When my kids were small we read a series of true stories about animals. Knut was one we fell hard for and so was Winter’s Tail – How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again. Our kids are both adopted and they have had some unique challenges in life. Knut is a polar bear that was raised by a foster human. My kids get that. Winter was a baby dolphin who got caught in a crab trap and lost her tail. Rescued by Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter had to learn to swim again. That’s a story my youngest related to most.
Winter’s story was first a beautiful children’s book by Craig and Julianna Hatkoff, and then a movie called Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 featuring Harry Connick Junior and Ashley Judd. For years, we’ve been trying to get time and stars aligned to get to Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This past Fall I was in Florida on a girlfriend’s getaway, and I spotted the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the itinerary. I couldn’t wait to visit, but at the same time was a bit sad my kids weren’t with me.
No slight intended to the company I was with. We had an amazing week in Florida, and after leaving St. Petersburg Clearwater area we headed to Jacksonville and then St. Augustine, so it was a great trip. But the aquarium is a place my kids and I have been wanting to tour for ages. So, I resolved to enjoy it and buy some amazing souvenirs for my kids, also with the intention of returning so they can see the aquarium one day soon as well.
If you are at all familiar with Dolphin Tale or Dolphin Tale 2 you will know that the little aquarium featured in the first movie and the second one too is Clearwater Marine Aquarium. At the end of Dolphin Tale the animals fates are all in question as the centre is in jeopardy of closing down. In the movie, an anonymous funder saves the day, but the true story is actually cooler than that.
After the Dolphin Tale movie became a runaway family classic doing well at the box office, the aquarium was swarmed with visitors. They went from having 60,000 visitors at their modest facility in Clearwater to having 700,000 visitors a year. It was super busy the day we were there in October.
The increase in visitors plus the proceeds from the movie meant that Clearwater Marine Aquarium was able to commit to an expansion. Construction takes place over the next two years. Over time the aquarium hopes to be able to handle more large marine animals and possibly manatees too. In this area of Florida manatee injuries can be common. Right now manatees that are injured go elsewhere.
While Winter is the most famous of all the residents at the rescue and rehab centre, two other dolphins are permanent residents now too. Hope was a baby when found stranded on the same beach where Winter was found just five years earlier. Hope was brought to the aquarium and nursed back to health. Dolphin Tale 2 is the story of how Hope meets Winter.
And now the aquarium also has Nicholas who was found Christmas Eve 2002 stranded on a beach in Florida with his mother. They were both badly sunburnt and needed wound care. In fact Nicholas’s mother Noelle passed way from the severe 3rd degree burns. Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins typically remain with their mother for several years learning survival skills. Because Hope and Nicholas didn’t have that chance they cannot be released into the ocean. Clearwater Marine Aquarium is their home.
We are invested in Winter, Hope too and Nicholas. But Winter most of all. We used to read it when Ainsley struggled as a little person. This is the link to the book – I highly recommend it – > http://amzn.to/2hyH5Mt
In addition to these three well recognized dolphins, there are a host of other animals recovering. In the aquarium, there is a working operating room which coincidentally is the same space they used in the Dolphin Tale movie. (Fangirl moment) Various turtle X-rays and surgical equipment is ready to go always.
One sad thing I learned while touring the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is this: there’s a form of the Human Papilloma virus that has been affecting sea turtles for the last few years. Many end up here needing surgery to remove painful growths from the FibroPapilloma virus. Luckily many of the sea turtles survive the procedure and recuperate so that they are able to be released in the wild, which is the goal for all the rescued marine life.
There are however also a few creatures that can never be released. An otter that was being kept as someone’s pet and a nurse shark that was in someone’s tank until it grew too large, are a couple of the residents.
The houseboat that Chris Christopherson lives on in Dolphin Tale is here docked in the water outside the aquarium. And, if you go, you will definitely recognize many of the locations from the movie itself. LOVED that I remembered many scenes and the settings as we passed by them.
As I mentioned, we have read Winter’s Tale a zillion times and we still have them in our collection. They are not going anywhere and I will keep them for my grandchildren one day. They are timeless stories of triumph over adversity. Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, are really enjoyable family movies about Winter and her rescue. Both of my kids related to this hopeful story. The true story of a dolphin that loses its tail and needs a prosthetic tail is inspiring.
My entire family and I are invested in Winter, Hope and Nicholas. But Winter most of all. We used to read Winter’s story when Ainsley struggled as a little person and we were still trying to figure out her disability. This is the link to the book – I highly recommend it – > http://amzn.to/2hyH5Mt
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not inexpensive but it’s totally worth it because of the work being done here. It’s not an aquarium where dolphins do a show for people. Instead it’s a space where the public can interact with an inspiring group of staff and the animals that reside here. It is a respectful environment where animals are treated as they should be. You will learn something and you might get to see Winter’s progress and her physiotherapy routine while you are here.
I have traveled a lot this year but this is a place I NEED to go back to and take the kids with me. I can’t tell you the number of times Ainsley and I have checked their live video feed over the years to see if we could spy Winter. This aquarium, by the way, often hosts children with special needs and differences.
A Few More Things
Clearwater Marine Aquarium and rescue and rehabilitation facility covers an area from Tarpon Springs to the Tampa area. There is a cafeteria area where all the food is hand prepared for the animals here. There’s much science and method and thought given to each animal’s diet. A touch pool is located inside near the gift shop.
You can donate to the aquarium and you can also visit.
Over the next couple of years as this expansion becomes reality I look forward to seeing what the facility is able to do to build on the impressive work they have already done.
This post contains a couple of affiliate ads to help make it easier if you want to purchase any of the books I recommended here. My recent trip to St. Petersburg was a partnership with Visit Florida and as a result we received transportation, accommodations, meals and attractions in exchange for coverage here. My opinion is all my own and it is also truthful.