this incredible tool called the Magic Globe, upon -- it's a globe about the size of a beach ball, but it's projected from within off a computer, and they can show people all kinds of natural processes projected onto the skin of the globe, and in doing so, explain to them some of the processes that are at play when we -- as we put more, you know, nitrogen and more carbon into the atmosphere.

  • 13:50:23

    NNAMDIAnd your vision for the future of the National Aquarium in Washington DC is one that would take into account that this is not just an aquarium where people can see things, this is the nation's capital -- the political capital of the country, and to some extent the world, in which very important decisions are made about the future of aquatic lie.

  • 13:50:45

    RACANELLIYou've just nailed it, Kojo. I'm going to have to hire you to take charge of our messaging, because that's it in a nutshell. We want to do three things. We want to delight the people we serve. We really feel that it's our job to create a delightful experience that, you know, in all the best meanings of that word. We also want to drive conservation action. We feel that it's important that our role is one that causes people to want to take action, individually, as communities, at any scale. And the third thing is to deliver a secure future.

  • 13:51:15

    RACANELLIWe feel that if we can help deliver a secure future for this planet and for its inhabitants, we will have done our -- we will have fulfilled our mission magnificently.

  • 13:51:23

    NNAMDINational Aquarium also dedicates resources to rescuing and rehabilitating sea life around this region. How has that program evolved since it began back in 1991?

  • 13:51:34

    RACANELLIActually, pretty amazingly. What started out as kind of an occasional, you know, ad hoc opportunity to help take care of a seal or a turtle has now lead to a full blown program that has two staff and a bunch -- hundreds of volunteers that help, and each year is now engaged in anywhere from 20 to 40 rescues, recoveries, and we hope rehabilitations of the animals so that they can be released, the four Rs. And just last winter, we had a very large number of turtles, again, came down from -- that were brought here from the north from the coast of Massachusetts, rehabilitated at or exhibit --in our off exhibit in our animal center, and then turned loose down in the Carolinas.

  • 13:52:23

    RACANELLIIt was a very good to a troubling story where hundreds of turtles had been stranded ashore due to cold -- due to a quick change in the climate up there. We will be expanding that program. We have figure out that this is something that we really have to do. It's a little bit thankless because the animals themselves by law have to be taken care of, and then everything you can do to release them is required, and generally that's done off exhibit.

  • 13:52:54

    RACANELLIThere's no -- other than being able to tell people about it, we aren't able to really show them until and unless we can build a better facility where people could maybe peek through the window to see these little guys while they're getting their health back and getting ready to go back to sea.

  • 13:53:10

    NNAMDISpeaking of peeking through windows, let's go to Jeannie in Silver Spring, Md. Jeannie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:17

    JEANNIEHello there. I have low vision, and I want to say that for people with poor vision, the National Aquarium in the Commerce Building was very, very good because the creatures were right up there where I could see them. And Baltimore is very nice, and it can handle a whole lot of people, but most of what you have is a blur. So I'm very grateful that the National Aquarium, in the Commerce Building was there so that I could see them, and I hope you tell the staff that their work was appreciated.

  • 13:53:46

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jeannie. See, all of the technology you mentioned may come in really useful for people like Jeannie in the future.

  • 13:53:53

    RACANELLIWell, and to your point too, Jeannie, we do have -- we have special access days at the Aquarium, one of which is for people with limited or no vision, and I think it's nowadays done on the first Saturday of the month, but you better check that. And we actually do have volunteers who are, in some cases, are actually blind or visually impaired, but also our sighted volunteers who are trained to help people who have limited vision get to see and experience through other senses a lot of the things that are going on the aquarium.

  • 13:54:27

    RACANELLIBut you're right. Those jewel tanks are the best when you're able to get your nose right up to the glass and really see it. If you come back for the Black Tip Reef, you'll find that that the big giant window down below that we've installed really does open up some opportunities that we didn't used to have because the reef and the fish are so close to the glass and you can actually -- you really get to see them finally.

  • 13:54:49

    NNAMDIWell, there's sound involved too. That National Aquarium's web page for the Black Tip Reef includes a live stream of the exhibit called the Shark Cam. There viewers might see the striped Zebra Shark, a Clown Trigger Fish, or a Harlequin Tuskfish, or they can just listen to the calming sound of an underwater tank.

  • 13:55:18

    NNAMDIWhy do you think it's important to provide an online portal into the exhibit like that?

  • 13:55:22

    RACANELLIYou know, a lot of people -- a lot of what we do, we do beyond our walls, and that's exactly how we describe it internally. We need to do our good work beyond the walls. And we found that one of the ways with this incredible technology that's available to us is to get the aquarium out there to people who aren't able to get to us, even if they can afford it, people in Europe have a pretty hard time getting to Baltimore on a regular basis. We've now had over two million views to that shark cam.

  • 13:55:49

    RACANELLII've gotten in trouble with a couple of friends who have said, this thing is on all the screens in my office now, no one's doing any work. But it is really, you know, one of the ways -- this whole concept of telepresence, I think, is -- if we do it for good, and if we do it in a way that provides people with more access to information and to -- frankly, to beautiful sites, I think we're doing something really useful for the world.

  • 13:56:15

    NNAMDIComing soon to a screen in my office where my producers think already that I don't do any work. The National Aquarium is also involved with restoration locally in Baltimore's harbor and in the greater Chesapeake Bay. What kind of work are the Aquarium's conservation experts doing in those areas?

  • 13:56:32

    RACANELLISo we have three phases to our conservation program. One is about advocacy, and, in fact, we were very pleased that we were part of the consortium that got a shark fin ban passed in the state of Maryland, becoming the first East Coast state to do so. And since then, several others have joined suit. So the advocacy side which we're not too strident about. There's others that do that, you know, more effectively and more arduously, but -- or more ardently, but we do stand up for conservation principles that we think are important.

  • 13:57:05

    RACANELLIThe second is the field conservation side, and that's probably one of the most impactful areas that we have in conservation. We have a team of about ten people now who are out in the environment almost all the time. We have over a thousand volunteers that have helped up with plantings. One of the things we do is remove the non-native, the invasive plants, and then plant native planets and then restore areas of shoreline all around the Chesapeake. To date, I think about 140 acres, and more importantly, almost two millions plants, trees, shrubs, and bushes, all native to our region.

  • 13:57:44

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. John Racanelli is chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. That's a non-profit behind the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the now closed aquarium in downtown DC. We look forward to a future National Aquarium here in Washington DC. John Racanelli, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:01

    RACANELLIThank you, and stay tuned.

  • 13:58:04

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows