CLEARWATER — When the Clearwater Marine Aquarium opened its second site downtown in December, it offered visitors a free shuttle service for the 2-mile drive between the two facilities.
What the aquarium didn't account for: the sludge of spring break traffic. Even with six looping shuttles, traffic on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway has slowed the brief ride to a half-hour slog.
The aquarium leaders' solution is the stuff of a motorists' daydream: Starting today, aquarium visitors will be ferried across the Intracoastal Waterway on a speedboat.
The water taxi will start off free on a trial basis, looping every hour between Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure at the mainland Harborview Center, and the aquarium, located on the waterfront of Island Estates.
City and aquarium leaders scrambled this week to sign a license agreement in time for next week, when Pinellas County schools are closed for spring break and visits to the aquarium typically soar.
The ferry service will be renewed on a week-to-week basis, depending on its popularity, and leaders said they could begin charging riders to cover gas, a captain and renting the boat and slips.
The ferry is the yellow Dolphin Racer, a 128-person speedboat popular with tourists at John's Pass in south Pinellas and named for the way dolphins tend to leap in its wake. Phil Henderson Jr., the CEO of Starlite Cruises, which has run Sea Life Safari "nature cruises" from the aquarium for years, said he offered up the boat at the aquarium's request.
Called a "center console on steroids," the 72-foot boat will have to be throttled way back for its duties as a cab. The route between the two aquarium sites has slow speeds and minimum wake zones. City harbormaster Bill Morris guessed the trip will take about 20 minutes.
Aquarium leaders say visitors will think the ride is worth it: It's open-air and on the water, with no hot asphalt or honking horns. Morris said if the short test is successful, there might be hope for a long-term ferry service from Clearwater Beach to downtown.
But the city has struggled to stoke ferry excitement in the past. In 2000, the city paid nearly $30,000 for a free bus and ferry service to the beach during spring break. The experiment was a dud: A typical Saturday saw fewer than 200 riders, and each one-way ferry ride cost the city about $6.
The problem is that on most days, ferries are much slower than road travel, and the gear storage space and creature comforts of cars often overrule water travel's prettier views.
Yet Henderson said he has kicked around the idea of running a water taxi between beach hot spots like Frenchy's, the Sea Stone Resort and the Sheraton Sand Key. The only thing keeping him back is the lack of downtown attractions that could warrant a mainland leg.
Aquarium CEO David Yates anticipates that next week, 2,000 visitors a day could visit the Dolphin Tale movie exhibit in the Harborview Center. He hopes many of them will travel between that exhibit and the aquarium via the Dolphin Racer, which will launch from the Clearwater Harbor Marina downtown.
"We can move 250 people an hour with this boat," said aquarium chief operating officer Frank Dame. "That's a lot of cars you're taking off the causeway."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.