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Winter’s impact: How one injured dolphin fueled a drive to help more animals

Her fame powered the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to greater heights and an expansion of its mission.
Visitors watch as trainers work with Winter in the main dolphin tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The tank had been newly painted as part of preparations for the filming of Dolphin Tale 2.
Visitors watch as trainers work with Winter in the main dolphin tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The tank had been newly painted as part of preparations for the filming of Dolphin Tale 2. [ Times (2013) ]
Published Nov. 12
Updated Nov. 12

Winter is gone, but her impact on Clearwater Marine Aquarium is forever. Just look around.

When staff rescued the baby bottlenose dolphin from a crab trap in Cape Canaveral in late 2005, revenues at the former sewage plant-turned-aquarium on Island Estates were little over $1 million. The roof was caving in and the prospect of bankruptcy was real.

Then two Hollywood movies about Winter’s prosthetic tail and recovery shot the aquarium to international fame. Sixteen years later, the nonprofit had built the muscle to raise $80 million for an expansion of the facility and its mission, providing more space and resources to treat more species at a time when marine animals like manatees are facing dire threats.

“The biggest legacy that she is leaving behind is that we do have this $80 million facility and that’s going to allow us to be able to rescue and treat thousands of animals going into the future,” said interim CEO James “Buddy” Powell. “If it hadn’t been for Winter, that never would have happened.”

Work on the expanded Clearwater Marine Aquarium was completed this year.
Work on the expanded Clearwater Marine Aquarium was completed this year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Following Winter’s death on Thursday due to a gastrointestinal infection, fans around the world are remembering the animal who survived with a prosthetic tail for the inspiration she gave to countless children and adults living with disabilities of their own. But her legacy also remains in the impact on her adopted home of Tampa Bay.

Over the past five years, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has ranked as the second most popular attraction in Pinellas County, just behind the Dalí Museum, according to Mackenzie Comerer, senior media relations manager for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the area’s tourism arm.

With Winter’s death, aquarium staff are working to engage just as many followers with its mission of rescue, rehabilitation and education for a variety of species. The nonprofit has rescued 1,600 sea turtles and treated and released 850 animals in the last decade, according to its website.

Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St.Pete/Clearwater, said although Winter has been the main draw — with her face plastered on promotional signs and items all over the gift shop — her legacy could be just as important in the attraction’s future.

“Think about movie stars that have passed on and people will go to where they lived or performed, and I think people will be doing that with Winter,” Hayes said.

The facility expansion completed this year tripled the space for dolphins and created a new medical pool, where Winter was treated in her final days. Staff has room to treat about 45 rehabilitation cases at once, double what it could do before. Larger pools mean space for nine more dolphins and 25 more sea turtles that can’t be released into the wild.

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There is also five times the guest space as the pre-renovated facility, including a new 20,000-square-foot virtual reality whale exhibit.

In 2019, the aquarium’s rescue mission expanded when it opened an emergency medical center in Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park to provide critical care to marine mammals that become beached or stranded in the Gulf of Mexico’s shallow waters. Powell said the facility is working to build an additional 40-foot pool and two 20-foot isolation pools at Fred Howard Park to treat sick and injured manatees, a new species for the aquarium.

Media and guests attend a July 2020 event to announce the expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, including a new dolphin habitat. In the background is the tank where Winter lived at the time, along with dolphins Hope and PJ.
Media and guests attend a July 2020 event to announce the expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, including a new dolphin habitat. In the background is the tank where Winter lived at the time, along with dolphins Hope and PJ. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The aquarium is also in the beginning stages of building a manatee treatment area at the main facility on Island Estates, where staff will be able to treat sick and injured manatees and release them with satellite trackers, Powell said.

This focus comes at a critical time. More Florida manatees have died in the first half of 2021 than in any other recorded year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Driven by a lack of food along the manatees’ migration route on the Atlantic coast, 997 sea cows died from Jan. 1 to Nov. 5, surpassing the previous record for an entire year when 830 manatees died in 2013.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s expansion has been facilitated by its 2019 merger with Sea to Shore Alliance, a conservation group co-founded by Powell, who advanced research on manatees, sea turtles and North Atlantic right whales.

“What has been our main draw for many years is Winter, but what we’re seeing is people become more involved with our main mission in terms of rescue and rehabilitation and conservation,” Powell said.

Before Winter arrived in 2005, visitor numbers hit around 76,000. The aquarium has seen an average attendance of about 600,000 in recent years. Its revenues reached $37 million in 2018, far above the $1 million brought in the year before former CEO David Yates took over in 2006 and began his efforts that brought worldwide attention to the aquarium’s mission.

Powell said he intends for the aquarium’s mission to continue to attract the same following.

But the aquarium is also undergoing another transition — searching for a new leader who will carry the aquarium into its post-Winter future.

Powell took over as interim CEO earlier this month after former CEO Frank Dame stepped down to focus on his cancer treatment. Dame took over in March 2020 and succeeded Yates, who led the aquarium for 14 years and is responsible for Winter’s Dolphin Tale movies and the unprecedented expansion.

Powell said the search for a permanent CEO is ongoing and that he will likely apply for the job.

“We haven’t had to put a prosthetic tail on a manatee, but the manatees are coming,” Dame said. “Our work is so different than other aquariums that if we stick to our mission that we’re not going to capture and breed them or buy them, we’re going to have a tremendous opportunity going forward to do exactly what we did in the past. Maybe it will be a little bit slower at gaining attention unless we have some celebrity animal that comes into play, but we’re going to be fine.”