CLEARWATER — When David Yates took over Clearwater Marine Aquarium as chief executive in 2006, he walked into nothing short of a crisis.
The roof of the former sewage plant-turned-aquarium was caving in. With just $1.6 million in revenue, the operation was teetering toward bankruptcy.
“It was being held together with Band-Aids in a lot of places,” said board member Nathan Hightower. “It was a patient in critical.”
Today, the aquarium is internationally known, made famous by two Hollywood films, a mission of healing and housing marine life, and the nonprofit muscle to raise $80 million for expansion.
After 14 years leading unprecedented growth, Yates, 60, announced Thursday he will step down in March to pursue a career in public speaking, producing TV shows and films, and writing books.
The board of directors unanimously selected Frank Dame, the aquarium’s chief operating officer for 11 years, to succeed Yates.
As Yates embarks on a new chapter, the aquarium will also be reinventing itself again. The expansion focused on education and research is set to finish later this year just as the public is rethinking the ethics of visiting animals in captivity.
“My job," Yates said, was to make sure the aquarium “is being left in the best condition it can be in, and we’ve done that. Our new building will allow us to have the resources to expand our work further around the world."
Before joining Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Yates spent six years as president of the company that owns the Ironman Triathlon competition. There, he kept the identity of the franchise the same but turned it into one of the best-selling sports brands worldwide by boosting its profile with a year-round media blitz, merchandise sales, and deals with NBC Sports and ESPN.
His strategy with the aquarium was no different: Maintain the mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release, but use media savvy to trumpet the story.
Three months before Yates arrived in February 2006, the aquarium helped rescue Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail after becoming entangled in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral.
Trainers fitted her with a prosthetic tail for physical therapy, giving her a survival story just waiting for an audience.
“When I saw the condition (the aquarium) was in, I realized I had to move quick, I needed a story to tell that tells the world what we’re about,” Yates said. “When I saw Winter, I knew that’s the story I wanted to tell.”
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In fall 2006, Yates used his connections to book the story on NBC’s Today show. Then came the Associated Press coverage.
“It just mushroomed around the world," Yates said. "I had 2½ years of extensive global media about a dolphin that refused to give up.”
Hollywood producers came knocking. Dolphin Tale starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd hit theaters in 2011 and aquarium attendance grew fourfold to 740,000 in 2012.
Dolphin Tale 2 in 2014 brought another surge, boosting the number of visitors in 2015 to 800,000 with the story of Hope, rescued after trying to nurse from her dead mother.
The aquarium brought in revenues of more than $36 million in 2017, according to tax records — far beyond the $1.6 million it collected in 2005 before Yates arrived. And where visitors numbered just 76,000 in 2005, the aquarium now sees an average attendance of 600,000, he said.
“Visionary is the first word that comes to mind,” board member Hightower said.
As its profile rose, so did the demand to rescue and rehabilitate marine life. Last summer, 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 shallow waters of the gulf.
And later this year, the aquarium plans to unveil the expansion at its main location on Island Estates, including a garage with 336 spaces, triple the room for rescue dolphins and five times the guest space. Staff will have room to treat about 45 rehabilitation cases at once, double what it can do now. Larger pools mean space for nine more dolphins and 25 more turtles that can’t be released into the wild.
It’s a new chapter for the aquarium, but Dame, the new chief executive, said rescue, rehabilitation and release will remain the mission.
Before his work with the aquarium, Dame, 72, was a career executive with positions at GE Capital, GTE Leasing Corporation, Verizon Credit and Progress Telecom, along with roles in a number of local boards.
Dame said the aquarium’s merger this year with Sea to Shore Alliance, a world renowned conservation and research group, will elevate the organization to a new level of research expertise. A new division called Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, led by former Sea to Shore executive director James Buddy Powell, will bring in resident manatees that cannot be released back into the wild.
Dame’s goals include shifting the aquarium’s dependence away from tourism revenue as the region faces uncertainty from weather, oil spills and red tide algae blooms that kill fish and repel beach visitors.
Centers like Sea World have seen devastating losses in revenue as the public undergoes a change of heart about viewing animals in captivity and watching them perform. But as a marine center that does not breed, sell or buy animals, Dame said, Clearwater Marine Aquarium can continue it’s mission.
“We are not an attraction, per se. We are a hospital, and will continue to be," Dame said. “We are not like other zoos and aquariums."