Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveils dramatically different plans

Rendering of new otter exhibit that features an acrylic tube kids can crawl through and interact with the animals.
Rendering of new otter exhibit that features an acrylic tube kids can crawl through and interact with the animals.
Published Aug. 23, 2014


In a dramatic shift in tone, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's updated plans for a new aquarium downtown feature less showmanship and more rehab and rescue.

Gone from the plans is a proposed stadium with 2,000 seats for tourists to take in dolphin shows. Instead, the updated plans, unveiled Friday, feature dolphin habitats and behind-the-scenes tours of animal operating rooms.

Overall, the new design has a much heavier focus on the aquarium's longtime mission of rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals, and ultimately releasing them back into the wild.

CMA also says its new facility will cost $68 million to build, a steep drop from the previous sticker price of $160 million.

This comes at a crucial time for the aquarium, with the Dolphin Tale movie sequel coming out in weeks, an upcoming bid for Pinellas County bed tax dollars and a major fundraising effort that's just now getting off the ground.

Friday's announcement came at the current aquarium, which has outgrown its location in a former sewage treatment plant near Clearwater Beach. Clearwater's mayor and two previous mayors were present, as well as a crowd of business and tourism officials.

Although no one in the room said so, the new aquarium's shift in focus could help blunt any animal-rights criticism that might get aimed its way.

Orlando's SeaWorld theme park is facing plunging stock prices and controversy over its killer whale shows in the wake of the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which takes a highly critical look at the treatment of marine animals in parks like SeaWorld.

A few activists are seeking to link CMA to the controversy because the aquarium is a tourist attraction that keeps three dolphins and a number of other animals in permanent residence.

The aquarium defends itself by emphasizing its mission of rescuing and ultimately releasing animals, and only keeping them if they can't survive in the wild.

CMA officials also say changes in the new aquarium's design were in the works well before Blackfish was released.

"It's going to be very kid-interactive. The dolphin habitat is going to be entirely unique — no seats, no big shows," said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO. "The end result will be a mission-centric facility with more room for non-releasable animals."

Friday's news conference featured videotaped testimonials from Dolphin Tale's movie stars attesting to the importance of the aquarium's work. "The whole mission is rescue, rehabilitation and release," Harry Connick Jr. earnestly says in one clip.

Since early 2013, CMA has been making plans to build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium on the current site of Clearwater's City Hall, overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

The planned aquarium's size has not changed. But now one-fourth of the exhibits are to be outdoors, reducing the estimated cost.

Other elements of the design include:

• An aviary and Everglades exhibit.

• The houseboat featured in the Dolphin Tale movies.

• An otter display with an underwater tube where kids can interact with the animals.

• A banquet hall with views of Clearwater Harbor.

• A mock dolphin rescue.

The current aquarium on Island Estates would remain a marine animal hospital.

In talking to architects, "we said we don't want this to be a traditional aquarium. We are not a traditional facility," said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is on the aquarium's board of directors.

The new aquarium would be a substantially larger home for Winter, the dolphin that learned to swim with a prosthetic tail, and for CMA's other rescued marine life.

The 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Connick and Ashley Judd, made Winter famous. The film's sequel premieres Sept. 10 in Clearwater, two days before opening nationwide.

With the movie coming out and the new construction plans in hand, fundraising is to start in earnest. CMA intends to cobble together $16 million in private donations, a $23 million construction loan and a commitment of $20 million in county bed tax dollars over 20 years.

They're also working up plans for digital crowd-source funding.

"We're very confident," Yates said.

Last November, the aquarium got Clearwater voters' approval to lease the City Hall site. If the deal goes through, the nearly 50-year-old City Hall will be demolished, Clearwater's seat of government will move elsewhere and a new aquarium will rise.

But if CMA can't raise enough money for the project by Aug. 1, 2016, the deal will dissolve.

Contact Mike Brassfield at or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.