Monday, Dec 22, 2014

Clearwater’s new aquarium to focus on animals’ return to ocean, not shows

BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
Tribune staff

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— Don’t expect to see Winter the dolphin or her companion Hope jumping through the air or squeaking for a stadium full of fans like their Hollywood forerunner, Flipper.

There will be no animal shows or even bleachers, for that matter, in the redesigned aquatic center that Clearwater Marine Aquarium hopes to build downtown.

Despite the fame of the “Dolphin Tale” star, aquarium officials have made it abundantly clear in new plans that they’re not looking to build a marine amusement park where captive animals are made to perform for gawking visitors.

Rather than wooing tourists with spectacular fish tanks that house hulking whale sharks or getting laughs from clapping sea lions, the Clearwater aquarium wants to bring in fans with a story.

Every year, staff at the marine rescue center save stranded dolphins and sea turtles tangled in fishing line only to help many of them return to their natural home — the ocean.

At a time when megaparks such as SeaWorld are seeing crowds and profits fall away as public opinion turns against traditional whale and dolphin acts, CMA may be striking the right note with fans of the “Dolphin Tale” movies, which center on their rehabilitation work.

The dilemma of whether to keep a dolphin in rehab or set it free creates the dramatic tension in the “Dolphin Tale” sequel set for release Sept. 12.

Aquarium officials hope their mission as shown in the film will garner more support for the $68 million dollar downtown center, which they say won’t be like any other facility in the world.

“We don’t rescue them so we can have them to show to guests,” aquarium CEO David Yates said. “Our goal is to release them back into the wild.”

One of the ways the aquarium came out with a new price tag that’s nearly $100 million less than original estimates was by jettisoning typical entertainment facilities like a dolphin stadium.

The redesign moves away from the promises of grandeur that CMA leaders said would place their facility among the ranks of the Georgia Aquarium and other giant marine attractions.

Yates says he never was comfortable with those early plans, which seemed like a departure from CMA’s core narrative of a former wastewater facility that turned into an international attraction based almost solely on Winter’s real-life struggle to swim again with a prosthetic tail.

What visitors want to see, aquarium officials reckon, is a real life rescue operation rather than an entertainment park.

Winter’s and Hope’s new tank will be three times the size of their current environs at the Island Estates center, but guests will view them from platforms and walkways as staff put them through their daily workout routines.

Renderings show people looking down on a sea turtle operation.

Children play computer games where they must make choices about how to best care for an animal and will have a chance to participate in a mock rescue with a life-size dolphin model.

The turtles, sea otters, birds and dolphins at the new downtown center will be semipermanent features as their habitats will be designed for animals that aren’t able to survive in the wild while the bulk of the rehab cases will remain at the original Island Estates location.

“We’re not about the big shows and stuff like that,” Yates said.

“The whole essence of this thing is no matter what animals we have or don’t have, the experience of getting behind the scenes of our work, that’s going to be the draw long-term.”

The release of the controversial documentary “Blackfish” last summer cast a dark shadow on conventional marine parks that bank on packing arenas to watch intelligent mammals such as dolphins and orcas do tricks.

The film suggests keeping killer whales captive causes violent behavior toward trainers.

SeaWorld has seen numerous musicians cancel performances at its parks in recent months and its second quarter revenues came in $40 million less than expected.

While many marine experts maintain that most of these shows don’t exploit the animals and aren’t harmful, a swell of public opinion has caused many of them to be proactive in explaining how their programs benefit marine life rather than merely entertaining people.

“They feel like in the show they’re exploiting the animals. The reality is for the animals themselves, the behaviors they’re showing is all a part of what is a daily routine for them,” said Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

Nonetheless, many aquariums are shifting away from old-fashioned animal shows and, like Clearwater, placing a strong emphasis on their conservation and rehab work.

The Virginia Aquarium is developing a new exhibit to show off its extensive stranded marine animal rescue program, which helps hundreds of dolphins and turtles each year.

They’re also looking for ways to show guests the way staff care for injured animals, which can be tricky due to regulations that restrict the public from being in close contact with some creatures that may one day be released back into the wild.

One of the nation’s most revered aquariums, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is considering scrapping its current dolphin exhibit and moving the group of eight into a sanctuary.

These kinds of changes are heartening to organizations such as Born Free, which fights against keeping healthy animals captive in zoos and aquariums, especially dolphins and other intelligent mammals.

“I think the public appetite for captivity of wild animals is waning,” said Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA. “The future for zoos and aquariums is in the rescue and rehab business.”

Supporters of CMA’s downtown aquarium say the redesigned facility will capture a growing market of people who love animals, but may not be keen on watching them perform for amusement.

“I think a lot of people will relate to that much better than a SeaWorld type of environment where there are shows and things of that nature,” said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“This really cuts to the essence of our love for animals in the world.”

Bill Sturtevant of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership says CMA’s prime focus on animal rehab will set them apart in the market.

“It kind of brings in that humanitarian theme of what they’re all about,” he said.

While CMA officials have gone out of their way to underline how their rescue mission will differentiate them from other facilities, Yates says they’re not trying to make a statement about the practices of other marine parks.

“We’re not trying to win a popularity contest. We’re just trying to do what we do and do our mission,” he said.

Instead of drawing comparisons with the world’s top aquariums, the message that CMA leaders are pushing as they look to raise millions in public and private funds in the coming months is that their facility will be something entirely different.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world,” Yates said.

 

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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