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Many visitors to Clearwater Beach might not know that one of the city’s most famous residents is a dolphin who starred in a Hollywood movie about the aquarium where she lives. It’s one of the best things to do in Clearwater and everyone visiting should make a trip to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) to see Winter the Dolphin and all her friends to learn more about local animals and the ecosystem that helps the area survive.
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First opened in 1972 as the Clearwater Marine Science Center, the aquarium opened in Clearwater’s former water treatment plant. Using the large holding pools that previously stored the city’s water, the non-profit refitted the tanks. As it continued to grow, the center was given a research permit to help rehabilitate sea turtles and dolphins. Currently, the facility houses a variety of animals that are permanent residents and can’t be returned to the wild or those that are being rehabilitated so they can be re-released to their habitats. The animals at CMA include sea turtles, stingrays, pelicans, sharks, fish and several types of dolphins — including Winter, the aquarium’s most famous resident who lost her tail after being caught in a crab trap. Today, CMA is considered to be one of the best aquariums in Florida.
For many years, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was a small facility that was mostly known to locals. That all changed in 2011 when the movie Dolphin Tale was released nationwide. A fictionized story of how Winter the Dolphin came to live there, the film was partially filmed at the aquarium. It brought a lot of attention to the center and the surrounding cities, and a second film was made a few years later and included Hope the Dolphin, who also lives at the aquarium. The newfound attention brought more visitors and donations to CMA, helping the non-profit start a plan to enlarge their facilities, allowing the aquarium to provide more rehabilitation and educational opportunities.
Exhibits and Education
The newly expanded aquarium opened in October 2020 and has more space, educational facilities, a café, indoor ticketing center, parking garage and a much larger dolphin pool. You can even check out the sea life on the aquarium’s live cams.
For many years, the Atlantic bottlenose and rough-toothed dolphins that live at the aquarium were housed in the refurbished water pools of the original water treatment facilities. While they were adequate, the need for more room as more dolphins came to live at CMA became apparent. The new Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex holds 1.5 million gallons of water and has five adjoining tanks giving the dolphins plenty of space to swim and explore. There are opportunities for guests to view the tanks from above on the viewing platform or below through a 12.5-inch thick, 16-foot-high window of acrylic that allows visitors to get underwater views of the dolphins.
Visitors can view the animal hospital operating room and the sea turtle rehab tanks. There are also opportunities to see the aviary home of the white pelicans, view sharks, try to touch a stingray in the petting tank, watch sea otters and visit Turtle Cove, where resident turtles live. Don’t forget to look around to find signs that show where parts of the Dolphin Tale movies were filmed onsite too.
In addition to the exhibits, visitors can also take behind-the-scenes tours, hear presentations from the animal caretakers and take an eco-boat tour of Clearwater Bay, where you may see wild dolphins, birds and other wildlife native to the area.