Aquarium back in the swim

Six weeks of work have completely transformed the interior of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

By Eileen Schulte, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008

CLEARWATER - For years, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium looked a little too much like the drab sewage treatment plant it once was.

But thanks to a $600,000 improvement project unveiled Tuesday, the aquarium is brighter and more exciting both for visitors and the rescued turtles, otters, sharks and dolphins that live there.

Upgrades include underwater viewing windows where guests can get face-to-face with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, a renovated "stingray beach" touch tank, improved turtle and large fish exhibits, and a 125-seat theater with a screen 26 feet long and 7 feet high.

The work also brought fresh paint, better flooring, a resealed roof, new offices and educational rooms.

Still planned are a critical care area and surgical suite for badly injured marine animals.

In order to make the transformation, the aquarium had been closed since Jan. 7. All the marine mammals lived temporarily in holding tanks outside the facility except two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Winter and Panama, who stayed at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

"To get this scope of work done in six weeks is almost unheard of," said aquarium CEO David Yates.

Not all the work is finished yet but it will be within the next three months, Yates said.

This project's first phase cost about $600,000, with the city of Clearwater chipping in $225,000. When a second phase is completed within three months, the total cost will climb to $750,000. The aquarium has raised the money for the improvements through donations, fundraisers and admission fees.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium became internationally known thanks to its star, Winter, a dolphin whose tail fell off after she got caught in the rope of a crab trap as a baby.

Winter, now nearly 21/2 years old, is believed to one of the few dolphins in the world - if not the first anywhere - to survive such a severe injury, losing her tail and three vertebrae.

Veterinarians and volunteers at the aquarium saved her life, and specialists fitted her with a rare, custom-made prosthesis to allow her to swim like a normal dolphin.

The device is still being perfected, but Winter's story has received widespread attention and inspired many people, aquarium administrators say.

Donjo, an artist who lives in El Segundo, Calif., happened to be watching the Today show and saw a segment about Winter.

He was amazed by her story and arranged to meet her at the aquarium.

"I swam with her for two hours and she won my heart," said Donjo, 58, who goes by only one name. "(At one point) I was getting tired in the water and she came up and put her head under my arm and held me up."

He was so inspired that he created a solid bronze life-sized sculpture of the dolphin called Winter's Dream. Including the base, it is 10 feet tall and is on display in the aquarium's lobby.

At a reopening ceremony Tuesday, 10-year-old Brandon Saunders of Hudson unveiled the sculpture to a big round of applause.

Brandon, a student at Grace Christian School, has a lot in common with Winter. He lost his right leg below the knee in a boating accident on Memorial Day 2006.

But thanks to his own sporty-looking prosthesis, he still plays basketball, fishes in tournaments, skateboards and, of course, swims.

"(Winter's) an inspiration to everyone who has a prosthesis," Brandon said. "She just tries to act like a real dolphin."

Meeting her for the first time on Tuesday, he thought she was "really cool."

"She can do all the things the other dolphins can do," said Brandon.

Replicas of Winter's Dream will be sold on the Home Shopping Network to help raise more money for the aquarium.

Tom Sheehy, the aquarium's director of vessel donations, said the fundraising is going well.

"Our goal this year is $2-million to $3-million," he said. "That is what we're shooting for."

Sheehy said the aquarium was thrilled when a benefactor donated a $100,000 boat last month. Officials plan to sell the boat and use the money for operating costs.

Michelle Ryan, 42, visiting the aquarium with her 6-year-old twins Aidan and Payton, said she is impressed with what the money has bought so far.

"It's beautiful," she said. "It's cleaner and streamlined...very updated."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

What's new

Here are some of the upgrades the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is doing in a two-part, $750,000 makeover:

- Underwater viewing windows where guests can see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

- Renovated "stingray beach" touch tank, improved turtle and large fish exhibits.

- 125-seat theater with a screen 26 feet long and 7 feet high.

- 10-foot-tall solid bronze statue of Winter the dolphin.

To learn more

visit www.cmaquarium.org.