We are riding a surprising wave of enthusiasm for aquariums in the United States. Groups from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to New York City to Memphis, Tenn., to Detroit to Shreveport, La., to St. Louis have recently proposed or started construction on watery wonderlands. They are marketed as popular destinations for families and schools, thriving centers of conservation and education, and also a smart way to revitalize down-and-out city districts.

But aquariums have also been swamped with controversy. We've come a long way from the wholesome TV image of Flipper. Movies like "Free Willy" and "Blackfish" have raised public awareness of the psychological stress endured by the big stars of the show, the large aquatic mammals. While this has been beneficial for captive orcas and dolphins, public backlash and stricter government regulations have negatively impacted aquariums and marine parks.

Hollywood to the rescue. 

Edge Innovations is the brainchild of founder and CEO Walt Conti. In the 1980s, Conti began using his background in mechanical engineering to work on movies like "Star Trek: The Voyage Home," designing and building realistic animatronics of humpback whales. This odd niche proved increasingly valuable as many movies in the '90s began using animatronic doubles to stand in for actual animals. 

Conti's creatures have starred in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," "Free Willy," "White Squall," and "The Perfect Storm," among many others. Edge Innovations also played a pivotal role in designing the famous submersible that James Cameron used to explore the Mariana Trench in 2012.

More recently, Conti and his partner, Head of Experience Design Roger Holzberg, have set their sights on a brave new frontier: aquariums.

They think they have the perfect answer to keep the animals in their native habitats, and keep the aquariums and marine parks in business.

Edge has developed a hyper-realistic animatronic dolphin that can take the place of the captive dolphins in today's aquariums. They have partners in China to build out an immersive experience with these robotic dolphins and have also set up a pilot program at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.

So how realistic are these dolphins?

“Through a series of different tests," says Conti, "we at times have told people you’re going to be with a robotic dolphin and other times we have not told them and let them discover it. And what is really surprising is no matter what scenario it is, whether they know it or don’t know it, because of the realism, they literally suspend disbelief in all cases. You basically have adults jumping in the water and kissing this animatronic dolphin even though they know it’s robotic. They’re not reacting intellectually, they’re reacting emotionally.”

The robots are also cost effective. While the initial expense is higher than simply capturing a wild dolphin, the overall upkeep of the animatronic is about 30 percent less expensive in the long run.

Edge doesn't plan on stopping with dolphins. They imagine future marine parks where visitors are able to swim with different robot creatures, including dolphins, sharks and even creatures that no longer exist. Ready to grab a ride on a megalodon?

Holzberg pitches their vision this way: “Imagine a show where great white sharks are in an arena for the first time in the history of marine parks and the great white sharks can perform an educational show and guests can get in the water with them for photo ops.”

Published on Jan 29, 2021