If you have kids, you’ve probably heard of the movie Dolphin Tale. It’s based on the story of Winter, a dolphin that became entangled in crab trap ropes and ended up losing her tail. The upside of the story was that Winter was saved, now has a prosthetic tail and has created an incredible amount of publicity, and resulting funds, for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This is a facility that rescues injured or ill sea life, rehabilitates them, and strives to release them back to the wild.
It’s spectacular – truly – and something that the girls have wanted to see since the movie came out in 2011.
What I want to share with you, beyond the great experience, was the limited opportunity you have to witness the rescue portion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Come 2017 a new facility will be built in downtown Clearwater that will serve as an aquarium only. Permanent residents of the CMA (those that cannot be released back to the wild) will be housed there, but your opportunity to see behind the scenes, and to be a part of their research, will no longer be available.
Going to CMA is really a three-part excursion; there’s the current CMA where you can see Winter (click link for live webcam) and other rescued sea life. There is the Sea Life Safari where you go on a boat through the Clearwater estuary and are witness to daily research being done and then there is the Dolphin Tale 1 & 2 Studio tour – which is in a separate building in downtown Clearwater.
First up, and the main reason for our trip, Winter:
The movie is accurate in that Winter did become entangled in a crab trap lines and eventually lost her tail – but it wasn’t amputated as the movie indicated. Her tail flukes had actually lost circulation and over time her tail deteriorated and sloughed off. Another fallacy in the movie is that Winter requires a prosthetic tail or damage will be done to her spine causing eventual paralysis. We learned, and saw for ourselves, that Winter swims without her prosthetic most of the time. This has caused bulging muscles in the sides of her tail, but this will not kill her. Her prosthetic is put on 3 – 5 times per day to strengthen her up and down muscles (for lack of proper names) as a rehabilitative treatment, but it is not necessary to keep her alive.
There are numerous other residents at the CMA – this is Cooper, a male otter that they believe was hit by a car. He had a lot of damage to his spine and had partial paralysis to his rear legs. His habitat has been modified to accommodate this and he receives therapy and stimulation daily, but with his disability would never be able to survive in the wild.
You can purchase admittance to a “behind the scenes tour” of the facility. This is where you can learn the history of the facility and see wild animals in treatment, including the surgical suites (sometimes being used). During our tour we were able to witness “Ozzie” – a 200lb sea turtle being transported for x-rays on a shoulder that was severely broken months ago. (You can see on Ozzie’s right shoulder where the bone actually protruded through his skin) This part of the program and facility will no longer be visible to tourists when the new CMA opens in 2017. Pending the results of the x-rays and some further treatment to close the opening, the expectation was that Ozzie would be released back into the wild within a few months.
We were also able to see inside the rescue truck that saves dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and even small whales.
The second portion of the excursion included taking a boat out into the Clearwater Bay (estuary) and being witness to research being done on the local sea life. This includes a net drag where fish are captured and studied before release to gauge population growth, the effects of pollution etc.
From there you are allowed to disembark the boat for a sea shell hunt on a “spoil island” in the bay.
Not a fan of boats or fish, I opted to stay on board and instead play the voyeur to the mansions nearby… I guess Sly Stallone, Kirsty Alley, Tom Cruise and several other celebrities have property here.
[Just a side note here; do the “rich and famous” keep staff in these houses year round (even when they’re not there), or do they call up a day in advance and have staff quickly prep the place for their arrival?]
The third part of the adventure takes place at the Dolphin Tale building in downtown Clearwater. This is where several sets from Dolphin Tale 1 and 2 are housed so you can see first hand how Hollywood magic works. It was interesting, and the girls loved the “hurricane experience”, but I think the behind the scenes portion of the day was the best, and most important, aspect of the tour. Again, this portion will no longer be open to the public when the new facility opens – so if you are down that way, you really should take this opportunity.
This is the houseboat set that sits in front of the Aquarium itself.
This adventure was so much better than another trip to Disney. We all had the chance to learn, experience and build on those threads of human compassion that seem to be dwindling in society today.
Thank you Winter and Hope, and all of the other residents and staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. I am humbled by each and every one of you.
Have a great one!