Cher’s Travel to Florida, USA
On our recent trip to Clearwater Beach Florida, we took the opportunity to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of the infamous and courageous dolphin, Winter. Sadly, Winter died just a month prior to our visit so we did not get to see her in person, but her legacy was evident everywhere.
The Dolphin’s Tale – and Tail
On 10 December, 2005, a fisherman near Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast discovered an injured bottle-nose dolphin. Bleeding and tangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Bay, the 2-month-old, 68-pound dolphin was moved to the west gulf coast, to the only rescue facility in Florida willing to take her.
This act of kindness by the staff of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, located inside a run-down, former sewage plant, not only changed the life and legacy of this dolphin – but also the life and legacy of the struggling aquarium!
At the time of the dolphin’s arrival, the facility was in poor shape and close to declaring bankruptcy. The roof was caving in and it was unclear if it could even remain open. The added suspense of this drama is played out in the movie which eventually followed.
Named “Winter” – for the season in which she was rescued – the dolphin survived, but lost her tail.
Through trial and error over 18 months, a prosthetic was made for her. Winter adapted and then thrived.
Her dramatic story became an immediate sensation – and the rest is history – portrayed in 2 movies and the foundation of a world-renowned marine aquarium in Clearwater, Florida!
A Star is Born
“Dolphin Tale”: Inspired by the Amazing True Story of Winter
“Dolphin Tale” – the movie – was produced by Warner Brothers and Alcon Entertainment and released nationwide in theaters around the world on September 23, 2011. Winter played herself . Clearwater Marine Aquarium (named Clearwater Marine Hospital in the movie), was closed to the public for three months while filming was underway; however, it remained a 24-hour working animal hospital during this time.
The Plot: Swimming free, a young dolphin was caught in a crab trap, rescued and transported to Clearwater Marine Hospital, where she was named Winter. Damage from the crab trap rope causes her tail to degrade and, without a tail, Winter’s prognosis is dire. It took the expertise of a dedicated marine biologist, the ingenuity of a brilliant prosthetics doctor and the unwavering devotion of a young boy to bring about a groundbreaking miracle – a miracle that might not only save Winter but also help scores of people around the world.
Cher’s Movie Recommendation: We watched “Dolphin Tale” after we got home from visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium – for the first time. It was fun to see the exact places we had just physically seen and experienced first-hand! I thought it was a great movie for families and people of all ages! I had to grab a tissue at a few appropriate spots, cheered for Winter and her supporters throughout, and applauded the great acting of both people and creatures! I have “Dolphin Tale 2” on my “request list!” Stay tuned!
Dolphin Tale: the Movie
Winter was an instant star! Filming of “Dolphin Tale” began in September 2010 throughout Pinellas County with the aquarium serving as the main backdrop.
Tweaked for the big screen, a shy young boy joined a fisherman in the discovery of the dolphin and then rallied the community to come to her aid. The two men who created Winter’s prosthesis were combined into one character expertly played by Morgan Freeman.
Veteran actors: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson – were all well cast. Charles Martin Smith of Air Bud fame directed. The script was written by Karen Janszen (Free Willy 2 and A Walk to Remember), and Noam Dromi.
Info from: cmaquarium.org/winters-inspiration/dolphin-tale/
Based on the popularity of Dolphin Tale 1, filming of “Dolphin Tale 2” began at Clearwater Marine Aquarium on October 7, 2013. Completed in early January 2014, released September 19, 2014, we see the return of actors from the first film: Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Freeman, Juliana Harkavy and Austin Stowell with Lee Karlinsky, Julia Jordan, Bethany Hamilton and several others join the cast.
Winter Saves the Day
‘Dolphin Tale’ and its sequel ‘Dolphin Tale 2’ didn’t change Winter – but it dramatically changed her Clearwater home.
When Winter arrived, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium operation was close to declaring bankruptcy. The roof was caving in. Its future was unclear if the facility could even remain open. The added suspense of this drama is played out in the movie.
Winter to the rescue!
The income associated with the release of the movie allowed the facility to not only remain open, but afford an $80 million expansion, according to aquarium spokesperson Kelsy Long. It has grown from 39,072 to 196,537 square feet of event space and 14,205 to 62,284 square feet of exhibit space. They also have 1.5 million gallons of water for marine life, three times what they had before the movie was released. Annual attendance grew from an average of 200,000 to 500,000, hitting its peak in 2012 at 750,000.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The Marine Aquarium that Winter Built!
Clearwater’s tourism brand has grown, too, in large part due to Winter. She has become the Mickey Mouse of Pinellas County.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not exactly like the aquariums one may have visited in the past. CMA exists to rescue marine animals (dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, etc.), rehabilitate them from sickness or injury, and release them back into their natural habitats whenever possible.
A majority of the resident animals – like Winter – cannot be released due to a variety of reasons, so visitors will see them in permanent habitats and learn their rescue stories. You’ll also see a number of animals currently undergoing rehabilitation in the working animal hospital.
Staff and volunteers give presentations and talks throughout the day at various habitats and exhibits. Their role is to educate the public about their mission of rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine animals in a fun way about the daily work to take care of marine life and the environment to make it a safer, healthier place for these animals.
I noticed this same shot several times in the movie when Hazel peered out over the horizon from the top of their family boat. Yup! It was definitely filmed on Clearwater Beach!
CMA – its Mission & Rescue Center
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that believes in preserving the environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life; environmental education; research; and conservation. (CMA Mission Statement)
The world can utilize a variety of educational hands-on and interactive opportunities available for home schools and educational groups both on-site and virtually around the world.
The Sea Turtle exhibit and demonstration is always a winner! We got to enjoy divers interacting with them.
Turtle Bayou & Otter Oasis
Sting Ray Beach
It was fun to recognize spots in the movie that we’d seen in person around the facility. Really cool experience!
Sting Ray Beach
Interaction with the sea life is an integral part of the experience
Rufus the Pelican played a key role in the movie! Not to take a back seat, the current pelicans provide their own entertainment!
Hope, the Dolphin
Winter’s friend, Hope is introduced in the movie “Dolphin Tale 2” and still provides joy to visitors.
Hope, the Dolphin
One of the fun things about an active, ever changing place like CMA is to expect surprises! We were fortunate to experience this one!
CMA recently received a rescued seahorse who was found floating by a beach goer. The veterinarian removed the trapped air that was causing him to float, and then, amazingly, a few days later hundreds of baby seahorses were born!
The father and his babies are doing well and are currently under observation in the marine animal hospital. We didn’t get to see the babies, so they must have arrived just after I took these photos!
Visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium
- Getting There: The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is easy to get to off of the causeway between the city of Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. Official address is: 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL 33767. From the Tampa (TPA) airport, it is about a 30 minute drive straight west on Hwy 60.
- Parking: There is plenty of parking on site. However, if you are staying on Clearwater Beach, it is an easy 15-20 minute walk from the main Pier 60. The walk takes you along the causeway on paved paths with great views of the bay.
- Tickets can be purchased online ahead of time or at the door. Details at cmacquarium.org. Check out the various discounts available.
- A visit includes access to the facility plus a variety of opportunities for visitors. We only tapped into some of them. Others include:
- –Legends From the Deep: In this virtual experience, guests will explore the deep, dark, undersea world and learn about the creatures who call it home.
- Boat Rides & Guided Tours: behind the scenes of Clearwater Marine Aquarium with an expert staff members or a guided boat tour around Clearwater Bay.
Winter’s Eulogy & Legacy: 2005-2021
As noted, Winter died just a month prior to our visit but her legacy lives on.
“With heavy hearts, Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced that Winter the Dolphin passed away on November 11, 2021, due to an intestinal abnormality. Winter the Dolphin has encouraged millions around the world through her remarkable rescue story. Her enduring spirit will live on in our hearts forever and her legacy will continue to inspire.” (cmaquarium.org/winter-updates/ )
“The ashes of Winter the dolphin were returned to the sea, about two months after the beloved marine mammal of movie fame died at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Staff members released a Himalayan sea salt urn containing Winter’s ashes into the Gulf of Mexico from the back of a U.S. Coast Guard Boat.” (Star Tribune 15 January 2022)
Photo shown here is Winter with Hope, cmaquarium.org
- Photos by Cher B and Skip B at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, 30 December 2021
- Clearwater Marine Aquarium website: cmaquarium.org
- Clearwater Marine Aquarium website focusing on the Dolphin Tale movie: cmaquarium.org/winters-inspiration/dolphin-tale/ – includes information and photos from movie
- Minneapolis Star Tribune. 15 January 2022. A2
- Tampa Bay Times website: tampabay.com/life-culture/arts/movies/2021/09/14/dolphin-tale-didnt-change-winter-but-it-changed-her-clearwater-home/