Clearwater, FL

Why Clearwater Marine Aquarium Is Not Your Typical Aquarium

Allison Burney

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When I first saw the movie Dolphin Tale years ago, Winter the dolphin captured my heart with her inspirational story and her fighting spirit.

As much as I loved her, though, I think my mom loved her even more—which is why I randomly suggested she and I take a road trip to see Winter in person! While this would normally be a totally reasonable thing to do, I suggested it so last-minute that we’d need to leave the next morning in order to be back in time for a commitment we had the following week.

So, while thinking we must be absolutely nuts for doing this, we packed up our things and got as much sleep as we could before waking up at the crack of dawn to hit the road.

Just under 25 hours of driving time later, we made it to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of movie star Winter the dolphin. We were both excited to meet her and knew it would be an experience unlike any other, but I don’t think either of us were prepared for just how great an impact this little dolphin would have on us!

I don’t know whether it was Winter's story of survival, her gentle but friendly nature, or just the atmosphere of hope the facility seemed to exude that touched me the most, but I loved it here from the moment we arrived.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

It’s important to note that despite its name, CMA is not a traditional aquarium teeming with sea life and interactive exhibits or shows. Rather, it is a non-profit organization whose mission is to restore and preserve marine environments and animals.

A quick read of some reviews on TripAdvisor suggests that many guests wrongly assumed it would be like other large aquariums they’ve been to, and were disappointed with their visit as a result.

In response to one disgruntled guest, CMA wrote:

We are a bit different than a more traditional aquarium, in that we focus on the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine animals. The only residents that we have are those who have been deemed non-releasable by the government, as they lack critical skills to survive on their own in the wild. In those cases, we provide the animals with a secure home and a second chance at life.

Some guests have even gone so far as to call this top-rated Clearwater attraction a scam, claiming the admission prices were a rip-off for what they got to see or how much time they spent there.

This was not our experience at all. We spent many hours at the Winter Zone, watching the staff feed and care for the dolphins while talking about the aquarium's mission and answering guests' questions. We even got to see Winter swim with her prosthetic tail at one point, which is part of her physical therapy regimen. There were also rehabilitation efforts underway for sea turtles, otters, and stingrays.

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However, we also understood prior to our arrival that the purpose of this facility is to rehabilitate animals that have been injured in the wild in the hopes of releasing them when they’ve recovered. In this sense, CMA is more of an education center and animal hospital than it is an aquarium. This is why it pays to do a little research beforehand.

Mission for Good

Their mission and the larger purpose they’re working for is a big part of what drew us in, and knowing that the admission fees help support the work they do was just fine with us.

As CMA wrote on TripAdvisor, “Without guests like you coming through our doors and learning more about our work, we wouldn't be able to continue these efforts!”

So if you’re not somebody who cares about marine life and protecting animals in their natural habitats, you may not enjoy your visit here as much as we did. But if you have even the slightest interest in environmental conservation or a desire to help marine life, there is plenty for you to learn and witness here.

And if you’re just looking for a little inspiration, Winter’s story and the incredible dolphin herself will leave you in awe. I think my mom would have stayed forever if she’d been allowed to. She was so drawn to this place, and to Winter in particular, that she started envisioning spending the chilly Canadian winters in Florida—something my dad had always wanted to do—just so she could volunteer at the aquarium and get more time with her favorite dolphin! (I still think that’s a great idea.)

Even two days at the aquarium the first time wasn’t enough, so we ended up going back for a second trip a couple years later! Trust me—once you see Winter in person, you’ll be under her spell, too!

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Freelance writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.

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