Going Places Near & Far: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Provides the 3Rs Plus Inspiration

Remember the scene in Dolphin Tale 2 when the Clearwater Marine Aquarium people are all at a party next door at the Island Grill and they learn of a stranded dolphin? That actually happened, only it was the wrap party to celebrate the end of filming Dolphin Tale, the movie based on the real-life dolphin who lost her tail and survived because of an ingenious prosthetic, Winter.

The story was fundamentally true with only a few tweak and twists for dramatic effect

Dolphin Tale 1 and 2 were such engaging films, it is hard to know what was real and was what fiction. But David Yates, the director of the real life Clearwater Marine Aquarium, stresses that the major themes and issues raised in the films are real, and of course, Winter, the plucky dolphin who lost her tail and refused to give up, is real and inspires thousands of visitors every day.

CMA did not just save Winter. Winter really did save Clearwater Marine Aquarium from closing, And just as in the movie, how Winter brings inspiration and hope to millions of people who live with disabilities, renewing spirits and giving a sense of possibility, that happens daily here at the Aquarium. It is also true that because of Winter, the engineers who solved the problem of attaching a prosthetic tail actually did devise a special gel which made it “comfortable enough for a baby’s bottom,” Now Winter’s Gel, as it is known, is raising the quality of life for amputees.

Even the characters who populate the films are based on real people, even if they are composites.

On a recent visit to the Aquarium, I sit with David Yates, CMA’s Director, in the office that was once his, but was turned into a movie set, and now is kept as it was in the movie.

In a surreal way, reality infused the movie and now the movie has become an overlay to the Aquarium – visitors get to see props from the movie, and there is even an entire second attraction in downtown Clearwater, Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, devoted to the movie (there is free transportation by trolley or ferry between the two). But the work they do here – the surgeries on sea turtles which you can watch, the rescues, rehabilitation and in some cases releases back into the wild of marine mammals is very much real and as dramatic as, well, a movie, and continues to provide that extra element of a visit here: inspiration.

“We wanted to make sure that there was a lot of real life in the movie. They weren’t documentaries, but all the major themes and issues happened in real life,” Yates tells me.

Indeed, when Yates came to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium 10 years ago, it was in financial trouble and had just about three months before it was shut down – the property was eyed by real estate developers for a condo or a hotel. “The rich guy in the movie was fictitious but he represents a number of people,” Yates said.

Yates was hired to do a turnaround – like in a movie.

Yates, who had been the CEO of the Ironman Triathlon, managing Ironman events all over the world, does not bring the resume you would expect to run a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing marine wildlife.

But as it turned out, his media savvy is exactly what was needed to save CMA and its mission of saving marine animals.

“My goal was to take media and drive awareness of  a cause.” But it began with an amazing story.

“Winter arrived almost exactly when I did – Harry Connick, Jr. plays my role as the director (though in the movie, Connick is a vet and Yates is not). 

Why take on the job if CMA was ready to close down? “Clearwater is where I lived and raised my kids. When I heard the aquarium was in trouble, I thought would do something nice for community, do a turnaround and pass it on. I loved what CMA did. I thought it could be a nice jewel for the community. That’s why I came.

“Walking around, I thought I needed to find way. My background is in media and I thought we needed to find story to tell, because if I don’t get out quickly to raise awareness, get donations, we will shut down…. There were some days when we had 30-40 guests.”

“I had to find a story, walking around – I look at Winter – I turned to my team – we were all inspired – Winter had less than 1% chance of living when she arrived that night , much less thrive and have a real life, but she kept struggling. I realized, this is a story I can tell.”

 A key scene in the first movie was when the young girl pulls up in van with her mom, who comes in a wheelchair and connects to Winter – that was intentional because happened every day then, and by the hundreds now – that was true. And just as Sawyer does, they set up a live videocam and a website, SeeWinter.com, as a first step in raising awareness, heightening interest, and hopefully increasing funds.

“It had occurred to us early on to do a prosthetic. But we had to overcome all kinds of obstacles – a tail on a dolphin had never been done before – there is nothing to attach to .”

In the movie, the character Morgan Freeman plays is actually two men – Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll, VP with Hanger Clinic (it was Hanger Prosthetics then, a prosthetics company). “Kevin heard a media interview, and said he would like to help. We thought he was joking – but he was serious.

They put together a team – Yates, Kevin and Dan, other marine mammal experts, together with the world’s most renowned marine mammal vet (Mike Walsh), who now works as consultant with CMA.

“Let’s get this done, we don’t know how. No other dolphin had used the prosthetic – a dolphin in Japan had lost a fluke and they created a snap on. But the team refused to give up.”

That led to Winter’s Gel. It was made specifically for Winter to protect her skin, and now is being used for thousands of people, enabling a revolution in prosthetics.

“This has never been done before – there was no book, no symposium, we had to do from scratch. When you do something like that, know you will do something big. In developing Winter’s Gel, we found by accident its use for humans – thousands walk pain free because of Winter’s gel.”

It took six months to develop the  first prototype. [The x-rays you see in the movie are really Winter’s x-rays.]

“I put Winter’s story out to the media, packaged,” Yates says. “That brought in NBC Today Show, and an AP wire piece. It mushroomed around the world –  the biggest animal media campaign ever. Over 2 ½ years, we had five Today Show segments, three CBS Early Show segments, Nightly News, CNN, Oprah, ABC Morning, every major newspaper around the world, even the national newspaper of India. That got the attention of the movie studios.” 

The movie literally saved CMA. The year before Yates started, CMA drew 75,000 visitors a year; CMA had 800,000 visitors last year. 

How do you follow a story like Dolphin’s Tale? Yates notes that there has  never been a sequel based on movie based on real life.

And then a miracle happened.

Hope’s story – Dolphin Tale 2 – actually has more real life elements  than the first movie, Yates says. 

“The day we wrapped filming Dolphin Tale was Saturday Dec 11, 2010 – the culmination of four years of planning and filming. We filmed the scene in the  pool and planned to have the wrap party at the restaurant next door. So at 4 pm that day, I go home to change clothes for the party. At 5 pm, I get call from Bob Engelman [of Alcon Entertainment, co-producer on movie], ’Hey Dave, courtesy, we got the last shot, we’re done.’ Ten minutes later, Mike Hurst from the [stranding] team [which is on call 24/7] calls and says a baby dolphin is being rescued on the east coast. If it survives, they will send it here for rehab. It sounded eerily familiar to how Winter was found.”

The dolphin, 2-3 months old, was found trying to nurse from its mother who had already died. She was sick, dehydrated. They doubted she would last an hour much less all night.

“Baby dolphins rarely survive rescue when they are that sick – the stress of removing them from the wild into captivity can kill them, much less their medical condition.”

The team got everything ready to receive the dolphin – a crane to lift her up, the medicine –  and went back to the party with Harry Connick Jr and the other actors  and crew.

“At 11:15 pm, the party was winding down and just like in the movie, the van pulls up with the dolphin. We think she’s expired but when we open the doors, she is still alive – rather than use the crane, just like in the movie, we grab her, put her in a tank in ICU. 

“Word spreads to the party- so all the cast and crew came over. They were wondering,  ‘Are we filming a night scene?’ They thought it was a gag. The last baby dolphin rescued was 5 years before – within 10 minutes of wrapping Dolphin Tale, this unravels…We had a lot of real actors playing a scene in a movie that they had actually seen – 3 ½ years before.”

The plot of Dolphin Tale 2 is that Winter is left alone after Panama dies, and was just about to be removed from CMA, when Hope’s arrival saves the day.

Yates says that it had been a real concern that Panama, who was 40 years old, would die. It didn’t happen that way exactly – in actuality, Panama lived until a few months after Hope arrived and the three got along well.

“Every day, I was concerned what we would do when Panama died – it never got to that point. I had already written the first treatment, 5 pages, of just this idea – of Panama dying and Winter having to be taken away.


“It’s the first time in Hollywood history a sequel based on real life.” Indeed, both movies end with footage of the real-life rescues.

“In both movies, we made sure everything Winter or Hope did were things they were already doing for enrichment. We made it a fun experience.” What the dolphins couldn’t do, they used CGI and animatronics. For example, the early scene when Sawyer finds Winter beached, uses an animatronic dolphin.

Nicholas, a dolphin rescued sunburned from a beach where it lay by its dying mother, played the part of Mandy who had already been released, so they changed the story to weave in Nicholas’ scarred skin. 


So how do you follow Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2?

CMA is now moving into TV projects. Yates, who used to work with NBC in the 1990s is writing and directing 12 episodes of “Rescue Clearwater” based on real life. The 30-minute episodes are launching on digital platforms – Youtube and SeeWinter.com website. A new episode will be released the first of every month and play in perpetuity.  “It will offer the real life story behind what saw in movies – how we do things, how we rescue.” There will be cameos by the actors, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, but they will narrate real events.  

A second project: Alcon Entertainment (which produced the two Dolphin Tale movies) is talking about doing other entertainment, Real TV ‘Dolphin Tale’ spinoff – scripted, with actors. Another project might involve an animated cartoon series for kids.

Yates is also talking about an inspirational show on Lifetime, focused on the impact that Winter and Hope have had on people.

The soldier character in the movie, Yates tells me, is based on Lt. Russ Marek who appears in the first episode of the TV show.

“The story you will hear a lot is about the human connection. CMA has become a mecca. Every day, 20 families are here for a specific reason – their child, spouse, wounded soldier family member had a life-changing connection to Winter’s story…We do Make a Wish visits every day, wounded soldiers. It’s great to see how Winter’s story has gotten through – some had given up on their lives.”

During my visit, I see just such a group of young amputees from Shriners Hospital, who get private time with Nicholas, Winter and Hope. 

Visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium

The guest experience has changed since the movies – there is an overlay of Hollywood – you get to peek into the Director’s office (it was Yates’, now it is a movie set); Sawyer’s Passage (built for the movie, but a donation of $300,000 made it into a new underwater viewing area), the houseboat that was used as a prop. Even Rufus, an African Great White Pelican from the movie, who was actually from Hollywood and a veteran movie actor, is now “retired” at CMA (but Rufus plays the part of a real pelican who had hung out at CMA just like in the movie.)

But the essence of visiting CMA is intact: “Our mission is the 3 Rs – rescue, rehab, release – but add to that the human side – environmental education,  research and conservation plus another key element: inspiration.

“That’s what makes our experience so unique.”

At CMA, you can watch sea turtle surgeries and medical work being done on dolphins, watching the dolphins in their enrichment programs delights visitors. When you visit, you learn how CMA rescues dolphins and turtles, how they prepare their food.

“Here, every guest can go through the animal care wing – we’ve opened the hospital wing. Every day we do procedures. We get new sea turtles every couple of days,” Yates says.

Presently, CMA is home to three rescue dolphins (Winter, Hope and Nicholas), 25-30 resident sea turtles, three resident otters, plus fish and stingrays (which you can touch in their stingray pool).

The day is chock-a-block full of activities and talks: Tail talk, sea turtle presentation, stingray feeding, sea turtle nesting, all about otters, sea turtle anatomy game, trainer talk, stranding presentation, story time, game time, Meet a Trainer, shark training.

You can also take some special tours – like the Behind the Scenes Tour (which I did), Dolphin Adventure Tour (you become a working marine biologist in the field), Sea Life Safari (look for dolphins, sea birds and marine life on a scenic ride to a shell island), and Guided Kayak Tour.

Or engage in one of the animal interactions: Dolphin photo ops, Dolphin Encounter (you work alongside a trainer during a training and feeding session), Trainer for a Day (where you shadow a trainer), Feed Rufus (the actual movie star!), and Shark Encounter.

There are also volunteer and internship programs, and even campouts (sleepovers) at the aquarium.

 “We oversee sea turtle nesting for the county on the beaches. April through October, our volunteers are up every morning at 5 am, drive the beaches to look for nests. Their job is to mark them, fence them off, give a GPS location, check every day, and when they are ready to hatch, sit there for up to 2 weeks, 9 pm to 2am at night, waiting to hatch. We want to make sure they get to the Gulf. We have 800 volunteers who help us throughout the year.”

CMA publicizes when they release sea turtles (check website for when will release and can watch). They are released generally where they are found.

There are scheduled presentations and activities through the day – I am in time to see Nicholas – the dolphin found when he was just a few months old, stranded on a beach and suffering 3rd degree sunburn and still showing the scars (his mother died of respiratory problems a few days later) – go through his enrichment program and learn the difference between a behavior (where the dolphin performs one response to a cue) and a “concept” where the dolphin can “think outside the box” and be creative, earning its reward by each time doing something different from before.

Nicholas is 13 years old now, the oldest resident dolphin – dolphins in human care can live 25 years, the oldest is 61 years old. Dolphins average a lifespan of 25-40 years but can live as much as 55 years (Panama was 40 when she died).

“We take the approach that our job is to give them a good life…“We can’t release Nicholas so our job is to build a relationship. He is a wonderful ambassador for his species.”

I come upon Winter– without her tail – being massaged by caretaker. I am surprised to learn that Winter doesn’t use the prosthetic tail all the time – in fact, it would be harmful – but it is used to strengthen her muscles so she doesn’t have the deterioration that is warned about in the movie. I also learn that Hope never had an adverse reaction to seeing Winter without the tail, and that Panama was still alive when Hope first arrived (she died a few months later), but that all three dolphins got along well. Indeed, Panama was Winter’s mentor when she arrived.


At the Brighthouse Theater, you can see an orientation film and wonderful videos about Winter and the real people behind her tail,  the aquarium and its mission, scenes with people with disabilities who have found Winter’s story inspiring, even life-changing.


I stop by Stingray Beach touch pool (“Is this for real?” a little girl asks) on my way to the Behind the Scenes tour (1 hr, $14.95/A, $12.95) which synthesizes the real story with the movies.

“After the movie came out, people were lined up with floaties, expecting to be able to swim with dolphin.” In fact, the race from Dolphin Tale had a stand-in for Winter because she would not have been acclimated to the water outside her tank.

Since the movie, CMA has been able to expand the hospital, education area, and summer camp. Now it maintains a staff of 150 plus 400-500 volunteers and interns.

We are taken into the hospital area where there are some 20 animals.

Here, the goal is to rehabilitate the sea turtles to be released back into the wild. Many were taken here as hatchlings, who were unable to make it out to shore.

To reduce exposure to humans, we are kept in the middle of the roadway, and they are covered in such a way to prevent them from peeking out to see humans.

“In July, after 3 weeks of rain, nests were flooded, eggs were floating away or the waves so high, the hatchlings couldn’t break through. These hatchlings didn’t have fully formed flippers, so they are getting physical therapy – the caretaker moves their flippers up/down, and massages them (they are only about 1 ½ inches big at this point).So they learn to hunt, we give them live fish.”

Only 1 out of1000 hatchlings make it to adulthood, but if they do make it to adulthood, sea turtles can live 80-100 years,

Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure


The visitor experience is very different today than before the movies – the movies have actually added a layer. Indeed, CMA has opened a second attraction, Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure  – included in the same admission ticket – in downtown Clearwater – a 40,000 sq. ft. building showcasing the movie experience (shades of Universal Studios in Orlando).

Here you can see movie props (there are also movie props at the aquarium), kids games, screens that show scenes from the movie, walk through sets and most spectacularly, the opportunity to experience a hurricane like Sawyer and his mom do in Dolphin Tale.

The Save Winter Day carnival is depicted, there are videos of stars talking about making the movie, Morgan Freeman talking. Most interesting of all, you can see a display of the actual original tails that were made for Winter.

CMA even provides a fun way of getting between the two attractions – a ferry boat ride right from the aquarium’s dock (about a half hour), or a trolley bus (10 minutes) – both are free. 

CMA has been voted by USA Today readers as the Number One attraction in Florida, beating out Disney! Yates tells me.

“It’s  because  of the uniqueness of the experience when people come here. We believe in immersing people into world of marine life rescue.”

$40 Million Expansion Underway 

Success has positioned CMA for a major facility expansion, as well.

“We need more room for rescued animals and more room for guests,” Yates says. The additional space will also enable CMA to add manatee rehabilitation.

A key element is to create a natural habitat four times the size now for rescued dolphins, two new buildings where the parking lots are now for education, research, and a theater plus a parking garage.

 “We‘re trying to get the waterway privatized so we can use it as real natural habitat – pen it off (as happens around world) where we can put rescued, non-releasable dolphins.  We would still have to feed them because they can’t hunt for themselves.”

The estimated cost for these projects is the mid-$40 million – some of which is on hand. And just that week, the expansion plan was approved by the City. “Now we’re going into the design phase. We intend to start construction ASAP.”

 “We knew Winter’s tale would be big, we didn’t know how big – how it could change lives.” The characters that are represented are an amalgamation, but Winter’s true story is intact.”

In the case of CMA, fact is equally compelling as fiction.

“Winter’s story was the bridge to put us on map,” Yates says. “Her story will benefit us forever – transitioning from her story to our mission.”

And you never know what you will experience at CMA.

Allocate at least four hours to visit, but you can easily spend most of a day. There are simple cafes at both places for refreshments. You can purchase your tickets online.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium, 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL 33767, 727-441-1790, SeaWinter.com.



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Karen Rubin

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