Staff members and visitors play with noodles to engage the dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. (NATIONAL AQUARIUM)

If you’ve been to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you probably went to a dolphin show (unless your parents couldn’t get tickets). Those adorable, amazing marine mammals have been a popular attraction at the aquarium for more than 20 years, but on busy summer days many visitors have arrived to find that the shows were sold out.

So the aquarium has created a new dolphin experience. Gone are the ticketed shows. The dolphin area is now open to everyone who visits the aquarium.

“People can come in here and spend all day if they like,” said John Racanelli, who is in charge of the aquarium.

Instead of a regular show of dolphins jumping through hoops or slapping at the water with their powerful fins, visitors might catch a trainer practicing commands with one or more of the aquarium’s eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Others might get to see the dolphins eat. These and other activities will occur about every 60 to 90 minutes. There isn’t a set schedule; trainers will have the flexibility to make changes based on how the dolphins are behaving, and visitors will get a better sense of how the dolphins spend their time.

On a recent Saturday, one of the dolphins wasn’t his usual playful self, so the trainers decided to have fewer public programs, staff member Kate Hendrickson said.

Bayley the dolphin seems to give a smile for the camera. (NATIONAL AQUARIUM)

The Ashmar family from Pennsylvania waited for a program and wasn’t disappointed.

“We got here at 12:45, and we were prepared to see no dolphins,” said mom June Ashmar, who expected sold-out shows.

Instead, the family saw a 10-minute demonstration that included four female dolphins.

“They were doing a lot of tricks,” said Grace Ashmar, 9. Grace said that after the show she went up to the rail near the pool to see the dolphins up close.

Visitors can also stand in two areas of the amphitheater and observe the dolphins with binoculars. And they can watch trainers and veterinarians do things that used to go on only behind the scenes.

“There are things we do to monitor their health. We may have a vet do an ultrasound,” said Brent Whit­acker, senior director of biological programs at the aquarium. Visitors who are present during that test, which gives veterinarians a picture of a dolphin’s heart or other organs, would hear an explanation by a staff member and maybe even see the images on large video screens, Whitacker said. Earlier this month, the aquarium was still working to connect the machine with the screens.

The new Dolphin Discovery is part of an effort at the aquarium to get visitors more connected with the animals, Whitacker said. The greater the connection, the more people will be concerned with protecting the animals and the waters in which they live.

“We feel that if we can give a sense of caring for the animal, they will cherish it and cherish the habitat.”

— Christina Barron