On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli to the show on Monday, September 21 at 12:30 p.m. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
The National Aquarium is full of astounding creatures — and not all of them live in the water. There’s the lion’s mane jellyfish, which can have more than 1,200 tentacles, and the spotfin porcupinefish, which can inflate its body like a balloon. Then there’s the laughing kookaburra, which sounds like … take a listen.
National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli is in charge of making sure all 800 species in the aquarium stay healthy, and that the aquarium’s 1.2 million visitors a year not only have a good time at the Baltimore attraction, but go home inspired to take better care of our oceans.
Lately he’s had another responsibility: to figure out how to run the aquarium and open it to the public in the middle of a pandemic.
Maybe you want to know what more about how the aquarium feeds its sharks, what its going to do with its dolphins or how it helps care for the Chesapeake Bay. John Racanelli is taking kids’ questions!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
The Kojo Nnamdi Show is providing special coverage on climate issues this week as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of 400 news outlets designed to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- John Racanelli Chief Executive Officer, National Aquarium; @NatlAquarium
KOJO NNAMDIThat's the call of the laughing kookaburra, which is just one of more than 20,000 species you can find at the National Aquarium, considered one of the finest in the world. Most of its animals live below water and some above, but none of them was getting any visitors for three months after the pandemic hit.
KOJO NNAMDINow, the aquarium in Baltimore's Inner Harbor is open again and eager to show off its jellyfish, sharks, sea turtles and puffins. But it's also as committed as ever to teaching people about the delicate state of the world's oceans and how important it is that we all take care of them. Joining us today is the person in charge of the National Aquarium. John Racanelli is the president and CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a job he has held since 2011. John Racanelli, thank you very much for joining us.
JOHN RACANELLIThank you, Kojo. It's great to be back on the show with you.
NNAMDIJohn, tell us about what you were like as a kid. Where did you grow up and what did you like to do?
RACANELLIWell, I grew up in California, in a place called Sunnyvale, which is known now as Silicon Valley. But in my time, it was orchards and cherry trees and really kind of a great place to grow up. But, from an early age, I always wanted to get over the mountain to the sea. And so, from my youngest years, I remember at every opportunity piling into the family station wagon or tagging along with friends to go to the beach and spend time in the water. Because somehow, that just was -- that made me feel really at home and really comfortable. I think I was supposed to have been born with gills, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt seems to me, however, that your father was not as enthusiastic about you being in cold water as you were.
RACANELLIRight. Well, for one, he wanted me to put a little more energy into school. And my dad was a judge, so I was judged a lot. But, as it turned out, I did manage to go to college on the coast in San Diego and in Santa Cruz. And, you know, as a fairly -- I guess I would've been called a hyperactive kid, if they'd used that term back then. And for me, diving was a real early lifesaver. I really felt comfortable and safe being in the water. And so, even though my dad worried that I was going to freeze myself, when I finally got a wetsuit on my 12th birthday, it was a new idea, and then I could spend more time there.
NNAMDIYeah, when John was eight years old, his father had to go haul him out of the cold water, (laugh) because he didn't want to get out, despite the fact that the water was cold. You got a scuba diving license when you were quite young. How young, and why was that important to you?
RACANELLIYou know, after those early experiences, I realized the reason I was staying in that water so long is I wanted to see more, but I couldn't from the surface, right. I mean, all you could see was as far as the visibility would allow. So, I learned that you could get scuba certified at the age of 15. That's still the case, although they have special junior categories now that start as young as 12. And so, they didn't have that back then, so I had to wait until my 15th birthday. But I did go out, and I saved up money. I had a paper route and I -- back when there were paper routes -- and I used that cash, that $40, to join a scuba class at the YMCA and learned how to scuba dive at 15.
NNAMDIYou have visited aquariums all over the country and all over the world. What do you think is special about the National Aquarium in Baltimore?
RACANELLIThere's a few things, Kojo. The National Aquarium really is -- you know, some have called is the people's aquarium. Unlike a lot of other great aquariums in our country, this one did not have a billionaire backer. It had a great backer in the form of William Donald Schaefer, the famous mayor of Baltimore in the ‘80s, who was a cheerleader and a real enthusiast. But he had to -- they had to scrape up the money from a variety of sources. So, it really was kind of a people's origin.
RACANELLIAnd so, it has always occupied that kind of role. And being urban and yet on the water is a very unique place to be, physically and figuratively. And so that is one of the aquarium's special features. But, of course, the other is that it brings together under a mission to inspire conservation of the world's aquatic treasures. We bring together aquatic treasures from all over the world, the Amazon rain forest, the outback of Australia, the deep waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific coral reefs, and everything in between.
RACANELLIAnd I think -- and especially -- most especially, we celebrate our own Chesapeake Bay and explain to people just how important and wonderful it is that we live on the biggest and most important watershed in all of the Americas.
NNAMDIJohn, for listeners who have never been there, can you give us a mini-tour of the National Aquarium? What does it look like, and what can you see there?
RACANELLILove to. Well, first, the aquarium is very dramatic, architecturally. It sits right on the water, and it's got three different glass pyramids that project up into the sky. So, you really can't miss it. And I love it. A lot of my own staff have shown me pictures of them when they were maybe six months old, in their mom or dad's arms, standing in front of the aquarium with this great backdrop.
RACANELLIOnce you enter the aquarium, and it's kind of special now because what we've done since COVID-19 is we've created a one-way path. So, it's a very clear pathway that you can follow that make it nice and safe. It keeps you, you know, socially distant, as we all need to be now in life.
RACANELLIAnd the first place you go is straight upstairs to Australia. So, your first stop is the outback area of the northwestern territories of Australia, where you enter a river gorge. All freshwater fish and waters on either side of you, snake neck turtles, crocodiles and kookaburras overhead, as we just heard on the tape. And a lot of other -- boas and archer fish, all kinds of really fascinating animals that live in these flooded rivers of Australia.
RACANELLIWhen you come back downstairs, you start on what we call the Blue Wonders, and that starts you out at Black Tip Reef, which is a recreation of a reef from the Pacific Ocean, as if you went to, say, the Indo-Pacific, Raja Ampat, or one of those wonderful coral reefs in the far southern reaches of the Pacific Ocean. And there you see about a thousand different animals representing over 100 species, everything from potato cod to spotted rays to black tip reef sharks, who are perfect little sharks. They're really the coolest shark on Earth, and they look like somebody dipped their fins in an inkwell.
RACANELLIAnd from there you pass through a number of habitats as you go up four floors -- five floors to the top of the aquarium. And you pass through Maryland Mountains to the Sea, which was just redone and gives people a beautiful, beautiful depiction of the story of water from the Alleghany Mountains all the way to the Chesapeake and beyond.
RACANELLIThen you pass through a unique gallery that's all about adaptations and how animals survive. So, there you get to see cool things like our famous rock fish or striped bass and how they migrate throughout the eastern shores, or the peacock mantis shrimp which is the coolest little character on earth and has the colors to match.
RACANELLIYou continue up, you get through Living Seashores which allows you to touch and see jelly fish and other animals that live right off our shorelines. And it helps make people a better beachcomber. And then, finally, they get to the top floor which takes them to the sea cliffs of the northwest, so you see puffins and all the different birds that live in those cliff dwellings, kelp forests and then eventually a Pacific coral reef.
RACANELLIAnd then, finally, the glass pyramid on top is the Amazon Rain Forest where you get to hear all kinds of amazing birds and see some really interesting characters like the two-toed sloths and the golden lion tamarins that live in the rainforest.
NNAMDIWell, if you're a kid, we'd like to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. What sea creatures are your favorite: sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, whales? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us an email to Kojo@wamu.org or a tweet @Kojo. So, here's 11-year-old Bennett in Rockville, Maryland. Bennett, it's your turn. Go ahead.
BENNETTI like turtles and sharks and those -- the archer fish that they're a little like water things at the -- the bugs on like -- above the water, so that they can catch their prey.
RACANELLIYes, Bennett. That's a great observation. So, the archer fish that he's describing are really cool characters. They take in a big mouthful of water and they shoot it out like a jet, and they can catch insects. They can shoot them out of the sky. And when the insect falls to the water, they then pounce on them. So, what we do is we take a stick and we put crickets on the end of it, and then we hold it about two feet above the water and the archer fish have to shoot down the cricket. It's not great for the cricket but the archer fish are quite happy about it. Did you get to try to do that, Bennett, when you were there? Did you get to try to feed the archer fish?
RACANELLIMaybe next visit.
NNAMDIMaybe next visit, Bennett, and thank you so much for your call. Here now is 13-year-old Nathan in Virginia. Nathan, your turn. Go ahead, please.
NATHANHi. I was just wondering about the dolphins. Like, you've got an aquarium, and there's a lot of dolphins, but, like, I was wondering -- because I know that dolphins have to reproduce. But, like, how do you get them to reproduce, or do you just always go out into the wild and get more dolphins?
RACANELLIWell, that's a really good question. And here's some interesting facts about the dolphins. First of all, they do live almost as long as we do in the wild, and sometimes in human (word?). Our oldest dolphin, Nani, died of old age at about 47 years old. Some dolphins have lived to be 60, 65 and even 70 years old. So, in general, you don't need to -- for there to be dolphins here at the aquarium, we don't need them to reproduce.
RACANELLIAnd one of the things that's challenging is, it's really tough on the moms in a setting like ours to actually raise a baby, because they don't have a lot of the resources that they would have in nature. For example, dolphins are -- and maybe you've heard this term -- they're matrilineal. That means that they have a social structure that is governed by the moms. It's a very efficient way to run a species. We could learn a few things from them.
RACANELLISo, in the wild, they typically have a group of females that live together. And if it's a new mom, she has many other experienced moms who can help her with raising her first calves. And that's super-important and tougher to do in our setting, because we often have dolphins that are the same age.
RACANELLIThis is probably a good time to mention that our dolphins, while they're still here and they're doing great and they're getting the best care that you can possibly give a dolphin in our setting, they are going to be moving, in about three years’ time, to a sanctuary.
NNAMDIThat was my next question, as a matter of fact, if you can explain why the decision was made to move the dolphins to the Florida sanctuary. And, initially, that was supposed to happen by the end of 2020.
RACANELLIYep, yep, yes, exactly, Kojo. Well, interestingly, the location and the date both changed for the same reason. When we were looking in the Florida Keys, which are a beautiful area of the nation, but unfortunately, have an average height above sea level of about two feet. And, as I think many of our listeners probably know, and as was part of the topic in your previous interview, the ocean is rising as the climate is changing. And, unfortunately, the storms are getting stronger, and as the ocean is rising, the potential for the Keys to be at great risk in the years to come is continuing to rise.
RACANELLIAnd that made a big decision even harder for us, and we had to make the decision not to locate the sanctuary in the Florida Keys. And so now -- so we recommenced our search back in about 2018, and we have now centered on the Caribbean, and we're looking at several locations. We're close, but we haven't -- we can't point to one and say that's where they're going yet. But the reason that we picked the Caribbean is because, for one, there's a lot more vertical dimension. So, you can have a bay that has sides that are 20, 30, 50, 100 feet, sloping up to a hill. And as the ocean does rise, that will give us a safe place for the dolphins to live for many years to come.
RACANELLIBack to the bigger question of why. We've learned so much about dolphins in the years that we've cared -- we've cared for them here for 30 years now, since 1990. And we think we can do a little better. We do it really well here, but we think we can do even better in a setting that more resembles the natural habitat that dolphins come from.
NNAMDII hear because they've lived indoors, the dolphins have to learn skills that wild dolphins already know, like how to breath in the rain?
RACANELLIExactly. So, some of the interesting things that happen with dolphins is in nature, they can -- you know, they've got to come up for air every couple of minutes. And if it's pouring rain, well, they have to figure that out, because their blowhole is on the back of their head, and not where our nostrils -- it's where their -- it's their former nostrils, but they've migrated there to make them more efficient. And the challenge is that, for a dolphin, if it's pouring rain, you’ve got to figure out a way to get your air, even though the water's coming down.
RACANELLIOur dolphins love to hang out under a sprinkler that we've set up to try to get them used to rain. But when they want to breathe, they move out into the open air and take a deep breath and then they come back and play with the sprinkler. So, soon, we'll be sprinkling the entire tank for maybe a half an hour or an hour at a time to emulate the real conditions that would happen in the ocean.
NNAMDIHere's four-year-old Emanuel in Springfield, Virginia. Emanuel, it's your turn. Go ahead.
EMANUEL'S FATHEREmanuel, what kind of fish do you want to see at the aquarium?
EMANUELAll kinds of fish.
FATHERWhich ones would you like to talk about?
FATHERCome on, talk about the ones -- you just did a whole list of things. Come on, banjo rays.
FATHERAll kinds of (unintelligible). I don't know
FATHERYou said (unintelligible)...
RACANELLIWell, that sounds like a -- we've got a fish scholar, there. Listen, I want you to keep reading about those fish, and I want you -- when you're next at the aquarium, I want you to see if you can find the Bangaii Cardinalfish. They are very, very cool fish. I'll give you a hint, they live in the coral reef, and we have them in two places in the aquarium.
EMANUELAre they big? Are they big?
NNAMDIAre they big?
RACANELLIThose guys are kind of small. They're kind of small, but they're pretty cool. Now, as far as bigger fish, we have a really neat fish in Black Tip Reef called potato cod, which is basically like a grouper. And his name is Bubba, and he is a very big fish, and he's really friendly.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Emanuel. Happy to have you on. Here's 10-year-old Theo in Washington, D.C. Theo, it's your turn. Go ahead, please.
THEOHi. I was just wondering if you have any squids at the aquarium. And if so, how do you care for them?
RACANELLITheo, we don't have any squids. It's a great question, though. And, by the way, even though some people might think you're supposed to say squid when you're referring to multiple squid, it is actually squids. We don't have squids, mainly because it's difficult to catch them and bring them home safely. Although I think there will come a time when we will probably keep a small school of them.
RACANELLII have gone to Japan to look at some of the innovations that some of our colleagues there have done. And many of the aquariums there do keep squids and they are really, really interesting animals. Of course, as Theo may know, squids are related to octopuses. And that's another one, by the way, it's octopuses, not octopi, even though we were all taught that as kids. (laugh) And they're from a family called cephalopods.
RACANELLIAnd cephalopods are unique in so many different ways, but probably the coolest thing about them is octopuses and some squids have distributed brains that actually exist in their arms in additional to their mantle. So, their brains are kind of like a network, and they all work together to make sure the animal stays healthy and alive.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Theo. Here's 12-year-old Mark. Mark, you're on the air. It's your turn. Go ahead.
MARKHello. I'm Mark, and I was wondering, because I've seen the piranhas. How many different types of piranhas are there in the world?
RACANELLIOkay. You've stumped me on that one, Mark. (laugh) I don't know the exact number. I believe, though, that there are fewer than a dozen species of piranhas, and they are unique to South America. What's probably most interesting about piranhas is their family includes other fish that are big that don't eat -- that aren't the scavengers that piranhas are, so they don't have the same reputation. But they look an awful lot like a giant piranha.
RACANELLILike a lot of animals in the sea, piranhas have gotten kind of a bad rap. They really don't go after people, but they do feed. They're scavengers, and they do feed on all kinds of what we call detritus or dead things in the water. So, there have been instances where people fell in the water and drowned, and then the piranhas started to eat them. And that's how they got their terrible reputation. I wouldn't put my hand in with them, because they do have sharp teeth, (laugh) but they're pretty friendly, all told.
NNAMDIMark, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of reputations for being unfriendly, sharks have a reputation for being very aggressive. The exception, of course, is my favorite shark in the comic pages, Sherman in “Sherman's Lagoon.” (laugh) But what can you tell us about sharks that might make people think differently about them?
RACANELLIThank you for that question, Kojo. It's such an important one. Sharks -- let's think of it this way. The next time you think of man-eating shark, I want all the listeners here, all the kids to think not of a shark that eats men, but of a man sitting at a table with a plate in front of him and a shark steak on the plate. Because the sharks are at much greater risk than we are from humans. Whereas sharks may actually eat one or two or three humans a year, humans eat over 400 million. They eat over 100 million pounds of shark every year.
RACANELLISo, that is unfortunately not good for the sharks, because of the 400 species of sharks, almost all of them are very slow to reproduce. And that means if you're consuming them -- catching them and consuming them too often, then they're not going to get a chance to reproduce. However, when we create protected areas and sharks can live there, they have a great tendency to reproduce well.
RACANELLIAnd let's remember that, like everything in nature, sharks are a predator that have a very important function. And in the case of most shark species, often they're the ones that feed on the weak and dying or even dead animals, which keeps the rest of the natural system healthy. So, it's a very important, really, form of ecological balance, and sharks play a critical role. We need to do more to keep sharks on the planet.
NNAMDIJohn, I'd like you to address an issue that is of concern to quite a few people, that they feel it's inhumane to keep sea creatures in captivity, no matter how carefully habitats are built. What would be your response and what, in your view, is the role of aquariums?
RACANELLIWell, I think it's a reasonable question that people ask. And I think if we cannot keep animals in a setting that approximates as closely as possible the real world that they live in, we shouldn't do it. It is why we're changing our plans for the dolphins, because, unfortunately, we can't provide them the kind of home that nature provides with all kinds of, you know, different stimuli. That is to say, different things happening, different bottoms, different depths, other animals to interact with and open air and sky. All those things are very hard to do at an aquarium building anywhere other than, say, in the open waters of the Caribbean or Florida.
RACANELLISo, this applies to really all the species that we keep. However, it's very important, too, that people have a chance to learn more about nature and to make a connection with animals, and especially with animals from worlds that we're not that familiar with. I was lucky. I got to go splashing around in the Pacific Ocean. Even though I almost got hypothermia, I still got to see what was there with my own eyes. And that was -- I know how lucky I was to be able to do that. And not everybody gets that chance, and I think that's aquariums are so important.
NNAMDIOnly have about 30 seconds left. Wanted to talk briefly about volunteers at the aquarium, in the 30 seconds or so that we have left. Because I think you talked with one of your volunteers yesterday, who's very close to a producer of ours. What do volunteers do?
RACANELLII did, indeed. I did, indeed, and it was a real treat to meet Josh Coco, (ph) who's one of our Saturday divers. The divers -- all the volunteers, divers and non-divers are hugely important to the aquarium. And they perform a fabulous role helping people better understand the exhibits and learn more about the ocean that we're all here to try to protect.
NNAMDIJohn Racanelli is the president and CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a job he has held since 2011. John, always a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.
RACANELLIThank you so much, Kojo. Really wonderful joining you.
NNAMDIOur conversation earlier this hour about climate change with NPR's Rebecca Hersher was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And Kojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe, the one who knows somebody who volunteers at the aquarium. If you're interested in having your class be a special virtual partner on an upcoming Kojo for Kids episode, we'd like to hear from you. Kids, parents and teachers can nominate their class at kojoshow.org/kids and tune in each Monday at 12:30 for the next Kojo for Kids. It’s a great way for kids in online school to spend their midday break.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, young activists in our region have made headlines mobilizing against issues of gun violence and climate change. Now, with multiple disasters unfolding at once and a presidential election coming up, they're organizing to ensure environmental issues are on the agenda for voters. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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