Editor’s note: This story has been updated. The five new connecting pools housing Winter and four other dolphins are now open to the public.
As Clearwater Marine Aquarium chief executive Frank Dame prepared his notes at the podium, Winter the dolphin shimmied down from the surface in her new tank. She wasn’t wearing her prosthetic tail, so she swam side to side, curved in on herself.
She’s the star of the aquarium’s new expansion –– signs leading up to the tank read “this way to Winter’s new home.”
The 1.5 million gallon tank is “the culmination of a 14-year dream,” Dame said at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. The public can now visit five new connecting pools and their nine viewing windows, which currently house Winter and the four other dolphins that were moved to the pools on Friday.
The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was rescued in 2005 with her tail caught in a crab trap, resulting in the loss of her tail and prompting the aquarium to fit her with a prosthetic.
The Tampa Bay Times has followed the saga of Winter since her rescue. A series of stories in 2008 by Pulitzer Prize finalist John Barry chronicled the fight to save Winter and the people she has helped inspire.
Winter’s story, which eventually became the premise for the 2011 film Dolphin Tale, garnered international attention for the aquarium and skyrocketed visitation numbers.
Former CEO David Yates, who stepped down on March 15, said he has met tens of thousands of children who have been inspired by Winter’s story.
“I’ve had kids come here for whom this was their dying wish,” he said. “Our ability to host those kinds of visits now is enhanced greatly.”
Yates said he first imagined the expansion when he came to the aquarium in 2006. He wanted the aquarium to use Winter’s story to build new facilities, both for the animals and for guests.
The aquarium is, first and foremost, a center for animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. All its animals on public display are rescues that couldn’t survive on their own in the wild.
But Yates said the aquarium was running out of space for those animals.
“We literally had to turn away animals in the past and send them to other facilities because we couldn’t care for them on a long-term basis,” he said.
The construction of the Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex triples the amount of dolphin habitat, leaving plenty of room for new rescues.
The remainder of the aquarium’s $80 million expansion, which will include 197,500 square feet of new guest space, 400 parking spots, plus expanded education areas and hospital facilities, is expected to be completed by October.
Nearly half the expansion funds will come from donations and grants, 44 percent from ticket sales, and 9 percent from gift shop sales.
The main observation window is 40 feet long, 14 feet high, and 12.5 inches thick, weighing a whopping 52,000 pounds. Hope, star of Dolphin Tale 2, showed off for onlookers, twirling as she dove to the bottom of the tank and back up again.
The aquarium is now faced with the daunting question of how to maintain the momentum they’ve earned from the Dolphin Tale franchise.
“Winter is a legacy, and she always will be,” said Dame. “But we’re going to pivot a little bit.”
Soon, the aquarium plans to refurbish its old facilities and convert one of its buildings into a manatee habitat. Dame hopes to direct the aquarium’s focus towards research and education moving forward, in addition to conservation.
Yates also teased the production of an animated version of Dolphin Tale, which could lead to a TV series if successful.
“The sky’s the limit for us in the future,” said Dame.
Yates and Dame stood together in front of the tank, dolphins bobbing above their heads. As Dame watched with scissors in hand, a large white ribbon was unfurled in front of him, adorned with a message.
The ribbon said “welcome home.”