Clearwater Marine Aquarium – The Little Aquarium and Animal Rescue Centre With Heart

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has been on my bucket list forever. When my kids were small we read a series of true stories about animals overcoming adversity. Knut was one we fell hard for and so was Winter’s Tale – How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again. Our kids are both adopted and they’ve had some unique challenges in life. Knut is a polar bear raised by a foster human. My kids get that.

As a baby dolphin, Winter lost her tail after getting caught in a crab trap. Rescued by Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter had to learn to swim again. That’s a story my youngest related to most.

Winter and Hope

Winter the Dolphin’s Story

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 tried to make time and stars align to visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

This past Fall, while in Florida on a girlfriend’s getaway, I spotted the Clearwater Marine Rescue Centre on the itinerary. I couldn’t wait to visit, but at the same time wished my kids weren’t with me. Part of me wondered too is winter still at the Clearwater Beach Aquarium?


A Florida Girl’s Getaway

Our amazing week in Florida began in St. Pete’s Beach. Our girl’s getaways are always rich in laughter and great food, with a dose of adventure. The girl’s getaway itinerary was St. Petersburg Clearwater area, then on to Jacksonville and finally St. Augustine.  So we covered a wide part of the state of Florida.

But the aquarium is a place my kids and I have been wanting to tour for ages. So, I resolved to buy some amazing souvenirs for my kids, with the intention of returning so they can see the marine rescue aquarium one day soon as well.



The Little Aquarium that Could

If you are at all familiar with Dolphin Tale or Dolphin Tale 2, you know the little aquarium featured in the first and second movies is Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Google Clearwater Animal Hospital Winter and you will get a quick introduction to the story. Or better yet go buy the book.

At the end of the Dolphin Tale movie 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. The true story is way better.


Dolphin Tale Movie

After the Dolphin Tale movie became a runaway family classic doing well at the box office, visitors swarmed the aquarium. The annual 60,000 visitors at their modest facility in Clearwater swelled to 700,000 visitors. It was very busy the October day we visited.


What’s Next?

The increase in visitors, plus the proceeds from the movie, meant Clearwater Marine Aquarium could commit to an expansion. Construction takes place over the next two years. Over time, the aquarium hopes to handle more large marine animals and possibly manatees too. In this area of Florida manatee injuries are common. Right now, injured manatees go elsewhere.


While Winter is the most famous resident at the rescue and rehab centre, two other dolphins live there now too. Hope was a baby found stranded on the same beach where Winter had been found just five years earlier. Rescuers moved Hope to the aquarium and nursed her back to health. Dolphin Tale 2 is the story of how Hope meets Winter.



Found Christmas Eve 2002, badly sunburned and stranded on a beach in Florida with his mother, Nicholas needed wound care. Mom Noelle died 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 return to the ocean and Clearwater Marine Aquarium is their home.

Winter’s peduncle. The part of the body that was damaged by the crab trap where the prosthetic tail is attached.

We are invested in Winter, Hope and Nicholas. But Winter most of all. We read it when Ainsley struggled as a little person.

Get the book!

This is the link to the book – I highly recommend it – >


The Other Rescue Animals

In addition to these three well-recognized dolphins, a host of other animals recover here. 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-ray machines and surgical equipment is at the ready always.


Take Care for the Turtle’s Sake

One sad thing I learned while touring the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is this: there’s a form of the Human Papilloma virus impacting sea turtles for the last few years. Many end up here at the Clearwater Beach Aquarium recovering from surgery to remove painful growths from the FibroPapilloma virus. Luckily, many sea turtles survive, recuperate, thrive and get released, the goal for all rescued marine life.



Sad stories:

However, a few creatures that can never be released. An otter, kept as someone’s pet, until they couldn’t keep him anymore and a nurse shark that was in someone’s tank until it grew too large, are a couple of residents.

The houseboat 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 settings.



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 future grandchildren one day. They are timeless stories of triumph over adversity. Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, are 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.


Why Winter Resonates with Us

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 – >

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a bit expensive 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 interacts 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. Together, 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.

You can order tickets to SEE WINTER at the Aquarium here Now. Family will love it!


A Few More Things

Clearwater Marine Aquarium and rescue and rehabilitation facility covers an area from Tarpon Springs to the Tampa area. In a cafeteria area, workers prepare all the food specially for the animals. With great attention to detail, some science and a whole lot of love, the animals each receive a unique diet.

The Gift Shop and Touch Pool

Touch pool is inside near the gift shop. The gift shop boasts an impressive array of clothing, books, movies and stuffed animals. Take time to buy souvenirs or donate to the aquarium, because it’s worth it.

Over the next couple of years as this expansion becomes reality I look forward to seeing how the facility builds on their impressive, important, work.

Get the Merchandise

This post contains affiliate ads as a service to readers. Visit Florida provided us with transportation, accommodations, meals and attractions in exchange for coverage. My opinion is all my own and it is also truthful.

Mom of two beautiful active girls, traveller, fitness junkie, social media consultant, and keeper of the sanity.