Monday, December 18, 2017
Opinion

Ruth: Potential disaster abounds in aquarium three-way

Please forgive an indelicate question.

Traverse the by-ways of our fine hamlet and you will invariably be exposed to billboards touting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and its resident Laurence Olivier of critters, Winter the dolphin.

By now everyone is pretty familiar with Winter, the star of Dolphin Tale, the cute-as-the-dickens creature who was fitted with a prosthetic tail fin, which went on to save her life as well as the much beleaguered aquarium that rescued her.

Let us all take a verklempt moment.

The success of the movie turned the Clearwater Marine Aquarium into a tourist destination point for visitors anxious to see the leading mammal up close and in person.

Indeed, the aquarium has been so deluged with visitors its management recently announced plans for a new $160 million fish tank for downtown Clearwater.

So here's the awkward inquiry. Uh, because the Clearwater Marine Aquarium owes so much of its success to the appeal of Winter, what happens when the dolphin checks out and goes to that Rainbow Bridge for Fish?

A cynic (Heaven forbid!) could suggest the aquarium folks might snatch an unsuspecting dolphin somewhere and perform some "cosmetic surgery" on the poor thing to replace the original Winter. And who would really be the wiser? After all, unless you're Jacques Cousteau, once you've seen one dolphin, you've pretty much seen them all.

It was this notion of hitching one's fortunes to a single — albeit famous — aquatic star that prompted the Florida Aquarium to raise some objections over the Clearwater facility's expansion plans.

Indeed, Thom Stork, the CEO of the Florida Aquarium, suggested the water wasn't fine for everyone to jump in when he argued the Clearwater project was not economically feasible. Or put another way, the idea that Tampa Bay could support two large aquarium operations seemed to be a stretch.

Add to that the development of the smaller, boutique Secrets of the Sea Aquarium planned for John's Pass and it looks like the Tampa Bay area is about to literally be awash in gills before too long.

It didn't go over very well with the Clearwater aquarium folks, when the Tampa aquarium folks publicly cautioned that whatever claims the Clearwater aquarium folks made regarding the number of projected visitors and revenues, it was probably a good, realistic idea to cut the number in half. Tensions ensued.

But the Florida Aquarium officials had some experience with whistling past the shark tank. In its earliest years, the Florida Aquarium struggled to meet financial expectations and relied on subsidies from the city of Tampa to make ends meet.

Now Clearwater was making the case you can have two-and-a-half aquariums all in the same market and less than a 100 miles from Sea World and everybody is going to do just fine? That might qualify as a porpoise in a poke.

At any rate, just as everybody was getting ready to launch the War of the Turnstiles, Clearwater, Tampa and John's Pass decided to declare a truce and make nice-nice.

Plans now call for the three aquariums to collaborate with each other on branding, marketing and discount ticketing. And because Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have always worked together so well in the past, just like the Sunnis and the Shia, what could possibly go wrong?

In the meantime, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium people might want to start checking Winter's pulse on a daily basis, just in case.

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