It’s around 9 a.m., the hour when tourists enter the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and already dozens of Summer Campers are inside the building. Wide-eyed, they’re wearing miniature crocs and wet shoes, carrying satchels full of snorkel gear and towels.
As more than a dozen children make their way through the open-air corridors, Taran Fletcher stops in his tracks. The 10-year-old from Missouri spies the source of his recent obsession, the focal point around which his family has planned their vacation.
“There’s the dolphins!” Taran whispers loudly. He fixes his gaze just 20 yards away at the aquarium’s resident celebrity as she pokes her head above water to interact with her trainers.
“Hi, Winter!” the boy next to Taran calls.
Taran will have to wait until later in the week to see Winter up close during a “meet-and-greet” with campers, but he is already very familiar with her life story – a story that has reached millions across the globe and converted this former sewage treatment plant into an international sensation almost overnight.
Taran has watched Dolphin Tale – the movie based on Winter’s life – ten times.
“Nine of them were on the way here,” Taran says about the drive from Missouri to Florida.
But this morning, he learned something his fellow campers were already eagerly anticipating about Dolphin Tale 2. Along with the returning all-star cast that includes Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Winter herself is a new resident of the aquarium: a more recently rescued dolphin named Hope. Before Taran moves on with his class, he catches a glimpse of Hope swimming next to Winter.
“It’s just a magnificent wonder to be here,” Taran says. “I love this place.”
Given skyrocketing attendance and big expansion plans since the first movie’s release, it appears many agree.
An inspiring tale
Coverage started locally. A story in the St. Petersburg Times appeared a month after the December 2005 rescue of a baby bottlenose dolphin, found by a fisherman entangled in the rope of a crab trap in the cold waters of Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral.
She was brought by a Sea World rescue van across the state to the only aquarium that would or could take her, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It was a former sewage treatment plant turned marine hospital with a mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing dolphins, sea turtles and other sea life. Veterinarians and volunteers worked around the clock on the dolphin during a chilly cold front. They named her Winter.
They worried for her tail. They had never seen a dolphin survive without one. Hers, where the ropes had stopped blood circulation, was rotting and falling off. Caregivers watched and waited as the rot climbed her peduncle, or lower trunk. If it reached her spinal cord, she would die.
It finally stopped – one vertebra below the spinal cord. But new concerns arose. With no up-down propulsion from a tail, Winter swam side-to-side, like a fish, curving her spine and inciting scoliosis. Newly arrived CEO David Yates spread the word about Winter’s struggle and the price of human debris left in the sea. Winter’s story went national – on the Today show and across the AP wire – and international on the BBC.
Experts designed models for a prosthetic tail to help her. Before long, children with prosthetic legs and injured American soldiers returning from Iraq visited, inspired by her story. In 2011, Dolphin Tale was released. Then a documentary. The crowds kept growing.
From sewage plant to new facility?
Since Winter’s rescue and the making of Dolphin Tale, aquarium attendance has tripled, from 250,000 to 750,000 people a year. With the growth, the aquarium added rehabilitation space. At a new surgical wing, guests watch behind glass as doctors remove a fish hook from a sea turtle’s throat.
“We want people to see the work that we do,” says spokeswoman Amy Binder. “I know ‘aquarium’ is in our name, but we’re really a working marine hospital.”
The building has a new 3,000-square-foot education wing with classrooms and an equal-sized “stranding deck” for rescued dolphins, and a refurbished habitat for river otters and other rescued sea life no longer fit to survive in the wild. The parking lot was expanded. New tents outside feature portable bathrooms, ticket trailers and a cafe. Visitors catch free trolleys to Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure in downtown Clearwater, with behind-the-scenes movie exhibits.
Yet the modest facility, designed as a sewage treatment plant, not an aquarium, has limits for adaptability. As attendance soars, growing numbers of visitors vie for space around concrete posts to see Winter and Hope. (A third dolphin, a popular adolescent male named Nicholas, resides in a pool on the third-floor deck.) The aquarium’s primary mission remains the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals; education before entertainment.
To accommodate growth, the aquarium set out to raise at least $60 million to build a new facility by 2017 – tripling its size – while leaving its current home as a marine hospital and research center.
Education and camp programs
The aquarium’s new educational wing and the interest sparked by Dolphin Tale also led to expanded programs. Summer and holiday camps for students from kindergarten through high school focus on injured sea turtles, boater safety and conservation, and include a mock rescue of an inflatable dolphin on Honeymoon Island, where the fictionalized version of Winter’s rescue was filmed for Dolphin Tale.
Summer camp students have come from as far away as France. In camp, they learn the difference between the real-life version and the movie version of events. Winter’s story has fueled motivation and interest in marine life in general, says Lisa Oliver, director of education and research. “There’s a huge percentage of children coming in here with a solid base of knowledge of the environment.”
Hope for Winter
Possibly the most charming addition to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is Hope. Hope, a bottlenose dolphin, was rescued in December 2010 while trying to nurse from her deceased mother, very near where Winter had been rescued five years and one day earlier.
Hope arrived at the aquarium the day of the wrap-up party for the filming of Dolphin Tale. Hope and Winter now share pools and play space. Hope co-stars in a key role as herself in the sequel, Dolphin Tale 2.
If you go…
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
249 Windward Passage
Clearwater, FL 33767