As a child, I can remember visiting the aquariums in New England and being mesmerized by all the fascinating marine life. I would bounce from tank to tank looking for the most unique creatures. At that age, of course, it was never really more than just a field trip, an opportunity to break away from school. When we moved to Florida, however, we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and my entire perspective began to evolve. This place was different. It stood out. It wasn’t a home for the strange and unusual creatures found under the sea. Rather, it was a hospital ~ a place where injured and abandoned marine animals could receive compassionate medical care, loving rehabilitation and a second chance at life.
Disclaimer: My sons and I were treated to complimentary admission and a guided tour of Clearwater Marine Aquarium in exchange for our honest review of the experience. The opinions below are 100% mine and mine alone.
~ VISITING CLEARWATER ~
The day of our trip started off absolutely gorgeous. It was the perfect kind of weather to travel out to the Gulf Coast. As the venue is undergoing an enormous expansion project, we did encounter just a bit of construction as we approached the parking garage, but nothing that should deter guests from visiting.
Meeting our Guide
We parked, obtained our tickets and met our guide at the front gate. Marie had been patiently waiting for us to arrive and was eager to show us around. She was fairly new to the venue herself, but her knowledge of the facility was already pretty vast.
Throughout the entire tour, Marie provided us with extremely detailed background on the mission of the marine hospital, as well as the personal stories of the individual residents. She knew them by name and could tell us their tale as if she had known them for years. She was a fabulous host and guide, patient with our questions and my incessant need to snap photos. In spite of our short time there with her, she shared an incredible amount of knowledge with us. We learned things we will never forget.
As noted earlier, Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not your standard aquarium where guests come in and spend hours gazing upon stunning creatures from the deep. There are no walk-through tunnels with sea animals swimming above and beside you. It’s not a venue built with any intent for entertainment purposes. Rather, the aquarium hopes to inspire its guests to look at marine life with a more compassionate eye, to gain a better understanding of what these creatures go through in a world dominated by humans. (NOTE: This is not to say other aquariums are NOT like this. CMA just simply stands out in this way to me.)
CMA has a definitive mission and that’s to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release marine life injured whether by accident, human contraptions or natural events. They takes sea animals whose ability to survive in the wild has been disabled in some way, whether temporary or permanent, and give them the second chance they deserve and could not otherwise receive.
So, let’s break down the mission a little bit here. We’ll talk about “Rescue” first.
Oftentimes, strangers will come upon a marine animal who has been beached or is entangled, unable to break away to safety. Whether clipped by a boat or ensnared in a net, these creatures are unable to care for themselves and are in need of medical attention. In circumstances such as these, the proper authorities are contacted and arrangements are made for the animal to be transported to a facility such as CMA.
Our first stop was to visit the sea turtles. While gazing at the tank, we had the pleasure of “meeting” Cupid. Cupid is a Green Sea Turtle who was found on Valentine’s Day in 2010. Unfortunately, he had suffered multiple abrasions and had an old injury to the left flipper. After arriving at CMA for treatment, the medical team later discovered that he also had a buoyancy problem. Had he not been found and rescued, it is probable that Cupid’s life would have been cut dramatically short. At Clearwater, he receives the attention he needs to maintain an active life in the water.
Funny note ~ during our visit, Cupid made quite a show of himself and would frequently swim by as if to say, “Hey! Look at me! I’m loving life!”
Other Reasons for Rescue
Of course, injury is not the only reason marine life are brought to CMA. Sometimes, individuals will find a marine creature when they are small and think would be the perfect pet, such as a nurse shark or an otter. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the “pet” grows and demands more room, more food and a different kind of attention. However, the time they should have spent learning how to survive in their own environment was spent with humans, so they would be in danger if released freely. In circumstances such as this, facilities such as Clearwater Marine Aquarium are called to take over the care for that animal.
We met several marine animals who had once been pets. Spot, a Tessalata Moray Eel, is one such creature who outgrew his place. He was brought to CMA and immediately paired with a shrimp named Scarlet. It was unknown to the owner that eels and shrimp have a symbiotic relationship and do better when they have each other. These two take care of each other in their own tank at CMA.
We also met Thelma and Louise, two nurse sharks taken out of the wild by a collector when they were pups. Now they have their own tank with room to swim and grow.
It is not CMA’s ultimate goal to take in marine life and simply keep them as their own. Their purpose is to not to entertain the masses or collect pets. The mission of the marine hospital is to bring these beautiful creatures back to their proper state of health and then hopefully release them back into the their own natural habitat, whole and ready to live life as they knew it prior to their rescue.
Rehabilitation takes many forms at Clearwater as the animals arrive at CMA in various conditions. Some are ill and need to be quarantined for a period of time. Others have injuries that require surgical care and then follow up wound care. Some need nurturing because they were found as babies without mothers to care for them. Still others are in need of physical rehabilitation and have trainers work with them on a regular basis to regain their strength and mobility.
During our visit, we had the unique opportunity of witnessing a Green Sea Turtle, named Kraft, have his wounds addressed in the ICU room (pictured above). The ICU is a glassed-in room that was originally built for the filming of the movie, Dolphin Tale 2. Once filming was complete, the room was donated back to the aquarium for use. It has become the central location of wound care, such as what Kraft was experiencing during our visit.
Kraft had been found floating at a Florida beach. When he was brought in, he was noted to have papilloma tumors, as well as deep lacerations on his shell. From where we were standing outside the room, we were able to visibly see those wounds and, to be honest, see his sadness. Even though he had been picked up earlier this year, the wounds were still deep and open. The medical team was extremely patient, comforting and meticulous in their efforts to address Kraft’s wounds. It broke our hearts to see him like that, making the experience that much more real and raw for us. In an effort to keep up with his progress, we now follow his care on the aquarium’s website.
Once the rescued marine animal has had sufficient time for rehabilitation and demonstrates that he or she is able to swim, feed and protect on his/her own, it is typical for CMA to organize a release back into the wild.
CMA has released many rehabilitated sea turtles back into the ocean over the years.
However, there are those situations where releasing the animal would be more detrimental to its survival. In those cases where the animal is unable to fend for itself (such as with Cupid), the aquarium has to make the difficult decision to retain the animal for its own good. For Max the blind Sea Turtle, Skylar the Pelican with a deformed leg or Walle the Otter who was taken in as a pet when he was little, Clearwater has become their permanent home and family where they are met each day with love, compassion, nourishment, exercise and their best chance at living a happy life.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium has some of the most inspirational marine life stories out there. Of course, there are perhaps none more inspirational than those of the dolphins that reside at CMA. At the time of this piece, three Atlantic bottlenose dolphins call CMA their home. Winter and Hope, known around the world by their story as told in the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, as well as Nicholas, were all found as very young calves and brought to CMA for both wound care and nurturing.
Nicholas was found on Christmas Eve beached next to his mother, who sadly passed days after their rescue. Even today, he has visible scars on his back from the sunburn he suffered from lying on that beach for so long. Because dolphin calves learn everything from their mothers, Nicholas was at tremendous risk if released once his wounds had healed. He had no adaptable skills to protect himself in the wild. Fortunately, Nicholas’ life at CMA has been full of love and purpose. For the last sixteen or so years, he has been the poster animal for exercise and he absolutely loves demonstrating what he can do! Each day, Nicholas shares some of his exercise routines and communication skills with those who stop by to say hi. We had the opportunity to watch him in action during our visit and it was honestly one of the highlights of our day!
Hope was found very young, trying to nurse off her deceased mother. She was extremely malnourished at the time of her rescue. Since dolphins actually nurse until about 18-20 months of age and, as noted above, learn all their survival skills from their mothers, she was not receiving the proper nourishment or learning survival techniques. That meant that she, like Nicholas, was not a candidate for release and became a permanent resident of CMA.
Of course, Hope is fortunate enough to have a best friend and movie companion in the pool. Winter, well known for her inspirational story Dolphin Tale, was rescued five years prior to Hope and found entangled in crab trap line. For Winter, her story of survival is no less than miraculous. Most dolphin calves could not have survived the ordeal she endured. While she did suffer the loss of her tail due to the crab trap line cutting off circulation, she has shown grit and determination that no one could have anticipated. Despite multiple surgeries, she has beaten the odds and become an inspiration to amputees around the world.
Winter’s Story continues to inspire
One of the walls inside the aquarium showcases hundreds of notes and letters. Each of these notes detail how Winter’s story of survival and hope has personally impacted children either born missing a limb or whose limb was lost to illness or injury. Reading them will bring tears to your eyes. Who knew the rescue of one adorable dolphin could make such a tremendous difference in so many lives?
BONUS EVENT ~ Meet the Stars!
Our time touring Clearwater Marine Aquarium was nearly over, but we had one more unique opportunity to experience. Marie had shared with us that the stars from the Dolphin Tale movies were there meeting guests! We were able to meet and visit briefly with Nathan Gamble (Sawyer), Cozi Zeuhlsdorff (Hazel) and Austin Highsmith (Phoebe). We snapped a memory that we will cherish forever and the stars graciously signed a few of our souvenirs.
The Dolphin Tale stars actually come out to CMA every so often. They spend time meeting guests, doing promotional work and saying hi to their favorite marine co-stars. They even love to participate in making wishes come true! In fact, Clearwater Marine Aquarium participates with various wish granting organizations and programs, such as Make A Wish and others, granting special moments and memories for those facing tremendous medical difficulties and obstacles.
More To Come…
Earlier in the post, I had mentioned that Clearwater Marine Aquarium is currently undergoing an expansion. The purpose of the expansion is so that the facility will have more room to bring in increased rehabilitation opportunities, improved hospital facilities, provide more programs for wounded soldiers and children who have bonded with Winter, and create better marine life and conservation education for guests who visit. After seeing what we saw, meeting these amazing creatures and hearing their individual stories, I’m excited to see what lies ahead for Clearwater Marine Aquarium!
Of course, CMA could use all the support it can get. While never asked to add this to my post, I am including a specific link to their page. This will speak more to how you can help them accomplish their goals. You can click here for more information.
Our time at Clearwater blew me away. I expected to meet Winter and Hope, see some other animals and hear the importance of preserving our environment. While all of those are great things, I actually walked away connected with the animals who call Clearwater home. I will forever remember Cupid, Madam, Walle, Spot, Scarlet, Thelma, Louise, Nicholas, Hope and Winter. I will be thinking about Kraft and his recovery. The children’s notes on that wall will forever hold a place in my heart.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium has stories to tell and a mission to accomplish. If you get a chance, take the time to drive out there if you’re visiting or vacationing in the area or if you’re local and have the opportunity. Allow it to change your perception. Allow it to change your heart.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
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