Featured Image courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Clearwater, Florida, is best known for its deep, white sand beaches, fishing charters, and water sports activities. Located on the gulf coast, it is where the adults come to play when in Central Florida. But that doesn’t mean that it’s absent of family activities. There are a number of ways that a young family can stay busy while in the area, and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium ranks chief among them.

Marine aquariums have always scored high marks with young families. Maybe it’s watching something totally foreign like a pulsing jellyfish or the alien but graceful movements of the octopus. It also may be the enjoyment of interacting with stingrays in the touch tank or smiling at the playfulness of marine mammals like seals, sea otters, and dolphins.

Most city aquariums not only put on a large display of marine life but also incorporate a research and science mission that helps to preserve the marine ecosystem. In past decades, this has generally been something done behind the scenes. However, as public interest in the protection of natural ecosystems has skyrocketed, these activities are now increasingly seen on the front end. At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the focus is on animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release back into the natural environment. It is just as much of a hospital as it is a tourist attraction.

About the Aquarium

Clearwater Marine Aquarium began as an idea in 1972 to establish a marine research facility in the Tampa Bay area. Several years later, in 1978, the city of Clearwater donated a decommissioned wastewater treatment plant to the newly established Clearwater Marine Science Center to make their idea a reality. The building had large water holding pools that were modified to house marine life and the facility opened its doors to the public in 1981 with a modest one room exhibit. The small facility continued to grow and as public involvement and visits increased, changed its name to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

All of the animals that are permanent residents have been rescued and deemed to be non-releasable due to their injuries. Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not the largest or flashiest aquarium. Certainly, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa has more exhibits and larger tanks, as well as a 4D theater. But if you want to take your children to a place where they can see the animals up close and learn about a great mission, then this makes a great choice.

Winter and Dolphin Tale

Winter, Hope, PJ

Winter, with Hope and PJ

In 2005, the aquarium rescued an injured dolphin that had become entangled in a crab trap. They named her Winter and she would become the aquarium's most famous resident. Due to her injuries, Winter had to have her tail amputated. She learned to swim with a side-to-side motion, but her veterinarians feared that this would damage her spinal cord. Over the next two years, a prosthetic tail was developed that allowed her to swim rather normally. Winter’s story was written into a children’s book and then into two major Hollywood films, Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, both starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, and Ashley Judd.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium certainly plays up Winter’s celebrity status, as well as its role as a filming location for both movies. If you have not seen the films prior to visiting, I highly recommend that you do, especially for children. Knowing Winter’s story, as well as that of Hope, Winter’s pool mate and star of Dolphin Tale 2, will build excitement prior to visiting. There are also several posters on the walls depicting where certain scenes in the films were shot, and the office of Dr. Clay Haskett, portrayed by Harry Connick Jr., is also preserved as it was in the films.

When you visit, you can expect to see Winter, but most likely without her prosthetic tail. Trainers stated that she wears her tail for about an hour per day for exercise sessions, but otherwise is without it and swims rather slowly.

Exhibits

The main attraction is the dolphin pools, where the three female dolphins reside. In addition to Winter and Hope, PJ is another bottlenose dolphin that calls Clearwater Marine Aquarium home. PJ was rescued not far from here after stranding, and is deemed non-releasable due to her elderly age and multiple medical problems including arthritis, hearing loss, and dental issues.

Located near the dolphin tanks is a pair of nurse sharks, Thelma and Louise, that were illegally captured by a fisherman and raised in his home aquarium. When they became larger than he could handle, the pair were donated to the aquarium. Today, they have both grown to an impressive 8-10 feet each.

There is a pelican exhibit with a few permanent residents including Ricky, who played the part of Rufus in the Dolphin Tale movies.

Rob Kemp's Ridley Turtle

Rob was struck by a boat and is missing part of his jaw. He has been residing at CMA since 2001.

Rob is a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle that has been in residence since 2001. Due to a boat strike, he is missing part of his jaw and cannot eat in the wild. Rob was the only turtle on exhibit during my visit, but there are several others and sea turtles, in general, are the most common animals that are rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

Walle and Boomer are a pair of river otters that reside in the Otter Oasis area of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. They were both hiding or sleeping when I visited. As cute as otters are, you may or may not see them when you visit.

The stingray touch tank is a shallow pool with over a dozen rays where visitors can reach in and touch or feed the animals. This is a popular activity with children and provides them with an up-close animal experience without paying extra fees.

Location

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is located in the Greater Tampa Bay Area, approximately 30 minutes from downtown Tampa and just a stone's throw from Pier 60, where most of the activity in Clearwater Beach is happening. Clearwater Marine Aquarium has its own parking garage, so you will not have to fight for a parking space. A $10 fee applies.

Address and Directions

Expansion Project

Currently, there is a major expansion project underway at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Upon completion, there will be 5 connecting pools that triple the water volume for rescued dolphins. It will allow the aquarium to care for twice the number of rescued animals, including new species, and in general, gives both resident animals as well as visitors more space.

The expansion project is critical. When you visit the aquarium, one question will certainly enter your mind: Is this all the space they have to live in? Currently, the answer is yes, and the aquarium has taken some criticism for housing dolphins on a permanent basis given the small pools. However, I will deposit this thought to consider. In 2006, shortly after Winter was rescued, Clearwater Marine Aquarium was in danger of shutting down. Attendance and donations were down, and all of the good work being done might have ended. After filming Dolphin Tale, attendance shot from 80,000 to 200,000 visitors per year, even prior to hitting the big screen. In 2014, the year that Dolphin Tale 2 was released, attendance was at 600,000. Also, to be fair, the large scale expansion project has been in development since 2010. Sometimes, situations are not ideal, and the current aquarium size is not ideal. As long as we work to continually make things better, I believe a bit of leniency should be allowed. The alternative is that the real work of marine research and animal care doesn’t get done.

Stingray Beach

Visitors can touch and feed over a dozen rays at the aquarium's Stingray Beach exhibit

Clay Haskett's Office

The office of Dr. Clay Haskett, portrayed by Harry Connick Jr. in the Dolphin Tale films, is preserved as it was during the movie.

Planning Your Visit

Allow approximately two hours to visit the aquarium if you plan to purchase general admission only, which currently runs $24.95. However, there are a number of animal interaction programs available that could expand your time here.

There is also a small concession offering hamburgers, hot dogs, and the usual kiddie menu that you might expect at a family attraction. Oh, and a gift shop with lots of cute stuffed animals that your kiddos will want you to purchase. I bought one of Winter for my daughter…and just maybe a little bit for myself.

Final Thoughts

As I walked through the aquarium, the one thing that struck me was the number of references to the Dolphin Tale movies. Of course, it makes for a more interesting visit. But as I saw the film posters on the walls showing the location of specific scenes, the latest now six years old, I wondered if support will decline as the movies fade from short memories. When there’s no more Winter in Clearwater, will children still want to see the anonymous product of countless hours of rescue work that represents the best of humanity?

I think that they will, or at least I hope so. We need places like this where good people come together for a great purpose, then pass it on to the next generation.

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