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String of dolphin deaths at Clearwater aquarium prompts ‘expert’ examination

After four deaths in 16 months, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will hire “outside experts” to review the animals’ environment, its CEO says.
 
Rex and Rudolph, swim together at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Aug. 6, 2020. Rex, 8, is one of four dolphins to die at the facility in the last 16 months.
Rex and Rudolph, swim together at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Aug. 6, 2020. Rex, 8, is one of four dolphins to die at the facility in the last 16 months. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

The sudden death of an 8-year-old dolphin on Monday made for a grim statistic at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Rex became the fourth dolphin to die in 16 months. In the previous 20 years, three dolphins died at the aquarium, which rescues sick and injured marine animals and exhibits those that cannot be released back to the wild.

The spate of deaths occurred around a period of flux for the Clearwater landmark, with three CEO changes, staff turnover and declining visitor attendance.

Joe Handy, who became CEO on Oct. 3, said the deaths are not a reflection of internal issues but a matter of unfortunate timing as two of the four losses were older dolphins that lived past life expectancy.

Rex’s death leaves five dolphins at the aquarium, and over the past 15 years, the population fluctuated between three and six. Handy noted that, with more dolphins, the likelihood of deaths is higher.

Still, in light of the deaths, Handy said he plans to hire “outside experts” to audit the dolphins’ habitat, water quality and veterinary care.

Joe Handy
Joe Handy [ Clearwater Marine Aquarium ]

“The animals that come to us are already challenged,” Handy said. “The reason they come to us is because they can’t survive on their own, they are deemed non-releasable, so we do our best to help them and ensure they live as long as they can.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said the average life expectancy of captive dolphins in high quality facilities is 20 to 25 years. She said that is similar to the average lifespan in wild “industrialized environments” with threats of boats, entanglements and pollution. However, dolphins in both cases can potentially live up to age 60, she said.

Dolphins in captivity are also more prone to certain diseases, Rose said, likely due to not having the diverse diet and activity levels they do in the wild.

The recent string of dolphin deaths at Clearwater Marine Aquarium began in November 2021 with Winter, its most famous resident. Rescuers found her as a baby in 2005 near Cape Canaveral in a crab that trap destroyed her tail.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium fitted her with a prosthetic. Former CEO David Yates, who led the nonprofit from 2006 to 2020, used the story of Winter’s resilience to prompt two Hollywood movies. The fame helped turn the aquarium into an international attraction, and led to an $80 million expansion completed in 2021.

Winter died at 16 years old of intestinal torsion, or twisted intestines, following 11 days under medical care. It was during the week that then-CEO Frank Dame stepped down to focus on his cancer treatment and James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of the aquarium’s research institute, became interim CEO.

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Abby Stone, senior marine mammal trainer and stranding coordinator at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, visits with bottlenose dolphins Winter, right, and PJ, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater.
Abby Stone, senior marine mammal trainer and stranding coordinator at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, visits with bottlenose dolphins Winter, right, and PJ, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

PJ, who died in October, was the aquarium’s oldest dolphin at 51. She was rescued from shallow water in Old Tampa Bay in 2018 when she was in her late 40s and joined the aquarium in March 2019. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees ocean rescues, deemed the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin non-releasable due to hearing and vision loss, worn teeth and arthritis.

She died following “seizure-like behavior” and “a self-induced skull fracture” from swimming into a window within her habitat, according to interim media relations director Andrea Alava. A preliminary report indicates that geriatric changes in PJ’s brain and Alzheimer’s-like behavior may have contributed to her death, but Alava said a final necropsy to confirm the cause is still pending.

Three months later, on Jan. 23, Hemmingway died at 37 years old of intestinal torsion. He came to Clearwater Marine Aquarium in June 2020, a year after being found in shallow waters off Fiesta Key. He was deemed non releasable due to hearing loss and other health concerns.

Rex, a smaller species called a rough-toothed dolphin, arrived at the aquarium in August 2020 after he was found stranded off of St. George Island. The National Marine Fisheries Service deemed Rex non-releasable due to significant hearing loss, according to the aquarium’s website.

Rex stopped eating three days before he died on Monday and had been on 24-hour care, Handy said. The necropsy to determine cause of death is pending.

The deaths over the previous 20-year period included: Panama, 40, who died in 2013 after 12 years at the aquarium; Indy, 9, who died in 2011 after 6 years at the aquarium; and Sunset Sam, 21, who died in 2001 after 17 years there.

The recent expansion leaves room for more dolphins beyond the five who remain after Rex’s death. The completion of the Ruth and J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex in 2020 tripled the amount of dolphin habitat from the former building.

The aquarium also cares for sea turtles, otters, pelicans and other marine animals, and operates an emergency medical center in Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park for marine mammals that become beached or stranded in the gulf. Handy said a goal in his first year as CEO is to continue highlighting this work to the world.

In 2022, the first year after Winter’s death, attendance at the aquarium fell 29% to 360,000, according to data provided by the aquarium. While the nonprofit depends on donations, grants and ticket sales, Handy said he is not concerned about the attendance drop. He said visitors will continue to be attracted to the aquarium’s mission, which is unique in the industry.

“Our mission is unwavering,” Handy said. “We continue to look at ways to make a positive impact on the animals we have in our care and throughout the world.”