An ambitious new project supported by Virgin Holidays provides new hope for sea mammals in captivity. Sarah Marshall finds out why.

The debate about the ethics of dolphin tourism has been raging for years, but finally there appears to be a breakthrough.

In a pioneering move, Virgin Holidays has announced it will be investing $300,000 with the non-profit National Aquarium in Baltimore to support the creation of North America's first dolphin sanctuary.

The three-year, $10-15 million project, which will rehabilitate seven dolphins in an as yet unknown Florida location, is the first of it's kind - and will hopefully serve as a blueprint for the ethical treatment of captive cetaceans.

According to Joe Thompson, managing director of Virgin Holidays, the company currently sells "around 25 marine parks and swim-with-dolphin attractions - predominantly located in the USA, Caribbean and Middle East".

Thompson admits the future of these animals is one of the biggest challenges facing the tourism industry. "The majority were born in captivity, have never spent time in the open water and would not be able to survive for long without human care - so a sudden shutdown of captive facilities would be detrimental to these animals while there is nowhere else for them to go," he explains. "We hope that the National Aquarium Dolphin Sanctuary will prove that an alternative is possible."

In 2014, the company suspended working with any attractions removing whales and dolphins from the wild; in 2017 they stopped selling any new attractions or hotels featuring cetaceans.

As part of their continuing drive to provide ethical wildlife tourism, Virgin has also been working with the World Cetacean Alliance to create new Responsible Whale Watching guidelines, which it's hoped suppliers will adopt over the next two years.

Here's everything you need to know about these ground-breaking changes...

What is the sanctuary all about?

"Our vision is to create an outdoor facility where the dolphins will swim in natural sea water, with a vegetated shoreline (mangroves, sea grapes, etc), in a flexible habitat configuration featuring pools that can be customized to meet individual dolphin needs," explains John Racanelli, CEO and president of the National Aquarium.

"An on-site clinic will be fully staffed with marine mammal experts and an attending veterinarian. The sanctuary will also serve as a centre for applied science that advances knowledge and conservation."

How will the space compare to the dolphins' current home?

"We are exploring sanctuary sites that are approximately 100 times the size of the dolphins' current habitat, which is approximately 1.1 million gallons," says Racanelli.

"With more than 100 million gallons of water, there will be more distance and depth for the colony to swim and interact in a more natural environment."

How will the dolphins be trained to adapt to new living conditions?

A three-year project is already underway, teaching the animals how to live in a more natural environment. They will be encouraged to drink water so their system can be flushed if they eat the wrong thing, the temperature in the tank will be raised to 26 degrees Celsius to allow algae to grow, and they will be taught to swim onto stretchers in preparation for transport to their new home.

Why is it not possible for animals in captivity to be released fully into the wild?

"Some individuals that have spent time in captivity can be rehabilitated and later released into the wild. However, other individuals, especially those that have been born in captivity, would likely stay in a seaside sanctuary where they can be overseen by humans," says Dylan Walker, the CEO of World Cetacean Alliance who have been working closely with Virgin.

"In captivity, cetaceans are hand fed, so many of them have never learnt how to hunt for their own food. A seaside sanctuary provides vast improvements in terms of welfare, while still ensuring the human care they will need for the rest of their lives."

So why has a project of this sort taken so long to come to fruition?

"The idea has existed for many years, and in the last decade some rehabilitation projects have used temporary sanctuaries for rescued wild cetaceans and captive cetaceans," says Walker.

"In these last few years, however, public perception has drastically changed regarding cetaceans in zoos and aquariums and, as a result, projects to create permanent seaside sanctuaries are being developed for individual animals that will undoubtedly need them in the near future.

"It's a very exciting period for whale and dolphin lovers."

For more information on how to support the dolphins' journey, go to