While 2009 was a very bad year for many nonprofits, it was great for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, thanks to a little dolphin with a prosthetic tail that has brought worldwide attention to the aquarium. Now, philanthropist Richard "Dick" Jacobson has donated $1 million toward an aquarium expansion with a request that it be matched by public donations. That $2 million could advance the aquarium's long-held vision of building a first-class facility for the rehabilitation of sick and injured marine wildlife, while also increasing the aquarium's appeal as a Pinellas County tourist destination.
"I really want the people of Pinellas County, of Clearwater, to get involved in this," Jacobson said.
Since 1978 the aquarium, previously known as the Marine Science Center, has been housed in a dingy former sewage treatment plant off Clearwater's Memorial Causeway. While its large concrete tanks were ideal for holding the animals that were treated or lived there, the building lacked amenities that would appeal to staff and visitors. Dreams of something better seemed stymied by periodic leadership, marketing and financial problems.
Aggressive, forward-looking leaders on the aquarium board and in the CEO's office have helped turn the tide, but the biggest contribution came from Winter, a 3-month-old dolphin found tightly wound in a crab trap line on Florida's east coast in December 2005. The aquarium treated Winter, but she was so severely injured that she lost her tail and two vertebrae.
That Winter survived was unexpected, but after an orthotics company developed a prosthetic tail for Winter and the aquarium staff taught her to swim with it, her fame, and that of the aquarium, was sealed. Publications around the globe have told her story, and she is the subject of a children's storybook, a documentary film and a video game for the Nintendo DS game system. Last month the aquarium announced that a major motion picture inspired by Winter will be made by Alcon Entertainment, which also recently produced the movies The Blind Side and The Book of Eli.
More important than the publicity is the hope Winter has given to injured or disabled children who have flocked to the aquarium for bonding sessions with the dolphin. Those inspiring sessions, and the joy expressed by so many children visiting the aquarium, motivated Jacobson, an Iowa entrepreneur and part-time Pinellas resident, to offer $1 million to the aquarium through his Richard O. Jacobson Foundation.
About $250,000 of the money will be used to finish a sea turtle rehabilitation area and build a new 145,000-gallon pool for Winter and her adopted mother, a deaf dolphin named Panama. The remaining $750,000 will purchase a 1-acre property adjoining the aquarium where officials hope to one day build a research and education facility. It would allow them to increase their rescue and rehabilitation work and expand their programs to educate the public about marine life and conservation.
With the help of generous donors like Jacobson and additional support from Pinellas residents, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium may achieve a dream that once seemed beyond reach.