A couple of weeks ago, Doug and I took our two grandsons to the newly expanded Clearwater Marine Aquarium. We were expecting bigger and better and it certainly proved to be just that.
We started out with a boat sight-seeing tour of the Intracoastal Waterway and Clearwater Pass (between Clearwater Beach and Sand Key Park) looking for shorebirds, manatees, and of course, wild dolphins, which can be seen quite frequently.
On the way, our tour guide pointed out the new eco-friendly Winter the Dolphin Beach Club hotel, with its distinctive blue-tinted windows and dolphin tail-shaped rock jetties.
The tour with its refreshing cool breezes and sights of Clearwater proved to be a great start to a wonderful day.
On July 29, 2020, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveiled its new 1.5 million-gallon Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex habitat with a ribbon cutting. See CMA’s video of that event.
And on October 16, the Aquarium held an unveiling celebration for its $80 million expansion project to show off its new above-water viewing areas and exciting new guest experiences and the public was invited.
Frank Dame, CEO; Mike Hurst, VP of Zoological Care & Operations; David Yates, previous CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium; Nathan Gamble, the actor who played Sawyer in Dolphin Tale movies; Clearwater Vice Mayor David Allbritton; City Council member Hoyt Hamilton and City Manager William Horne were all present at the unveiling.
With five times the guest space previously accessible at CMA, guests will now enjoy a new retail area; new Cantina with beer, wine and tapas; new culinary area featuring locally sourced options; an enhanced ticketing experience; and above water viewing of the dolphin habitats with Clearwater Bay as a backdrop.
And coming in 2021– a new state-of-the-art theatre and ballroom that will feature a full catering kitchen.
Future plans also include renovating much of the old facility area as funds are raised – including Winter’s old pool, as well as the Dolphin Terrace, which two rough-toothed dolphins named Rex and Rudy – currently call home. The CMA looks forward to using that area as a rehab facility for manatees.
The nine viewing windows into the five pools that make up the Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex offer sweeping underwater views of all five bottlenose dolphin residents (Winter, Hope, PJ, Nicholas and Hemingway) – including the 40-foot wide by 14-foot tall Kate Tiedemann and Ellen Cotton Main Dolphin Pool and Observation Window.
The Stone Dolphin Complex triples CMA’s dolphin pool space, allowing for the care of additional rescued animals.
The pools are connected by gates that can be opened or closed for the dolphins to swim through, depending on their needs.
“We are so excited to unveil this beautiful new space after 14 years of planning and discussions,” said CEO Frank Dame. “Each guest that comes through our doors allows us the ability to rescue, rehab, release, and care for our non-releasable resident marine animals.” Dame continued, “With the additional capacity this beautiful and custom-made habitat affords us, we will be able to care for twice as many rescued animals and give them the best care available.”
But back to our visit. We were all thrilled with the huge new viewing windows that looked right into the pools. Just sitting on the edge in front of the pools was immensely relaxing.
Kids flocked to them to come face-to-face with the dolphins, the stars of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Kids aren’t the only ones who love the dolphins. A famous golden retriever loved them too!
We personally couldn’t tell the dolphins apart, but a cool electronic exhibit lets visitors push a button to introduce each one. (We still couldn’t tell them apart after viewing the screens, but maybe we’ll learn to on subsequent visits!)
Except for Winter that is. Winter – the star of the popular Dolphin Tale movies – has a distinctive tail, or lack thereof.
If you haven’t seen the two movies, make sure you do as soon as possible. The first movie, Dolphin Tale, tells the charming story of two-month-old Winter, whose tail was caught in a crab trap line and eventually had to be amputated. A prosthetic human-limb maker (played by popular actor Morgan Freeman), through trial and error, creates the perfect prosthetic tail for Winter. The sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, continues Winter’s story and introduces a new dolphin – Hope.
Besides the new Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, the Aquarium has some old favorites – the Otter Oasis,
the How Do You Measure Up to Rufus (from the movie) mural,
and shark and fish tanks.
The Aquarium also occasionally has educational exhibits for kids and adults alike, such as learning about the dangers of microplastics and demonstrations of different water types. To learn more about CMA’s education and resources, click here.
The Atlantis Theatre offers games that guests can participate in on the weekends and also plays an array of educational videos and documentaries.
And certainly not least, the CMA has a fantastic gift store with clothing, jewelry, toys and more.
But the CMA is mainly a rescue facility, albeit very different now from what it looked like in the first Dolphin Tale movie!
The four of us were lucky enough to score a behind-the-scenes tour of the actual marine hospital room,
the kitchen where all the fishy food is prepared for the aquarium residents (yum!)
and rescue vehicle and recovery tanks for turtles, dolphins and other marine animals.
We learned a lot about the rescue efforts and how many animals the Aquarium has saved over the years. And there have been thousands.
If you get a chance to do the behind-the-scenes tour, I highly recommend it.
Our tour guide Bryan answered some questions that I’ve had for a long time:
For instance, “Why hasn’t Winter been released back to the wild?”
Bryan explained that Winter was rescued at just two months old and because of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA – pronounced “Noah”) regulations, any dolphin that was rescued under one year of age cannot by law be returned to the wild because it has not yet learned how to survive. He told us a dolphin stays with its mother from anywhere to three to seven years of age to learn these important survival skills. For more information, visit the NOAA website.
Why aren’t all the dolphins housed together?
The bottlenose dolphins are a different breed than the rough-toothed dolphins and while there may not be any problems mixing the two types, the Aquarium decided to be safe and not take the chance to intermingle them.
On what date were the dolphins moved to the new pools?
Nick & Hemmingway were moved on July 21st. Winter, Hope and PJ were moved on July 24th.
Who were Ruth and J.O. Stone?
Ruth and J.O. Stone are generous CMA donors and community philanthropists.
How long do dolphins live?
Dolphins can live up to 60 years in captivity, although the longest one at the CMA lived to 30 years. Winter is now 16 years old. In the wild, their average life span is 15 years.
How much does it cost per day to feed all of the marine animals?
To care and feed all the animals at CMA – including medical expenses – costs approximately $4,775 per day. (This is a huge expense! To donate, click here.)
Will the old portion of the aquarium have any renovations done?
Yes, the CMA plans to renovate much of the old facility as they get the funds to do so (another reason to donate!) – including Winter’s old pool and the Dolphin Terrace – to use that area as a rehab facility for manatees.
When is the projected completion date?
The CMA is always renovating and upgrading the facility!
Do you have any anticipated dates that some of the hands-on animal care experiences will resume?
When our vet team believes it is safe for our animals and guests. To learn more about the animal care experiences, click here.
How many volunteers and employees does the CMA have?
The CMA has approximately 250 active volunteers and approximately 200 employees.
How can one put their name on the Path Pavers on the sidewalk?
For more information on engraving a Path Paver with your name or message, click here.
Why are there no swim-with-a-dolphin experiences in Clearwater?
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a working marine mammal hospital and educational facility.
Here are two videos we took on that memorable day:
If you can’t attend the CMA in person just yet, visit virtually by viewing their live webcams of the marine animals here.
Be sure to check out the new renovations for yourself! Visit SeeWinter.com to make reservations and for admission specials.
249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL
Visit SeeWinter.com to make reservations and for admission specials.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working marine rescue center dedicated to inspiring the human spirit through leadership in education, research, rescue, rehabilitation and release. CMA is home to rescued dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, stingrays, nurse sharks and more. Winter the dolphin’s story of survival, after an injury that caused her to lose her tail, has impacted millions of people around the world. Major motion picture Dolphin Tale (2011) features Winter’s story and its sequel Dolphin Tale 2 (2014) features the incredible story of Hope, a young resident dolphin of CMA. Through Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, CMA conducts important global research focused on protecting manatees, right whales and sea turtles. The mission and potential to change people’s lives differentiates Clearwater Marine Aquarium from any other aquarium in the world.