The National Aquarium in Baltimore is preparing to release eight bottlenose dolphins into an environment that approximates their natural homes. All but one of the dolphins was born in an aquarium or zoological park. Nani, the eldest, was born in the wild in 1972 and came to the aquarium from one that had to close. Bottlenose dolphins live in a matriarchal society, due to the level of care that females provide to their young; the males live in separate social groups consisting of a few members that are called bachelor groups or alliances. At the National Aquarium, the dolphins are housed in a “nursery group,” which consists of six females and two pair-bonded males.
According to John Racanelli, President and CEO of the aquarium and a dolphin lover since childhood, the dolphins will be released into a setting that closely approximates the environment in which dolphins in the wild live: a vegetated shore line, natural sea water, a natural bottom, and living organisms.
Preparing the dolphins for their move to a new environment requires much planning. They will have to get used to open water, open air, being moved in transport units, and even being lifted by a crane. They may even be driven around Baltimore in a truck to get used to the idea of being mobile! Physical adaptations will also have to be made. The dolphins currently live in sterile water, but the ocean contains bacteria, fungi, larvae, spores, and other organisms. It will be a long process to integrate the dolphins into water that matches the water into which they will eventually move.
We may be more like dolphins than we think! The story of their journey from captivity to the freedom of the ocean seems to me to be an analogy for the transition of Christians from the Kingdom on earth to the Kingdom of heaven. Our entire lives are spent getting ready for the change from a life in “enemy-occupied territory” (as C.S. Lewis labeled our earthly lives) to a life fully vested in the glories of the eternal Kingdom.
Like the dolphins, we are being prepared, even trained, for our new life. Looking to the life Jesus led as he walked this planet, we learn about surrender and obedience, simplicity, community, and healing. From our suffering in this world, an environment that is limiting and even dangerous, we learn about true joy and unconditional love. In our aquarium, the church, we can grow rich in forgiveness and mercy and grace. We are schooled by trainers (pastors, teachers, spiritual directors, friends) who help us practice these discipleship skills. This preparation, like that of the eight Baltimore bottlenose dolphins, will ready us to venture into the Kingdom of heaven, where we will live in harmony and delight – and freedom.