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Visit Winter the Dolphin & Friends in Clearwater, Florida
“Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken,”
– Dr Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) in a Dolphin Tale
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Your chance to meet movie star, Winter the dolphin! The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not your average ‘aquarium’. It’s a working animal hospital whose goal is to rehab injured & sick animals for release, whenever possible. They are one of the top marine rescue & rehab centers in the US. But, they may have never come into the global public view, had it not been for a story turned movie, of one of their own. If you haven’t seen Warner Brother’s Dolphin Tale (2011) or the sequel, Dolphin Tale 2 (2014), you should. Good family movies, Winter the dolphin’s story is especially inspiring to kids & other life warriors. To fully appreciate a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the chance to meet Winter and her inspiring friends, you’ll enjoy it more if you watch the movies before. A number of the humans in the film are fictional, but Winter’s incredible story is very real.
There’s nothing more inspiring than when a tragedy turns triumph. When a special heart & spirit can defy the depths of pain and impossible odds to not only survive, but to conquer & thrive. When their own tragedy is turned into a blessing in the lives of many. Inspiring that same fighting spirit, that same will to thrive in others. Winter the dolphin has one of those stories and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is her rescuer & home. She was recued in 2005, on a cold December day, in the wintry season she’s named for.
Winter was entangled in a crab trap as a baby, just 2 months old. A situation very few dolphins survive, let alone one this young. Things looked hopeless. So much that she was left for dead by her pod. By her mother. A still nursing calf, scared, trapped & bleeding. Left to die alone. She twisted and suffered and writhed for hours. Trying desperately not to drown, she used her dwindling strength to thrust up to the surface against her binds. She’d grab a choking, frantic gasp of air, before submerging under, again, and repeat. It was in this commotion that a fisherman saw her and called for help. It was a long wait, then a 4 hour, 176 mile drive, but the weak, injured calf defied experts’ expectations that she may die. But the hard work had just begun for both Winter & her team. Winter’s injuries were severe. Deep cuts in her mouth, abrasions across her body & a chewed-up tail were all at risk for infection. But, the gravest was that blood circulation to her tail had been cut off for hours. And despite weeks-long efforts to save it, it slowly began to rot off, along with 3 vertabrae. Taking with it her ability to swim, a life-threatening complication for a dolphin. One that no other had survived.
But, Winter doesn’t know how to give up. She’s never been one to accept her circumstances. And neither did the CMA. As they nursed her back to health, she learned to swim with a side to side motion rather than a mermaid-like dolphin kick. It was great at 1st, she’d conquered that major hurdle. But, her new way of swimming was abnormal for a dolphin’s physiology. Her muscles and spine weren’t designed to move like that & certainly not consistently. It would cause painful, worsening conditions, such as bone deformities and scoliosis, potentially arthritis, her muscles eventually choking natural movement of her spine. No dolphin had ever been known to survive losing their entire tail. There was no precedent, no prior success and virtually no hope. Until a prosthetist from a clinic that specialized in (human) prosthetic limbs heard her story (The clinic was created 150 years ago by the very 1st amputee of the Civil War– his leg shot off by cannon ball). Marine experts, even at the CMA, didn’t think it could work. But the clinic took Winter’s case, working long nights & weekends. Trying to figure out how to propel a 400 pound dolphin in a way that is comfortable & effective and that she wouldn’t reject. It took a year & a 1/2 to develop. It resulted in the design of a new gel liner, Winter’s Gel, sticky, yet silky & reduces rubbing of delicate skin. It was ‘human tested’ on the clinic manager, an amputee, and now benefits other humans, too. But, now that Winter had a new tail, she had forgotten how to swim like a dolphin. She had to re-learn the natural movement to reduce & prevent further curvature in her spine. A long & difficult road, but she never ever gave up. And now she’s happy and thriving, swimming & playing with friends & toys, and eating 12 lbs of fish a day!
Unlikely Band of Survivors
Winter isn’t the only one at CMA who suffered & inspires. Her pool mate, Hope, was introduced in Dolphin Tale 2. She was rescued as a 2-3 month old calf who was attempting to nurse from her dead mother. Dolphins usually nurse until they’re 18-20 months old & stay with their moms for several years. But Hope was orphaned & hadn’t yet learned how to hunt or survive. Extremely dehydrated, Hope arrived the day of the wrap party for the Dolphin Tale filming. She received bottles of baby dolphin formula made of blended herring, powdered milk substitute, vitamins, oil & water. Today, though 5 years younger, she’s even outgrown her friend, Winter! She likes to blow bubbles & play with pool squirt toys. There are other Dolphin Tale stars at CMA, too. You can visit Winter, Hope and the animals who played Rufus & Mavis. The movies were filmed there, you’ll recognize it in most of the scenes. Winter is a vital part of their story & their biggest star, but they have more to offer than just one story or a movie. The CMA is full of one story after another of survival & rescue of these incredible animals. And the hard work of those who could not look away. Many of their residents have deformities from life’s battle wounds. Many from accidental encounters with humans & boats. Be careful when visiting and meeting these animals. Learning their stories, what they’ve endured, the challenges they conquer every day. To do so is at your own risk, as they will likely steal your heart.
But, they’re not just collecting pretty faces at the CMA. It is a working animal hospital whose mission is Rescue, Rehab & Release, whenever possible. Only keeping those who couldn’t survive in the wild. In 2018 alone, they rehabbed & released 182 sea turtles back into the wild. Beyond that, they’re devoted to Conservation, Education, & Research. Winter’s story has helped the once struggling non-profit to continue operating and, like Winter, to thrive. In fact, the popularity of her movies, books, Nintendo game & documentaries has brought enough fans to bolster the economy of the entire community. So much that the CMA is in the process of a huge, very much-needed expansion. In 2015, they saw 800,000 visitors. Operating since the 1970s in an old wastewater treatment plant, they are expanding the habitats of all of their animals, of their exhibits & guest areas, and will be able to accommodate twice as many residents and even add more species. The goal is to never have to turn another animal in need away for lack of space. They continue to educate their growing fanbase on conservation and the challenges & beauty of marine animals. The expansion’s expected to be finished in mid to late 2020.
Visiting the CMA, Today
In the current upper level (pre-renovation), you can visit:
Turtle Bayou– sea turtles, including a blind, loggerhead named Snorkle; Cocoa a green sea turtle found at Cocoa Beach and rendered blind by injuries from a boat propeller; Max- a Kemps Ridley sea turtle rescued back in 1984- mostly blind, he loves eating colored ice toys; Rob- another Kemps Ridley with injuries to his jaws. He likes to find hideaways for his many naps
Winter Zone– to visit Winter the dolphin & her friend, Hope
Dolphin Terrace– where they place newly rescued animals for care & quarantine, especially sick & injured dolphins & small whales; also where you’ll find Nicholas the dolphin- a Christmas Eve rescue who likes doing flips when he gets excited & is a great predictor of winners in sports! Also front row views of Clearwater Bay.
Shark Pass– Upper view into the tank of nurse sharks, Thelma & Louise. They grow up to 14 ft & to 25+ years old.
Rufus Beach– home to great white pelicans, Ricky (played Rufus in D.T. movies), Skylar, Matthew & Tyndall.
Aquaponics– fish habitat that’s used to grow lettuce, without soil, for the sea turtles to eat
The lower level (pre-renovation) currently contains:
Shipwreck Alley– Underwater viewing of Winter & Hope
Sea Cavern– Touch Tanks, including sea urchins, sea stars & crabs. Feed a puffer fish & see a moray eel; Underwater view into the Shark Pass nurse sharks
Mavis’s Rescue Hideaway– home to sea turtles (including D.T. star who played ‘Mavis’), stingrays, redfish, hogfish & tarpon
Stingray Beach– Feed their cownose stingrays during scheduled times. Live presentations; see a replication of sea turtle nesting
Special events Theater
Safe Harbor Surgical Suite & ICU– watch the animals’ physicals & even emergency surgeries; includes old surgical suite used for D.T. scenes
Sharkbites Café & Coffee Shop
Professional Photos with Winter backdrop
Enhance Your Experience:
Go on the Behind the Scenes Tour to see even more: Visit Nicholas the dolphin from his under-water viewing, animals in rehab at the critical care facility, fish prep food area where they process thousands of pounds of fish. Tour is 45 minutes. Minimum age is 7, max group size is 10. Climbing stairs & narrow hallways are necessary at the current facility. Prices can be combined with admission with Combo ticket.
CMA is on Clearwater Bay & has several 90 minute Boat & Kayak Tours available.
Dolphin Adventure tour to learn all about dolphins & watch sealife
holiday tour ‘Sea of Lights’ at night with lights, songs & holiday trivia
Sea Life Safari boat tour- eco cruise around an estuary & visit a shell island to collect seashells
Guided kayak tours– 2 hour tours around local finger islands, identifying wildlife & learning about the ecosystem. Must be 10. Reservations required. No experience necessary, all equipment provided.
Unique Animal Care Experiences are available with advance reservations. Spots are limited.
- Be a Dolphin & Animal Care Assistant with dolphins, otters & pelicans, including food prep, record keeping & play- 3 hour program, admission is included. Minimum age 10. Feed animals, receive a photo & t-shirt.
- Dolphin Care Experience– 30 minutes. Minimum age 7. Admission is included. Learn about & feed dolphins, receive a photo & t-shirt.
- Shark Care Experience– 30 minutes. Minimum age 7. Admission is included. Learn about & feed the sharks & receive a photo.
- Otter Feed & Photo– Minimum age 7
- Pelican Feed & Photo– Minimum age 7
- Photo with a Dolphin– Minimum age 5
For more in-depth educational programs, they have various camps through their Marine Academy– a career focused program for high school students. A day or week long program, including a summer program is available. Learn from biologists, vet techs, the rescue team & animal care, researchers and educational staff.
- Career Shadowing– week long, 15 hours
- Field Scientist– Intro to equipment & techniques used in the field. Conduct environmental surveys, kayak & snorkel- 15 hours
- Intro to Scuba
When we visited in 2013, they had a 2nd building exhibit dedicated to filming of the Dolphin Tale movie. It included the sets from Sawyer’s home & many props, clothing & interesting trivia. It’s currently closed, but hopefully, this will be included in the new reno for 2020! If you or your kids liked the movies, you will LOVE this place! Winter & her friends are also a huge draw for war vet amputees & kids with many illnesses, disabilities or challenges. Inspired by these animals’ will to thrive & push beyond their unique limitations. They show these kids that the extra obstacles they may have to go around don’t have to stop them. That they are beautifully & wonderfully made, and they have the power to be happy and to conquer & thrive. For dolphin, ocean & animal lovers, and Dolphin Tale fans, this site is a gem & worthy cause!
Good to Know:
CMA is currently open 10-6 daily, except major holidays. Some weekends are open later around holidays.
It will take you @ 2 hours, unless you add tours, but that may lengthen when the reno is done.
located at 249 Windward Passage
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