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Clearwater Marine Aquarium taps Georgia leader as new CEO

Former Georgia Aquarium President Joe Handy will take over Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Oct. 3.
People gather in an area tentatively named the Manatee Springs Rehabilitation Center while attending a press conference where plans for a new manatee rehabilitation expansion project were revealed on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater.
People gather in an area tentatively named the Manatee Springs Rehabilitation Center while attending a press conference where plans for a new manatee rehabilitation expansion project were revealed on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 21|Updated Jul. 21

After nearly a year without a permanent leader, Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced Thursday it has named former Georgia Aquarium president Joe Handy as its CEO.

Handy helped launch the Georgia Aquarium in 2005 as director of visitor services and served as its president from 2017 to 2020. He has since worked as president of the National Black MBA Association based in Atlanta. He will join the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Oct. 3, according to Eric Busch, chairperson of the board of directors.

Incoming Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO Joe Handy.
Incoming Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO Joe Handy. [ Clearwater Marine Aquarium ]

“His experience at the Georgia Aquarium was a big plus, but it’s also his style, his servant-based leadership,” Busch said. “He wants to be involved, cares about the animals, the marine life, and really he’s just the total package.”

Handy will be the face of a new era for the aquarium following significant leadership shifts, internal turmoil and the death in November of Winter, the dolphin that brought the facility international fame.

He has an MBA from Kennesaw State University and spent nine years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, helping to launch the Rose Center for Earth and Space, before joining the Georgia Aquarium, according to his biography with the National Black MBA Association.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium “has such a rich history with not only the Tampa Bay community, but with the military, those with special needs who are inspired by the rescued animals at (Clearwater Marine Aquarium), and also the community of biologists and researchers who dedicate their life to saving and protecting marine life,” Handy said in a statement.

Former CEO David Yates helped launch two Hollywood movies about Winter’s 2005 rescue from a crab trap and survival with a prosthetic tail. Yates stepped down in 2020 to focus on producing films.

The attendance and donations that followed Winter’s story of resilience helped the aquarium complete an $80 million renovation last year, which includes new dolphin habitat with five connecting pools and nine viewing windows, 197,500 square feet of new guest space and expanded education and hospital facilities.

Frank Dame, the aquarium’s longtime chief operating officer, took over as CEO after Yates’ departure but stepped down in September in order to focus on his cancer treatment. James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium research institute, has served as interim CEO.

In June 2021, a whistleblower told then-board of directors chairman Paul Auslander about an incident six months earlier where security cameras captured a group of mermaid performers changing in a room without their knowledge. The board hired a law firm to investigate.

The law firm determined Dame and then-vice president of operations and zoological care Mike Hurst viewed the footage before deleting it to determine what to do but did not immediately alert the performers, Auslander said. Hurst resigned amid the investigation.

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The mermaid performers later described the aquarium’s response as clumsy and inept.

Auslander left the board in April, but on Wednesday, he declined to confirm the circumstances of his departure. Busch, the current board chairperson, declined to confirm whether Auslander resigned or was voted off the board.

Busch said the aquarium is looking to the future with Handy’s leadership. He said the focus is to continue its mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release.

In 2019, the aquarium 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 shallow waters of the gulf. The aquarium received $3.5 million from the state this year to help launch a manatee rehabilitation pool at its main facility on Island Estates near Clearwater Beach.

“Joe is excited about (Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s) mission, and I do think he brings a skillset around guest experience,” Busch said. “The more people and the better financial position (Clearwater Marine Aquarium) is in, the more animals we can help, the more inspired guests we can bring through the doors, but (its) mission is not changing.”

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