The future is bright for the National Aquarium in Baltimore

By Matt Ward

Photography by Rachel Smith and courtesy of the National Aquarium

When it rains in Baltimore, trash from the streets washes into the storm drains, and the water carries the trash, unseen, underground, down through the basin that drains into the Patapsco River, depositing the detritus in the brown waters of the Inner Harbor. One stream flows under Little Italy, spilling out near Harbor East; another three run from points north and join the harbor near the USS Constellation; there’s the Jones Falls, of course, which, after leaving Lake Roland, rushes along its concrete course under I-83, dives underground near Penn Station and pops back up again near President and Lombard; and, over in Canton, there’s a subsurface stream that runs down the east side of Patterson Park and flows into the Patapsco near the Can Company building. And when this last tributary fills with plastic bottles, John Racanelli notices.

“When it rains and that little Harris Creek fills up with plastic bottles, I think, I’ve got to help solve this, this is no good,” says Racanelli, 60, who passes the creek daily on his way from his home in Canton to his job as president and CEO of the National Aquarium. A lifetime ocean conservationist who helped launch the standard-bearing Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984, Racanelli took the helm in Baltimore in 2011. His vision for the institution is wide ranging, but two of the points he talks about most are millennials and conservation. The first has to do with connecting with the younger generation, with modernizing and improving the aquarium experience, with, one piece at a time, replacing older exhibits with lively, colorful recreations of natural habitats. The second has to do with, basically, saving the planet.

On his decision to come to Baltimore after a varied and successful career based around aquariums and conservation work, Racanelli says: “What I wanted to do was have a real impact. I wanted people to think, to believe, what I know, which is that the ocean is relevant to their lives, very relevant — it’s keeping them alive. It is our life support system. If you were on a ship to Mars and you poured bad things into your life support system and you used up more of your life support system than was available to you, and you ate more of the food than you’re supposed to and you dumped out most of the good stuff — you get the message — that wouldn’t be a smart way to get to Mars, and yet that’s exactly what we’re doing with the spaceship Earth.”

Conservation organizations the world over aim to deliver that message. But aquariums, Racanelli says, are in the unique position of being able to show people, rather than just tell them.

“Since John has come on board, the biggest change has really been the National Aquarium becoming more of a conservation organization,” says Brent Whitaker, VP of biological programs at the aquarium; he’s worked there since 1989. “Every exhibit now that we build incorporates conservation messaging and programming and connections to real places and real issues — that didn’t happen before.”

The two exhibits that have opened under Racanelli’s tenure demonstrate this.

Living Seashore, a hands-on exhibit that opened this spring, is focused on the sea life right here in the Mid-Atlantic; in a departure from classic aquarium design — dark room, black walls, beautiful rectangular tanks — it’s brightly lit. The exhibit highlights the stories of local conservationists and asks visitors to sign a “Shore Hero” pledge. Visitors who sign the pledge and leave their email address will start receiving emails from the aquarium about how they can take action to help the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and the environment in general.

The other new exhibit, Blacktip Reef, is a vibrant, colorful rebirth of a once-bland central tank. Concrete, rebar and saltwater, as staff at the aquarium will tell you, do not mix well over time. The need to renovate the exhibit — the first one most visitors see when they enter the aquarium — was glaringly evident when Racanelli came on board.

“He said, ‘We’re going to rebuild it into something spectacular,’” Whitaker recalls. The result, which recreates an Indo-Pacific reef, is just that. Viewed from platforms above the tank, the reticulated whiptail rays, zebra sharks, blacktip reef sharks, and Calypso, the 500-pound, three-flippered green sea turtle, are all in motion — they seem, for animals in captivity, exceptionally busy. Viewed from inside the bubble of a long, parabolic window at the bottom of the 260,000-gallon tank, the exhibit is just as the aquarium bills it: breathtaking. If diving on the Great Barrier Reef might inspire one to want to save the oceans, so might a visit, now, to the National Aquarium.

Old aquariums are about “looking through little windows at fish,” Racanelli says; 21st-century aquariums are about exhibits like Blacktip Reef and Living Seashore. With the public release of elements of an aquarium master plan — dubbed “BLUEprint” — set for later this year, Racanelli hopes to show that this is just the beginning.

FROM MARINE WORLD TO MISSION BLUE

John Racanelli grew up in Sunnyvale, CA, which today is home to Silicon Valley, but in the 1960s was still just a Bay Area suburb adjacent to cherry and apricot orchards. A surfer, sailor and swimmer, Racanelli says he was always drawn to the ocean. By 17, he was working as a scuba diver, cleaning tanks at Marine World, a marine park near San Francisco that has since closed. He left college twice for seafaring adventures, one of which entailed spending a year as a king crab fisherman on the Bering Sea.

Working as a fisherman was exciting, Racanelli says, but he realized the life was not for him. “In the year that I was there, we took 85 million pounds of crabs out of the Bering Sea,” he says, “and I remember thinking, how in the world can this possibly be sustainable, how can you do this year after year? It was one of the many formative experiences that shaped my self-actualization as a conservationist.”

Back in California, Racanelli resumed work at Marine World, where he eventually rose from a self-described “underwater janitor” to marketing manager. That led to his joining the team that was launching Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984, and he stayed on there as VP of marketing and development until 1993, when he left to build and open the fledgling Florida Aquarium in Tampa Bay.

He guided that aquarium amidst a lot of competition, with SeaWorld and Busch Gardens nearby and numerous other aquariums statewide. After a big layoff and a hard-fought but ultimately successful bid to get the city to take on the aquarium’s bonded debt, Racanelli left and headed straight into another turnaround gig, this time with a private company in California called Academy Studios, which designed and built exhibits for aquariums, zoos and natural history museums. Then, Racanelli struck out on his own as a consultant, helping environmental NGOs find their vision and build the steps they needed to realize that vision.

“I don’t think I would have been qualified to come back and do what I’m doing here if I had just gone right on from Florida Aquarium to yet another aquarium,” Racanelli says. “I needed that 12 years out there, where two were spent running a down and dirty small business and then 10 were spent running my own firm and feeding fewer mouths but doing bigger things.”

Among those bigger things was his work with renowned conservationist and explorer Sylvia Earle, whom he helped launch Mission Blue, a campaign for ocean conservation. One of Racanelli’s jobs was to get the oceans added to Google Earth. “I ran that project for her and it was exciting and crazy and fascinating,” he says.

The Google Earth operating system had been built with sea level as its zero reference point. Adding the bathymetry, the underwater equivalent of topography, of the ocean floor was going to mean rebuilding the entire operating system. “And that’s what they did,” Racanelli says. “It was kind of cool; their main guy said, ‘You know what, this is stupid, we’ve missed three-fourths of the planet, we need to fix this.’”

Now Google Earth’s zero reference point is 6 miles down, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. “There’s a lot of world down there. It wasn’t just getting it so it could see the ocean, it was populating it with these great stories, these layers that tell everything from maritime archaeology to diving to surfing to animals to habitats, and showing the bathymetry of the ocean.”

The problem with the consultancy, Racanelli says, was that just as the projects were really kicking off, his job was over. He wanted to do more, and on a bigger scale. That’s when he got a call from the search committee at the National Aquarium.

AN INSTITUTION ON COURSE

With approximately 1.3 million visitors a year and 70 percent of them coming from out of state, the National Aquarium is a major anchor in a downtown waterfront tourism ecosystem that has, since its early successes in the 1980s, been used as a model the world over (Sydney, Rotterdam, Belfast, Osaka and Honolulu have used the Inner Harbor formula). The turning point in a revitalization that began in the 1960s with Charles Center, writes Martin L. Millspaugh in Urban Land magazine, was the bicentennial in 1976 and the arrival of a fleet tall ships, which “tied up around the Inner Harbor and Fells Point to the east, and opened their decks for a public open house lasting for 10 days. The response was electrifying: Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the shoreline and, for the first time, large numbers came from outside the Baltimore area — not only from the far suburbs, but also from different parts of Maryland and other states. It was clearly a day-trip tourist event, which opened the eyes of the Inner Harbor managers and their clients in city hall.”

The navigator on one of those ships, The Explorer, which hailed from Washington State, was a 20-year-old guy from California named John Racanelli. A few years later he’d make his second trip to Charm City, this time as marketing VP of the soon-to-open Monterey Bay Aquarium, to tour the National Aquarium, which had opened in 1981.

“When I came here I saw what an industrial port this was, and when I came back in the early 80s, I had just gotten on board at Monterey. They said you’ve got to go to Mecca, go see the National Aquarium in Baltimore. So I came here in the summer of ’84, and the aquarium was then just barely three years old, and I got a tour and, you know, I was fascinated.”

Today the National Aquarium houses close to 20,000 animals across 750 species and has 450 employees. In addition to the marquee residents (the sharks, the dolphins, the giant Pacific octopus and, since the release of Finding Nemo in 2003, the clownfish, among others), the aquarium is home to a family of Golden Lion Tamarins, one of which recently underwent dental surgery. Veterinary staff discovered the beginnings of gingivitis and peritonitis in the small, endangered monkey during an annual checkup. The surgery, says Leigh Clayton, director of animal health, went very well.

The aquarium’s exhibits and backup areas hold 2.4 million gallons of seawater, which is “homemade” at the aquarium and a Fells Point support facility; moon jellies are homegrown, too, both for display in exhibits and as food for the fish. In 2013, more than 1,300 animals were born here (including Scout, a baby Linne’s two-toed sloth) and approximately 3,500 heads of lettuce were consumed. The behind-the-scenes areas feel in places like the innards of a ship, with narrow hallways lined with desks, pipes running everywhere and a decided marine aroma to the air. There’s a commercial-grade prep kitchen full of stainless steel tables where staff prepare fresh fish food; nearby, a ray drifts in a small isolation area that connects to the Shark Alley exhibit; there’s lots of lab equipment and, off to one side, a stacked washer and dryer. From the backstage area behind some of the older, smaller display tanks, you can make out the blurry outlines of visitors, who are looking into the tanks from the other side. The occasional camera flash goes off. Despite the signage, one can only assume, the water inside the tanks often reverberates with the sound of tapping on the glass. In preparing the animals to enter the two newest exhibits, in fact, staff were invited to visit the Fells Point facility to help acclimate the creatures to life on display; this called for staff to make noise, jump around, set off camera flashes and otherwise mimic behaviors that would take place at the aquarium.

The aquarium’s conservation programs include habitat restoration in the bay (70,000 plantings in 2013), especially at its Poplar Island site; shoreline cleanups (54,000 pieces of debris removed from shorelines in 2013); its long-running animal rescue program (over 150 animals rehabilitated and released since 1991, including, recently, a disarmingly cute gray seal pup named Lily); and promoting sustainable seafood and the use of reusable bottles, bags and containers.

In 2013, admissions amounted to $25 million (total revenues, including contributions, grants, memberships and sales at the gift shop and cafeteria, topped $54 million). The aquarium knows from its own visitor surveys that locals find the admission price a bit steep, while tourists don’t mind it as much. Here, Racanelli and his team have taken a page from the Disney playbook, offering discounted admission for locals during non-peak hours. Programs include half-priced Friday nights, pay-what-you-want days and Maryland mornings, with discounted tickets for state residents.

“You have a sense now working at the aquarium that we are much more focused on making the aquarium available to people within the city, to support the city,” says Whitaker. “We had done so before, but John is constantly [saying] we’ve got to make ourselves more available to the citizens of Baltimore. If he could make the aquarium free to the citizens of Baltimore, I have no question that he would do that.”

TAKING THE LEAD ON DOLPHIN SHOWS

In a move that has shaped his tenure thus far and may well one day help define his legacy, Racanelli in 2012 directed his team to rethink the aquarium’s long-running dolphin show. After consultation with staff and a close study of how visitors might react to the change, Racanelli opened “Dolphin Discovery,” which invites guests to wander into the amphitheater, view the animals and talk to the marine mammal staff. At times, the staff still interact with the dolphins, but now variety and spontaneity are favored over routine. The blasting music, choreographed tricks and separate show ticket price are gone. The shift has put Baltimore at the lead of a national trend away from making intelligent mammals jump through hoops. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced earlier this year it would retire its elephants for good by 2018, other aquariums have given up dolphin shows, and SeaWorld has faced withering criticism in recent years for its treatment of cetaceans.

“Shows are antiquated,” Racanelli told National Geographic last year. “No animals at zoos perform in shows any more. We somehow reached a level of enlightenment with chimpanzees, elephants, tigers and lions. Why are we still interested in having dolphins do shows?”

Conventional wisdom in the aquarium industry might say that, moral questions aside, audiences are in fact still interested in seeing dolphins play ball and execute synchronized pirouettes; but, across two increases in ticket price since the show ended, admissions at the National Aquarium have continued along their historic trend of gradual increase. And, with the separate show price gone, more visitors are seeing the dolphins, and they’re spending more time in the amphitheater. When the show was open, on a busy day, about half of the aquarium’s visitors could get into one of the four daily 15-minute shows; now, about 80 percent of visitors see Dolphin Discovery, and the average stay lasts 30 minutes.

“One of John’s greatest gifts is his unbridled enthusiasm,” says Mimi Hahn, VP of marketing at Monterey Aquarium and a former colleague of Racanelli’s. “He’s a good person to be out there leading this change because he’s got the energy to tackle a big issue.”

Racanelli has suggested retiring the dolphins to a sanctuary of some sort — releasing them to the wild would be almost out of the question, as all but one of the eight were born in captivity and would have slim chances of survival in the open ocean. Their current facility needs a new roof and significant capital improvements, and their plain, 1970s-style tank does not match the style of vibrant, realistic habitat the aquarium wants to stake its future on. A tank the size of the Inner Harbor, Racanelli quips, would begin to approach a realistic approximation of the bottle-nosed dolphin’s natural habitat. BLUEprint, the master plan due out late this year, will likely provide some answers on the dolphin question.

“As we look at that and think about what’s best for our mission, what’s best for our audience, what’s best for our animals, it’s hard to see that we could still do what we’re doing now,” Racanelli says, “that we could rebuild the facility the way it is now and put the dolphins back into that — it’s hard to envision that being the best thing.”

A VISION THROUGH 2100

Late on one Saturday night this summer, the normally full-color webcam in the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit showed, in grainy shades of gray, clownfish and yellow tangs, swimming back and forth in the dark. This, as much as anything, is the aquarium of the 21st century. It is fun, surprising and accessible. This aquarium doesn’t just preach conservation, it will be your friend on Facebook, tweet out its animal rescue stories, Instagram conservation messages (“Ditch the microbeads,” “Join a local cleanup”) and email you with ideas for getting involved in saving the planet. This aquarium has the moxie to not just stay with the times but, where the dolphin show is concerned, to lead them. This aquarium is about engaging its audience, conserving the oceans, taking care of its own back yard, being a world-class attraction and a great institution, taking great care of its animals and maintaining a balanced business.

“If we can meet the basic tenets of these parameters, then we’ve got a National Aquarium that will carry us right through 2100 and on into the ages,” Racanelli says. “And we will beat number one — we’re the Under Armour of aquariums, and as much as I love my old buddies at Monterey, they’re the Nike, and we’re coming after them.” CEO

Matt Ward is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

‘OPENING UP OUR WINGS TO THE HARBOR’

The harbor was a different place when The National Aquarium in Baltimore was built. Harborplace was open, and the Science Center was up and running, though smaller than it is today. But industry still dominated the southern end of the harbor, the Power Plant building stood empty and none of the pleasure boating marinas had opened. Which helps explain why the aquarium, as The New Yorker recently noted, “turns a cold, concrete shoulder” to the harbor.

“I can see why the architects, when they built this, thought, ‘Well, I’m not sure people are going to want to look out the windows, let’s just build it to be a story within [itself],’” says John Racanelli, president and CEO of the National Aquarium. “Some of the stairwells, the fire stairs, around here have better views of the harbor than most of the public space. Now, it’s a very attractive sight to look out these windows, so part of the vision of BLUEprint is to really open up our wings to the harbor. And then that’s a reminder to us that we have an obligation to be part of the solution for a healthier and more sustainable harbor and Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.”

This is a typical shift in conversation with Racanelli — that his answer to a question about plans and operations ends on a note about conservation, about our collective responsibility to care for the oceans, about his institution’s role in improving the health of the planet. He has steered the aquarium to look more directly at the bay whose headwaters it calls home, and now he wants to do the same thing to the building itself. Racanelli has been a marketing VP, a nonprofit turnaround specialist, a for-profit turnaround specialist and a consultant to major environmental NGOs. But first, he was a kid in love with the idea of being a deep-sea diver like his hero, Jacques Cousteau, and, at heart, he’s a sailor, a surfer, a diver, a lover of the ocean; in a word, he’s a conservationist.

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