Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA)

20140810_153936(0)August 12, 2014

The history on how the aquarium came to be along with the successful work preformed by the dedicated staff and three rescued dolphins has contributed greatly to the aquarium’s success.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is not the typical custom built large city aquarium. You will not find any new shiny stainless steel, polished granite or fancy air-conditioned observation areas at this aquarium.20140810_145223

The architectural design is actually a product of a former abandon water treatment plant. The water treatment plant contained large tanks and with its proximity to open water was well suited for a marine research, rescue and rehabilitation center. In 1978 the city of Clearwater donated the abandon site to a group of private volunteers who wanted to establish a permanent marine biology learning center operating under the name Clearwater Marine Science Center (CMSC). After an extensive construction process the first exhibit room was opened to the public in 1981. The facility’s name was changed in the 1990s to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) due to an increasing level of community interaction.20140810_160404

Like most wildlife rehabilitation centers the focus is to rescue and rehabilitate injured marine animals and release back to the wild. Education programs also play a key role. That means most of the time an animals rehab is not open to the general public. As a former volunteer at the Audubon Wildlife Rehab Center in New Orleans, I learned that injured animals don’t always survive due to the shock and stress levels caused by their injuries. An animal’s stress level is a major factor and must be dealt with in an appropriate matter in order for the animal to overcome its injury. Socializing or handling an injured animal with lots of people around is not a good idea and may hamper the recovery process or even make matters worst. Also, most of the time an injured animal must be forced fed to help the recovery process along due to their rejection of food. The animals rehab requires a professional trained staff experienced in handling, diet and any medical issues that need attention. Rehabbing is mostly done behind the scenes of a wildlife or marine rehab center and the caregivers contribute countless hours to the process. We are thankful to have many gifted individuals at the aquarium that are willing to educate the public and share their valuable time as volunteers or with little pay.


In 1984, CMSC rescued a stranded Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named “Sunset Sam”. This was the first dolphin in Florida to survive a beaching. However, due to chronic liver problems, Sunset could not be released into the wild and became CMSC’s first resident dolphin. Sunset Sam was taught how to paint as a form of animal enrichment, and the sales of his paintings were used to fund expenses for the aquarium. Sunset Sam spent 17 years entertaining visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium before passing in December 2001.


In 2005 the CMA rescued their most popular resident, a dolphin they named “Winter”, a bottlenose dolphin which had been entangled in a crab trap on Florida’s east coast. The staff at the aquarium spent countless hours and months on the dolphin’s rehabilitation. Unfortunately, as a result of her injuries during the rehab process the dolphin ended up losing her tail. Faced with that dilemma the aquarium staff organized a team of experts, which came together and created the first ever silicone and plastic prosthetic tail for a marine mammal.

The rescue and rehab story of Winter caught international recognition and catapulted the aquarium into the national media spotlight. That grabbed Hollywood’s attention and inspired the movie Dolphin Tale, the movie became a top box office hit and almost overnight the aquarium’s attendance skyrocketed.


In December 2010, another dolphin named “Hope” was discovered near the same place Winter was found. She was an orphaned 2-month-old calf, still attempting to nurse from her mother, who had died after becoming beached. It was determined that Hope could not be released because she was to young and had not learned the necessary survival skills to be out in the wild. Hope currently shares a tank with Winter, and will star in Dolphin Tale 2, a sequel to the original movie, which will dramatize her rescue.

Due to many successful rescues, the aquarium now has plans to expand and add more exhibits. The dolphin rescue stories have touched thousands of people, many with disabilities dealing with rehabilitation while gaining worldwide recognition for the aquarium.

As you would expect, the highlight of the aquarium is the dolphin tank, which has a partially open roof exhibit. Unfortunately, it’s possible that the weather may affect some of the scheduled timed events. It poured on our visit and delayed Winter’s introduction and brief rescue story, which was narrated by a staff member. However, most of the walkways are covered and there’s ample space to stay dry for everyone. It would be a good idea to plan around the weather prior to attending.20140810_154141

The Stingray Beach exhibit is kind of like a hands on area. You can touch the rays as they swim around in the shallow tank with ample room to move around. I noticed that most of the kids were laughing and loved that part of the aquarium.


The other exhibits included Sea Turtles, River Otters, Pelicans, Sharks and other fish. Some of the exhibits have windows below for viewing and the only way to see the sharks or oher fish is to visit that area. Many of the pictures and colored graphics around the aquarium depicted scenes from the movies shot on location. There’s also an old boat, which was used as a movie prop tied up at one of the boat docks.


The aquarium offers a 90 minute Sea Life Safari Boat Tour. A ride in the bay area waters to a small shell island. Part of the tour includes pulling a fish net behind the boat in the waters and the crew will educate those onboard about the contents caught in the net. Many times when available, dolphins and several seabirds are spotted and identified.


The admissions prices and family rates and times listed below.


Visit :

Contributed by: Martin Allred

About chowjudge

Martin Allred is a professional photographer and frequent traveler. His organization Nationwide Photographers provides Professional Photography throughout the USA and Canada. Martin is a native of New Orleans and currently resides in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
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