Clearwater, Florida is home to beautiful sunsets, a fun beach and a plethora of lovely waterside locations to visit, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This isn't your ordinary aquarium though, it is special for many reasons; the two most famous are a). it was the location, and has the dolphins and many movie props, for the Dolphin Tale movies and b). it is a Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release (if possible) facility. I thought it was the former that would be the big attraction, and it was nice to see such things, but this facility is a wonderful place to visit all on its own!
When you first pull in, there is a big wall painted in dedication to Dolphin Tale. It was an instant reminder of one of the reasons we were there to visit. You park and pay for your tickets and then you have to walk around to the entrance (bring an umbrella if it's raining).
There is a lot of transparency. The Animal Hospital Entrance, for example is behind clear glass. The day we visited, a baby otter had just been rescued and they had it all bundled up and getting care. Everyone was trying to catch a glimpse. I suppose the glass is soundproof because that makes sense. We couldn't hear anything going on behind it, and I hope for the sake of the baby otter, s/he couldn't hear us!
We were not able to see anything but the container the baby was in, but I did find this sweet update on YouTube. I will continue to follow Abe's journey, and now his friend Snug's too. :)
The isolation buckets are visible too, but you're not permitted to go in there. I took my picture through a window. Later I could see the open side of the back of the facility, while we were up high in another area of the aquarium. This is where they put those who need isolation for whatever reason.
Information and data charts are on the walls all throughout this area. They are interesting if you take a few minutes to look them over.
The 'released' data is available for this year, and some previous years as well. It's exciting to see how many visitors are rehabilitated and released when they are ready.
Our hostess was wonderful about giving us a brief history of what we were seeing, all throughout the aquarium. What a treat it was to have that extra level of explanation. She released us to tour at leisure when we were through, but we sure appreciated the time that she offered (and the pictures, we love the pictures she gave us on the cutest dolphin memory stick!).
Spectrum Theatre, inside of the aquarium, had an event going on earlier in the day called Nick's Picks.
Nicholas is fairly adept at choosing the winning side of a football game. On this visit though, Nick picked New England to win the Super Bowl. He was 6 out of 7 for his picks up until this one, and as we all know this wasn't an accurate pick (hey, Philly was overdue, and everyone has an off-day). ;)
Until our visit, I'd never seen a turtle with 'Bubble Butt Syndrome' or an air pocket trapped under their shell. This is a condition makes them too buoyant to go underwater for their food! This day, I saw what it looked like in person. Hurrah for those who make it their life mission to care for those afflicted with this and various other conditions/challenges. I was touched by my visit to The Clearwater Marine Aquarium. In every area of it, you could feel the genuine compassion for those they had in their care, and results everywhere proved their qualifications.
This is one of 2 otters we met the day we visited, both were snoozing contently. One was found in a resident's garage, and it was determined that he had likely been hit by a car. The other was taken in as a pet by a boat owner who quickly learned otters are great, but do not make great house pets. ;) I like to watch otters play, their enthusiasm is contagious.
Across from Turtle Bayou and Otter Oasis was Winter's Gallery of Hope. Here letters were showcased from those who had stories to tell of their own about their interactions with Winter or inspiration from the dolphin, Winter, who famously has a prosthetic tail.
This office setting belonged to Harry Connick, Jr. in the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. Though it was once a real 'working' office, they have now left it as is, for those wishing to visit some of the movie props. This is probably the closest I'll ever get to being in the same places Harry Connick, Jr. spent a good chunk of time, which gave it a fun factor (he is one of my most favorite music performers, ever!). ;)
A new area has been created for rescued pelicans. Though they are still working on it, it was marvelous to see these beauties up close and personal. I love to see them in the wild. I'm happy Clearwater Marine Aquarium has an area dedicated to helping those they find in need.
There are three dolphins who reside permanently at the aquarium .One is Nicholas (who does the football picks). He was found with his mom, who unfortunately passed away shortly after their rescue. Both dolphins had severe third-degree sunburns on them when found. Extensive treatment healed Nicholas, though you can still very easily see the scars. Because he was never trained properly by his mother (he was too young when found) to hunt and survive in the wild, he is a permanent resident of the aquarium.
We went up to visit him, and learned he would be working with a trainer later in the day, for show. Even though it was windy and chilly outside, we still opted to come back and watch at that time. It proved to be a great decision!
We headed back inside, to visit the area where the other two dolphins were housed. One of the best things about this area was there were two ways to view, above ground or below through the glass. There was also a designated area where the dolphins could go chill out if they so felt inclined.
Here is a picture where it clearly looks like Hope the Dolphin is looking right back at us. :) They said if you put a piece of paper up to the glass, the dolphins might come inspect it to see what's going on. I love that they are naturally curious. Unfortunately, we did not have anything to hold up but our phones. ;)
We watched Hope play with her toy for awhile and then walked upstairs to see it from that angle.
See her head at the end of the toy, there? :) On the other side you could watch Winter swimming but when we were in this section, she was chilling out in the back pool where she could get some privacy. You could still see her, but it was too far to get a good picture. I was glad for her that she had a quieter place to swim. I'm sure it is nice sometimes to have all of the attention, but definitely not always.
This is an area where we literally could have stayed all day. Watching the dolphins just swim around and 'do their own thing' was mesmerizing. My daughter and my youngest son enjoyed our time in that area too.
This is Dr. Clay Haskett's houseboat (the fictional animal doctor in Dolphin Tale, played by Harry Connick, Jr.). Someone said there was also a crow's nest on the premises where the actual scene using it was filmed, so the children actors would not get hurt using the one attached to the boat. We didn't see it, but it was a cool fact to learn.
We came across more transparent lab stations you could view through glass.
We made our way to the Stingray Touch Tanks, always a favorite for the kids, and listened to the presentation being given. The kids wanted to stay in this area for a bit longer, so while they did, I went on over to the gift shop which was right next to it. There I could see the kids and shop a bit too.
I bought a few things, made a donation at the register (no pressure, and it was definitely for a good cause, as we could see via our tour), and then made it about five steps before I went back in again and got a Christmas ornament and some postcards. I'm so glad I did because the ornament is made of real wood and it just smells so good!!
I peeked in the hospital window again (it was right there) to see if the baby otter rescue was awake yet. He was not. :)
Then we made our way back upstairs again to see Nicholas' show.
This is where we could see the other side of the Critical Care Facility I talked about earlier, as well as the boat dock where the rescued animals are brought in.
A couple of people were spotted cleaning, but for the most part this area was serene and quiet for those who were in quarantine or needed isolated care.
We took our seats on the bleachers, and oh boy, what we saw from the top bleacher (it was too cold to get splashed!) was incredible!
Nicholas was a total cutie pie, and full of personality.
Of course, it was a joy to watch him up close and personal. I couldn't help but marvel about the sights residents in the neighboring apartment complex must get from time to time. Now that's a place to live with a view!! They get to see the aquarium antics as well as the traditional waterfront...so nice! I imagine it would be hard to get me off of my balcony, if that is where I lived too. :)
All in all it was a lovely visit, and my teen daughter's most favorite of everything we did on our trip to the Clearwater / Tampa area. If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it. Make sure you see the movies (Dolphin Tale I and II) before you go, that makes it even more fun for the kids (and it's a cool factor for the adults too). You can purchase tickets online, on site, and/or one is included in an Official Tampa Bay CityPASS booklet (well worth the price), if you are interested, as well!