The movie may get you there, but the animals are the reason to stay.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, located in Clearwater, Florida, gained some fame in 2011 by being the setting for the Hollywood movie “Dolphin Tale.” A visit to the aquarium will let you meet the star of the show, a dolphin named Winter who swims with a prosthetic tail.
But she’s not the only animal being helped at the aquarium, which functions as a marine rehabilitation center for sea creatures injured in boating accidents or related situations. All of them, from otters with paralyzed back legs to sea turtles missing a part of a flipper, are as brave and captivating as Winter.
One turtle, named Cocoa, is completely blind. She navigates in the tanks by keeping one flipper along the wall at all times, which means that she swims slightly crooked. Another turtle, named Stubby, had deformed front flippers and followed the trainer around like a puppy. When the trainer scratched the turtle’s stomach, she wiggled her entire back end like a puppy wagging its tail.
Cooper, the paralyzed otter, swims as well as if his back legs were working. He and another otter, Webster, cuddled like kittens enjoying one another’s company.
Written information on the different animals is minimal, but trainers are always on hand to answer questions and give details on the individual animals. This keeps the information current, since all the animals are at different points in the rehab process.
It also gives the aquarium a personal touch. The trainers share information about the animals’ personalities rather than just their species. Stubby, for example, was on a diet during my visit. As the trainer confided, the turtle liked food so much that she was starting to outgrow her shell.
The star of the aquarium is Winter, who has her own tank and a small pool surrounded by bleachers out back. She was caught in a crab trap when she was only a few months old, leaving her with wounds so deep that blood flow to her tail was cut off entirely. She lost the tail soon after, and is only the second dolphin in the world to wear a prosthetic tail that allows her to swim normally.
To prove that, Winter is featured in a small dolphin show at the aquarium. Those who are more familiar with the Sea World shows will find the tricks relatively simple, but they’re well done. The bleachers are out in the sunshine, so bring a hat and sunblock.
For those who want to know more about the aquarium’s rescue efforts, there’s a behind-the-scenes tour that offers details of the rehab process. The aquarium also has a stranding response team and a program to protect hatching sea turtles.
For more information, visit seewinter.com.