Amongst the beautiful beaches in Clearwater, Florida, you will find a wonderful and caring facility known as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. What many people already know is that the CMA is home to Dolphin Tale star Winter, the now-infamous dolphin that was fitted with a prosthetic tail after incurring severe injury, and Hope, a baby dolphin that was stranded on a Florida beach and trying to nurse from her deceased mother. What many people DON’T know is that this is not an ordinary aquarium.
When most people hear the word ‘aquarium,’ the first thing that comes to mind are massive tanks with thousands of beautiful, colourful and unique fish. The CMA is not that. It is, however, an extraordinary facility that is fully dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick and injured marine animals. Their website states that “every animal that comes through [their] doors arrives because it was found suffering from an illness or severe injury in the wild.”
The majority of their animals were found by local residents, fishermen, park rangers or visitors to the area. Upon arriving at their hospital, CMA biologists, veterinarians and volunteers create a rehabilitation plan specifically targeted to its illness or injury. Their goal is to then release these animals back into the wild; however, sometimes this is simply not feasible. The facility works with National Marine Fisheries and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to determine if an animal can be returned to their natural habitat. If a release is not possible, CMA will provide long-term residential care.
What the CMA ultimately does is care for injured or ill marine life, but much more than that is they connect the public with their caring efforts. They educate tourists and demonstrate first-hand how a marine animal is treated, each of which has an inspirational story of survival. These stories inspire human spirit much like Winter’s story. Winter has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide, both young and old, particularly child and war veteran amputees.
There are many wonderful exhibits to see at the CMA. To highlight a few: the Spectrum Theatre, which is a small theatre area where they regularly show the documentary of Winter. Stingray Beach is a shallow pool that gives visitors the opportunity to feed and pet stingrays. Shark Pass houses Thelma and Louise, two nurse sharks. Turtle Cove contains three sea turtles. Turtle Bayou is home to two green sea turtles. And, of course, there is Winter Zone, which is where Winter and Hope reside. At almost every exhibit there are daily presentations where a CMA employee will give a short interactive lecture of that specific exhibit.
Besides the Spectrum Theatre and daily presentations, there are many other activities at CMA, including boat and kayak tours (including Sea Life Safari and Dolphin Adventure Tour), kids’ camps, a behind the scenes tour, animal encounters and photo opportunities.
My experience at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was truly a memorable one and I encourage anyone travelling to this area of Florida to visit the facility if they haven’t already. The CMA is a great way to expose children to the marine life and how to care for certain species via their interactive exhibits. Ticket prices are reasonable at $21.95 (adults), $16.95 (children ages 3-12), $19.95 (seniors aged 60+) and children under 2 are free. Parking is also free.
The aquarium houses a quaint gift shop for items commemorating your visit to the facility so it’s worthwhile to stop and take a look around. However, if a trip to Clearwater isn’t in your immediate future, you can still get an up-close view of what happens at the aquarium simply by visiting the website and clicking on the tab titled Web Cams, for some real-time action. To learn more about the impressive services that CMA provides, please visit their website at www.seewinter.com
Review Article and all Photos by Marisa Filippo