By Lauren Tjaden
You can slide your fingers across the rubbery back of a cownose stingray; splash into a virtual reality dive with world’s largest tiger sharks; and meet rescued animals that include sharks, otters, pelicans and everyone’s favorite, the beloved dolphin. Experiences include joining CMA field scientists for a kayak or eco-boat tour; posing for a picture with an otter; and visiting the surgical suite.
Read on to discover the stories of CMA’s most famous residents; learn about the once-in-a-lifetime experiences you can have at the Aquarium; and read about the amazing rescue animals that you can meet on a visit.
It’s only fitting that the story of Clearwater Marine Aquarium -- a former sewage treatment plant turned marine hospital with a mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing dolphins, sea turtles and other sea animals –begins with the story of Winter-the-Dolphin.
The tale starts in December of 2005, when a fisherman in the Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral found something that would change countless lives.
That something was a baby dolphin, only two months old, tangled in a crab trap line. The dolphin was severely injured, but luckily, close enough to the water’s surface that she managed to keep breathing.
The fisherman cut the line and called a rescue team, and the dolphin -- subsequently named Winter -- was transported by SeaWorld rescue van to CMA for treatment, the only aquarium that would or could take her.
The line had cut off circulation to Winter’s tail flukes when she was entangled. Despite intensive efforts to help her heal, she lost her entire tail fluke and joint.
It’s hard to overstate this loss. Tail flukes are the powerhouse of the dolphin -- its engine -- and are vital to be able to swim naturally. Winter faced devastating odds against being able to survive at all.
But Winter had her own ideas about that.
She had energy, adaptability and a fighting spirit that blew away all expectations. She recovered completely, figured out how to use her new body to swim in a different way, and discovered she could eat fish on her own.
She got a new tail, too. Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, along with Dr. Mike Walsh and Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Animal Care Team, came up with an ingenious idea for a prosthetic tail for Winter.
And then Winter became a movie star.
"Dolphin Tale,” produced by Warner Brothers and Alcon Entertainment and released nationwide in theaters in 2011, told Winter’s story of hope and perseverance. It’s inspired millions, helping all kinds of people with challenges to press on through life’s staunchest barriers.
A second movie followed, and aquarium attendance tripled. With the growth, the aquarium added more space for marine animal rescue and rehabilitation, continuing their dedication to education before entertainment.
Millions were saddened when Winter died in 2021, but her legacy and CMA’s mission of ‘rescue, rehab and release’ lives on, strong and vibrant.
Not Your Ordinary Aquarium
CMA is different from most other aquariums. While a visit there is fascinating, its main focus isn’t on entertainment, but to rescue marine animals that include dolphins, sea turtles and river otters, rehabilitate them from sickness or injury, and whenever possible, release them back into their natural habitats.
A majority of CMA’s resident animals can’t be released for a number of reasons, so you can see them in their permanent habitats and learn their rescue stories. You’ll also get to see animals undergoing rehabilitation in the aquarium’s working animal hospital. Staff and volunteers give presentations throughout the day at different habitats and exhibits, which teaches you in an immersive, fun way about the work the aquarium does with its rescues and how they strive to make the environment safer and healthier for these animals.
Meet the Rescues
Here are some of CMA’s most captivating rescues. They have conditions that make it necessary for them to reside at CMA full time-- which means you can visit them any time of year.
Exactly five years and one day after Winter was found, a local fisherman discovered Hope in a similar spot in the Indian River Lagoon, trying to nurse her dead mother. Rescuers transported the baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin to CMA, where she was cared for around the clock and fed every two hours. Hope is thriving at CMA, and gained fame when she starred in Dolphin Tale 2. You can see her at the Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex.
Harold was found crawling on the beach in an overall healthy condition. However, when he was found he had a fibropapilloma tumor on his neck. He was admitted into Clearwater Marine Aquarium on July 18, 2010. Surgery to remove the tumors was performed successfully. Harold recovered from surgery and no new tumor growth was noted. However, Harold was unable to find and forage for food on his own. It was discovered he had some neurological issues affecting his eyesight; however, he can still see. Because vision impairment would limit his ability to forage and avoid predators in the wild, Harold is not considered releasable. He is a busy turtle, often preferring to swim laps in the habitat while other turtles take naps. Harold is also a movie star with his role as Mavis in Dolphin Tale 2.
On December 24 of 2002, this male Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf and his mother were found stranded near Gibsonton, Florida. Rescuers transported the pair to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for medical care. Since they arrived on Christmas Eve, CMS named the mother dolphin ‘Noelle’ and her calf ‘Nicholas.’ Noelle suffered third-degree burns around her dorsal fin and a respiratory illness, and sadly, she died only several days later. Nicholas, however, survived and eventually fully recovered from his burns. Since he didn’t have a mother to teach him how to survive in the wild, he became a permanent member of CMA’s family. Fun fact: Nicholas has demonstrated a mysterious talent for predicting the winner of multiple sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, NBA Finals and NCAA National Championships.
And there’s more!
Check out the rest of CMA’s permanent residents, including pelicans, otters, stingrays and a host of other marine animals.
Want to get up-close-and-personal with a seven-foot shark? Or let a stingray nibble treats from your fingers? You can make these memories at CMA, plus have a whole lot more fun. Here are some favorite things to do.
Take a trip to the Dolphin Terrace to soak up an above-water view of CMA’s Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, where you can watch Hope, Nicholas, Apollo and Izzy frolic. You can discover their rescue stories, see a dolphin session, and hear these intelligent mammals communicate with each other.
You’re invited to touch and hand-feed CMA’s cownose stingrays in this shallow pool. During presentations, you’ll learn what to do if you run into a stingray in the wild.
Visit CMA’s enchanting resident great white pelicans at Rufus Beach, including Ricky, who played the part of “Rufus” in Dolphin Tale. You can find viewing windows across from the main pool upstairs in the Winter Zone.
You’ll have so much fun at CMA’s educational presentations that you’ll forget you’re learning. The schedules vary, so check for posted times and locations when you get to CMA. Daily offerings include Sea Turtle Presentations at Turtle Bayou and Turtle Cove, and Otter Presentations at Otter Oasis.
During this program, you’ll say hello to seven-foot-long Thelma, CMA’s resident nurse shark, as well as all of her toothy buddies in the lower mangrove habitat. You’ll help CMA’s animal care specialists guide and feed the shark and gain a better understanding of these misunderstood beasts.
And there’s more!
Here’s where you can check out all of CMA’s experiences and exhibits.
Add-ons and Options
Helping the Human Animal
It’s not only animals that CMA saves. Veterans, people with limb differences, and those on the autism spectrum enjoy special visits with CMA’s rescues, getting an often much-needed dose of inspiration and an infusion of willpower and strength.
Stephanie was born with a genetic disorder that caused critical liver and kidney damage, landing her on the national organ transplant list. While waiting on the transplant, the profoundly-ill young woman stumbled onto CMA while on vacation with her mother. Stephanie deeply related to Winter’s survival story, and saw how the dolphin lived a normal life in spite of being different and having to endure an array of medical procedures. The "Dolphin Tale" actors helped too, encouraging Stephanie to eat and drink more – which she did. As a result, every few months Stephanie’s mom would bring her back to CMA because she ate and drank better after each visit with Winter. This helped Stephanie survive until her transplant, which finally happened in 2016. Today, Stephanie is in recovery.
Milo is a five-year-old boy from St. Petersburg, Fla, with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He was diagnosed at the age of three and has been in constant treatment since. He takes chemo every night at home, gets IV chemo monthly at the hospital, and every 90 days he has a spinal tap.
In his trying, young life, CMA has become Milo’s ‘happy place.’ The toddler feels a connection to Nicholas, the aquarium’s male dolphin that suffered from massive, excruciating 2nd and 3rd degree sunburns when he was six months old. The first time he saw Nicholas, Milo whistled and Nicholas immediately responded. Milo said he feels like Nicholas is his brother.
Eric was born with a tremendously complicated Cardio-Pulmonary defect called Tetrology of Fallot with Pulmonary Atresia and has suffered through five heart surgeries. Nevertheless, this tiny boy has a positive, joyful outlook. If you’re in need of a smile—and a few tears-- watch Eric meet Hope in this video.
Do you or someone you know have a special connection to one of CMA’s rescued animals? If you do, CMA invites you to Share Your Story to be considered for CMA’s Winter’s Inspire Program. Please be patient for a reply; the aquarium gets a lot of requests.
Special Group Visits
CMA regularly hosts group visits, for educational groups like schools, scouts and camps, as well as non-educational group visits, like clubs, churches, and other organizations.
It also hosts special group visits for organizations that include the No Limits Foundation, a Maine based nonprofit for children with limb differences. The Foundation lets children connect with their peers, and provides support, education, mentorships, and the opportunity to “develop a healthy, happy and independent lifestyle” through empowering experiences. This group has traveled to CMA nine times to meet and be inspired by CMA’s rescues.
If you have a special group that would benefit from a visit to CMA, please reach out to the aquarium here: www.seewinter.com/about/contact-us/
When you go…
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
249 Windward Passage
Clearwater, FL 33767
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