CLEARWATER New tanks for injured fish and sea turtles. Pens for otters, and top-of-the-line laboratory space. A 250,000-gallon tank for dolphins and whales that uses a winch system to hoist the whales into and out of the aquarium.
All are part of a multimillion expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s research lab and marine hospital unveiled on Thursday.
The new addition to the aquarium on Island Estates is separate from but related to a much larger $160 million aquarium proposed for the site of the current City Hall in downtown Clearwater.
The city council this week has been discussing the language for a referendum on whether to let the aquarium build on that site. If voters say yes, the downtown facility would be the new home for the movie star dolphin Winter and other sea creatures aimed at drawing tourists, said aquarium CEO David Yates.
“The ultimate goal we have is to have two facilities,” Yates said. “This facility would then become a very large full-time animal hospital. This will allow us to immensely increase the number of animals we take care of.”
The new R.O. Jacobson Center for Education and Animal Care, named in honor of an Iowa businessman who contributed $1 million, would double the number of sea turtles that can be treated and offer more room for several other marine species the aquarium’s team of 1,000 volunteers and staff are devoted to rehabilitating.
It’s the first phase in a $14 million project that will culminate in the construction of a larger guest lobby and new mammal tank on the aquarium’s eastern side.
Yates says the expansion has been in the works for several years, but donations and ticket revenue sparked by the popularity of the 2011 film Dolphin Tale got it off the ground.
Winter, the dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail, got a visit from a well-known name in marine filmmaking before the dedication ceremony Thursday.
Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Yves-Cousteau and founder of marine education organization Plant-A-Fish, donned a wetsuit and took a swim with Winter, uncapping his underwater camera to get some up-close shots of the movie star dolphin.
Cousteau was invited as the keynote speaker at a dinner following the facility’s dedication.
Longtime aquarium volunteers said they were awed by the transformation of the aquarium since its early days in the 1970s, when it was converted from a water treatment plant into a marine rescue center.
Former board chairman Tom Orr remembers when there was a parking lot where there are now 12 large pools for turtles.
“There were actually stories of doing surgeries outside on a picnic table with a pocket knife on a turtle in the original days of the aquarium,” said Orr, a longtime volunteer.
“So to have a state-of-the-art medical facility and huge winches that lift an elevator system that can lower a dolphin or a whale into a tank is just beyond comprehension for me.”
Aquarium officials now look forward to a November referendum vote on whether to give their proposed 200,000-square-foot facility a 60-year, no-cost lease on the current City Hall property downtown.
The Clearwater City Council this week reviewed proposed ballot language but decided to wait until June 6 to vote on it. The city also recently ordered an appraisal of the City Hall property, which placed its value at $6.6 million.
A move out of the nearly 50-year-old City Hall building is imminent, but city officials, and ultimately voters, are weighing the benefits of letting the aquarium use that space.
The council also drafted a resolution this week asking Gov. Rick Scott to support two items in the proposed state budget to allocate $4 million for attracting filmmakers to make a sequel to Dolphin Tale and an additional $1 million for the aquarium.