8 Reasons to Visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium

My youngest son, Blake, and I spent an entire day at the Aquarium and are so excited to share with you 8 reasons to visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium™. This aquarium is probably not like any aquarium you have ever visited. What makes it so unique? I’m so glad you asked!

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ is fundamentally a hospital for sick and injured marine life. We spent the day there but honestly, we could have spent two more. There were so many things we wanted to do, like feeding the dolphins (stingrays, Rufus and puffer fish), being a dolphin animal care assistant, and getting our picture taken with the dolphins, but we just didn’t have enough time to do it all.

1. Winter

If you have seen the Dolphin Tale movies, Winter needs no introduction. If you haven’t (you seriously need to…), she is the star and inspiration for those movies.

Winter is a bottlenose dolphin that was found stranded near Cape Canaveral, Florida when she was only two months old. She was entangled in a crab trap line which cut off circulation to her tail flukes. After she was cut free of the crab trap line, she was transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ for treatment. Unfortunately, her injuries were so extensive that she ended up losing her tail flukes.  But she survived! Most dolphins trapped in monofilament and crab trap lines do not. Despite the crazy, overwhelming odds against her survival, Winter was able to adapt to her new physical form. She recovered completely, adapted to a new swim pattern, and learned to eat fish on her own… almost 12 pounds a day!

But Winter is so much more than a dolphin without a tail. Winter -and the story of her prosthetic tail- has inspired millions to persevere through their own life trials and obstacles. She literally has changed the lives of people facing physical challenges, especially children. Their testimonials have a wall of their own in the rehab center near Winter’s pool. It was so touching to actually witness first hand.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ has set up live webcams in Winter’s pool so you can watch her.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Winter Cam 1.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Winter Cam 2.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Winter Cam 3.

And this story about Winter leads us to reason number 2.

2. Rescue. Rehab. Release.

I want to emphasize what Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ is. And what it is not. It is not just an aquarium. If you are looking for a huge assortment of sea creatures with lots of healthy examples of that creature, then CMA may not be a perfect fit for you.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ is a working marine animal hospital–not an aquarium. The difference is huge! CMA is exactly where you should go for your next aquatic animal experience if you want to see and support:

  • a facility that is committed to the rescue, rehab, and release of wild aquatic creatures.
  • a facility that provides long-term residential care when release is not possible.
  • a facility that inspires the human spirit through the animals and their amazing stories of survival.
  • a facility that is committed to educating people on the preservation and conservation of our animals and environment.
  • a facility that collaborates on scientific research to better understand animal behavior, illness, treatment, and the prevention of animal decline.
  • a facility that protects the growth of the endangered sea turtle population by guarding a 13-mile stretch of beach within Pinellas County.

3. Hope

Hope is another Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin who was rescued by CMA. In December of 2010, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute received a call about a dolphin calf that had been found on the East Coast of Florida.

A local fisherman spotted her in the shallow waters, attempting to nurse from her deceased mother. When first responders arrived, they evaluated the dolphin calf and determined she should be transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ for rehabilitation. At the time of her rescue, Hope was estimated to be only about 2-3 months old. She weighed 58 pounds and was extremely dehydrated. CMA was able to provide care and nutrition to nurse her back to full recovery.

Hope did not make a good candidate for release because she was very young and had not learned the necessary survival skills to be able to be released into the wild.

Hope is in the same pool with Winter, so you can see her live also when looking at Winter’s webcams. They are easy to tell apart; Winter is missing the flukes of her tail.

4. Emergency Stranding Line Is Open 24/7

Every animal that arrives at Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ is there because it was found suffering from an illness or severe injury in the wild.

  • Most of their animals were found by local residents, fishermen, park rangers, or visitors to the area.
  • They have a 24-hour emergency stranding line (727-441-1790 Ext. 1) to report a marine animal emergency.
  • Once the animal gets to their facility, CMA biologists, veterinarians, and volunteers create a rehabilitation plan specifically targeted to its injury or illness.
  • In 1984, Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ successfully rehabilitated the very first dolphin to survive a stranding in Florida. Sunset Sam remained a resident at the Aquarium until 2001.
  • The Aquarium is one of only five active facilities treating endangered sea turtles afflicted with the fibropapilloma virus.
  • The Aquarium responds to dolphin, whale, and sea turtle stranding events in the Gulf of Mexico and greater Florida region.
  • CMA became an integral member of the Southeast Region Stranding Network in 1979.
  • CMA’s Stranding Team has responded to over 500 stranded dolphins or whales and over 2,200 sea turtles.

5. Nicholas

We absolutely loved watching Nicholas. Yes, because he is a beautiful aerobatic dolphin… but more because he is an orphaned dolphin that might not have made it had CMA not been there to take him in.

Nicholas and his mother were stranded near Gibsonton, Florida on Christmas Eve. The mother was named Noelle and her calf, Nicholas. The 380-pound adult female, Noelle, had sustained third degree burns around her dorsal fin and was believed to have respiratory illness. Unfortunately, she passed away on December 27, 2002. He is a true survival story. He lost 30 pounds when he arrived at CMA and was  suffering from second and third degree sunburns across 36% of his body. Nicholas was provided 24-hour care for several months. He was not weaned so he needed special formula to imitate his mother’s milk.  He was nursed back to health but will never be able to be released. He lacks the necessary survival skills, such as hunting and the skills to protect himself from predators. These skills can only be learned from his mother. Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calves associate with their mothers for several years, and during that time they will learn all the necessary life skills needed to survive in the wild.  So he is a permanent resident at CMA and is adorable as he can be!

You can also follow along with Nicholas on his live webcams.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Nicholas Cam 1.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Nicholas Cam 2.

6. Working Animal Hospital

You’ll see a number of rescued animals in various stages of rehabilitation when you visit CMA. Most of these animals are sea turtles. They may be suffering from various issues, including buoyancy disorders, cold stun symptoms, fibropapilloma tumors, and boat strike or entanglement injuries. And of course, their permanent resident animals also receive medical care and treatments from the animal hospital. CMA has a full-time veterinarian and a veterinarian tech.

Their sea turtle rehab center is one of only five facilities that treats sea turtles with the fibropapilloma virus. It is heartbreaking watching the sea turtles that have buoyancy disorders, but if not for a facility like CMA, they would not have survived. Here is the webcam for one of the many sea turtle rehab pools.

7. Sea Life Safari

The CMA Sea Life Safari Boat Tour was so much fun. We had a marine biologist on board with us who gave us insight into various aspects of the marine life around the museum. It was a 90-minute trip around the beautiful intra-coastal waters. We got to see dolphins almost immediately. Our guide told us about how the dorsal fins of dolphins are akin to our fingerprints. They actually have documented over 120 different dolphins around CMA. She also showed us Bird Island and pointed out various sea birds as we scooted through the various waterways. We stopped at Shell Island to gather a few shells and look around. We got to see some of their research that CMA marine biologists are responsible for including dragging a net and taking a census of the sea life. We were allowed to touch some of those sea creatures before they were released. The kids and adults on the cruise loved this hands-on experience.

8. Rufus

I absolutely love quirky, mischievous Rufus!!

Rufus is a great white pelican who starred in the Dolphin Tale Series. But I have to tell you the truth… Hollywood made up the name Rufus. The pelican from the Dolphin Tale movies is actually Ricky (and a couple of body doubles for Ricky). Hollywood Myth Number 2… Ricky is not that mischievous.  They actually planted fish in purses and shoes to get Ricky to chase people!  And one last Hollywood myth that I need to bust that just may shock you … Rufus is a girl!  I know you are shocked… I was too!  Ricky is actually a real movie star; she was also in the movie Zohan starring Adam Sandler! And like many movie stars, Ricky moved to Florida and retired!

Here is the pelican webcam if you want to follow them.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ Fun Pelican Cam.

Speaking of Hollywood myths… I need to bust another one. Clearwater Marine Aquarium™ was not purchased by a billionaire and funded for life. They actually rely on support and donations for their survival. So if you believe in their mission and want to be a part of it, there are many ways you can get involved and  support Clearwater Marine Aquarium™.

What did my Teen Think of Clearwater?

Sometimes when we go on trips, our teens don’t necessarily enjoy them the way our younger children do. So I asked my son Blake to write about Clearwater from his perspective. You can read his Clearwater Beach article by clicking here. 


Have you been to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium™

We would love to hear about your visit and which animals touched your heart. Leave us a comment below and share your thoughts about this (and other rescue Marine Aquariums). We want to thank Clearwater Marine Aquarium for hosting us and giving us this special tour.

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  1. I adore that picture of you two. It’s so cute. The article was great and it’s now on my homeschool bucket list of places to take my boys.

    1. Hahaha!!! That is another fun thing they do at Clearwater Marine Aquarium! I sincerely hope you will be able to go!! Tell them I sent you if you do 🙂

    2. PS… Did you notice my Zevia Energy drink and my phone in my hand. That seems to be how I roll these days! LOL 🙂 But Diet Mt. Dews are a thing of the past now. So Zevia and I are pretty tight. I drink three of them a day. And after all that driving to get there, I had to go hunt more of them in Clearwater! Lesson learned, bring them along next time!

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