Urban Ocean Conservation: A Conversation with John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium

Since opening in 1981, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has been one of the most iconic aquatic institutions in the world. Its popularity and role in revitalizing the Inner Harbor of Baltimore inspired many other cities to build modern aquariums. Many of the National Aquarium’s exhibits have won awards from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its conservation and cleanup efforts have received great acclaim. The aquarium’s CEO is John Racanelli and he is determined to keep the institution at the cutting edge of saving aquatic life locally and globally. Here is his story.

@ National Aquarium

Racanelli’s love for the ocean has been lifelong. “I have been in some way connected to the ocean my entire life and have always wanted to help people better understand its importance,” he recalled. “I grew up on the coast of California and first went snorkeling when I was nine. Then, I became a sailor and surfer. I have always loved the ocean and knew that was going to be my calling. I went to the University of California San Diego and my summer job was a diver and aquarist at Marine World.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

During his education, John Racanelli realized he could help the ocean in a different way than he expected. He saw that he could make a big impact by working on the management side of aquariums. “I changed my major from biology to business management,” Racanelli stated. Soon a golden opportunity came for the young professional. “I ended up getting connected with the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” Racanelli remarked. “I was their first marketing chief and their seventeenth employee.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Opened in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium broke new ground in terms of habitat design in aquariums. The institution succeeded in saving the town and the bay of Monterey. “That was a wonderful tenure of my life working alongside Julie Packard [the aquarium’s director],” Racanelli stated. “The thing I learned the most there was that in our profession, if you provide people with faithfully recreated habitats and show them how animals and plants live together in communities, you have a much greater impact than just having a shark here, a pufferfish there. The big idea we launched that frankly the National Aquarium had begun to do was to show people habitats, communities of animals and how they come together to create an ecosystem and demonstrate the importance of preserving these places.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“The other thing I’ve taken with me [from the Monterey Bay Aquarium] is the importance of communicating what you do,” John Racanelli elaborated. “I learned I was better at communicating science and conservation than being one of the people doing the research. I really respect the science aspect but I find a lot of scientists don’t communicate that well, which is something I do well. It’s important to convey to the public the basic science and the relevance of wild places on the planet, particularly in the aquatic realm, to all human beings.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

While Racanelli never thought he would leave Monterey Bay Aquarium, he also had the dream of being the CEO of an aquarium. In 1993, he was hired to be the first CEO of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, which was still under construction. “I built the aquarium and the team and opened it,” Racanelli said. “It was a great experience for me to build a new organization.” However, he yearned to return to the west coast and moved back to the San Francisco Bay area in 1998. “I wanted to see the world from a different perspective [than aquariums],” he remarked. “I had a consulting firm that worked with NGOs and other organizations involved in conservation. I co-founded Mission Blue with Sylvia Earle and we convinced Google to put the ocean in Google Earth.”

@ Florida Aquarium

“What I got was a perspective on conservation outside of the zoo and aquarium world,” Racanelli continued. “I became much more focused on the urgent need to get people to recognize their role in preserving natural places. However, I didn’t feel I was scaling as my job was to help people find their vision. It was exciting and fun but I didn’t actually get to do any of it. I wanted to be able to scale, as oceans are in peril.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The opportunity to scale came soon enough. “I got a phone call from Baltimore saying the National Aquarium, one of the iconic aquariums in the nation, was looking for a new leader.” John Racanelli said. “I jumped at it and made the big decision to move to Baltimore. I took over the leadership of this organization and haven’t looked back. It’s been an exciting journey.” Since 2011, John Racanelli has served as CEO of the National Aquarium.

@ Grayson Ponti

While the National Aquarium was already world-class, Racanelli wanted to make it even better. “One of the things that happens in our profession is it is hard to keep the focus on the world outside as so much goes on inside [our institutions],” he articulated. “I had a really strong sense of standing up for what we know to be true in conservation and call foul on those who deny proven science from the reality of global climate change and sea level rise to importance of maintaining all habitats, even lowly mudflats. The National Aquarium was dabbling in conservation but what I decided to do was build a strong conservation-focused mission for one of the world’s leading aquariums."

@ Grayson Ponti

John Racanelli put conserving marine life and habitats front and center at the National Aquarium. “The core business we’re in is running and enhancing a world-class aquarium around our conservation mission, our desire to create change and create a new generation of conservationists,” he articulated. “We want our visitors to embrace hope.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“We have built a team of 33 staff exclusively focused on conservation work,” Racanelli explained. “They focus on three areas: climate change, ocean and human health, and urban conservation and diversity. We’ve really helped unlock the key to the emerging field of urban ocean conservation. [It’s the idea that] people in cities, where most Americans live, have every bit as much of a role to play in conservation as those who don’t live in an urban area. In fact, in some ways, it’s even more compelling as it’s critical [that people in cities] know nature exists all around them and things they do in a city impact the natural world. Most importantly, [they need to know] the ocean and its coral reefs, beaches and salt marshes are helping them live a fruitful life.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

The National Aquarium has paved the way for urban citizens to be involved in ocean conservation. “Focusing on making conservation of aquatic ecosystems relevant to urban areas has been very important,” John Racanelli reflected. “We’ve done a lot of community activism work and cleanup programs around Baltimore and nearby cities.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Another major focus has been keeping the National Aquarium experience relevant and fresh. “The other thing we’ve done here is built a team that recognizes our mission as an important part of what they do and reimagines the way the aquarium experience works so we don’t lose the magical, theatrical experience [we provide],” Racanelli explained. “We want exhibits that leave people gasping in surprise.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

In 2013, the National Aquarium opened the award-winning Blacktip Reef. It features blacktip reef sharks, green sea turtles, emperor angelfish, clown triggerfish, guineafowl puffers, tuskfish, whiptail rays, wrasses, unicornfish, wobbegong sharks and zebra sharks in a replication of the coral reefs they come from. “Blacktip Reef is an example [of what we want to do],” John Racanelli noted. “It recreates an Indo-Pacific reef but is all manmade coral. The animals act like they’re living in a true coral reef and interact with the coral. People think it’s a living coral reef.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

“We [also] turned a store room into an experiential space called Living Seashore, which focuses on local shorelines,” Racanelli continued. “It’s where our touch tanks and jellies are. [The touch tanks] are done in a respectful way to get people to understand the fragility of ocean life and what’s going on below their feet. We tried to show people habitats, get them to understand how present they are and recognize they’re part of those habitats. We’re making that connection.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The future of the National Aquarium is just as exciting as its history. “In June, we’re opening a new animal care and rescue center, which will be located on 55,000 square feet near the aquarium,” John Racanelli stated. “We had a rented facility in an industrial part of town and now we’re having it purpose-built next to the aquarium. Most importantly, it will allow space for quarantine of new animals, breeding endangered species and our rescue program. We rescue and rehab stranded marine animals and babies separated from their mothers. We’ll now have unique opportunities to bring the public behind the scenes and revitalize Johnstown, a local community in Baltimore. The flag for the Star-Spangled Banner was sown in the attic of a brewery across from it and it’s one of the most diverse communities in Baltimore."

@ Grayson Ponti

“The other major project is the Waterfront Campus plan,” Racanelli continued. “We’re on a harbor that’s been urbanized for 200 plus years and some of our piers date back to the 1800’s. it’s so important to have a healthy harbor, which is what we’re working to re-create. We have a floating wetland prototype with cool technology behind it to create a healthier water system. It’s been in the harbor for about a year and we have scientific research projects going on around it.”

@ Grayson Ponti

One thing that will never change is the National Aquarium’s importance as a place to connect guests with marine life and the ocean. “The thing that matters most to me is this: getting people to recognize the importance of the ocean and aquatic places in their lives,” John Racanelli reflected. “Three out of every five breaths come from the ocean. The ocean moderates our climate. We’re answering a higher calling. In showcasing animals, we’re creating a connection between people and the natural world. We help create that bond we’re looking for.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“Ultimately, I’m most proud of our ability to inspire, to help get people to recognize their ability to be part of the solution,” John Racanelli concluded.

@ National Aquarium

#NationalAquarium #MontereyBayAquarium #FloridaAquarium

You Might Also Like: