Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home to the tailless dolphin star Winter, appears to be returning to its original mission of “rescue, rehabilitation, and release,” canceling plans to host dolphin shows in a brand-new stadium.
Clearwater Aquarium chief executive David Yates made the announcement earlier this week when discussing plans for the facility’s multimillion-dollar expansion in downtown Clearwater. The new facility was to include a large dolphin stadium to show off its three dolphins: Nicolas, Hope, and, of course, Winter.
But the aquarium has scrapped the dolphin stadium plan, saving the company nearly $100 million, according to the Tampa Tribune.
“We don’t rescue them so we can have them to show to guests,” Yates told the Tribune. “Our goal is to release them back into the wild.”
Yates said the aquarium would no longer be in the entertainment business. Rather, it would focus on rescuing marine animals and preparing them to return to the wild. “We’re not about the big shows and stuff like that,” he added.
The aquarium does not currently have formal dolphin shows, but crowds can gather around the dolphin tanks to watch whistle-blowing trainers put the animals through various behavioral tasks, including having Nicolas leap from the water. Guests can also pay a $40 to $60 premium to be photographed with a dolphin. For $150, they can spend 15 minutes poolside along with a trainer.
Mostly, though, people come to see Winter, the star of the 2011 hit movie Dolphin Tale. A sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, premieres in September and stars Hope.
At three months of age, Winter was rescued near Cape Canaveral after getting entangled in a crab trap line, which blocked circulation to her flukes. Her tail had to be amputated, and she was fitted with a prosthetic one, thus inspiring the Hollywood film.
Attendance nearly quadrupled following the film’s release, from about 200,000 visitors in 2011 to more than 750,000 in 2012.
When the aquarium announced plans for the new facility and its dolphin stadium, animal welfare advocates cried foul, accusing Clearwater of emphasizing entertainment over rescue and rehab. They said Winter had become little more than a cash cow for ticket sales, film rights, licensing fees, and merchandise, such as a $22.95 dolphin plush toy with a removable tail.
Last September, videos surfaced on YouTube showing what appeared to be a frightened or stressed Winter cowering in the corner of her pool.
Clearwater officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Some but not all animal welfare advocates applauded the move to abandon the stadium.
“This is welcomed news and a step in the right direction,” said Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “The use of dolphins for entertainment perpetuates the vicious cycle that feeds an industry responsible for the pain and suffering of dolphins worldwide as they continue to be acquired from the wild or confined in substandard or inadequate conditions.”
Vail said her organization remains concerned about the welfare of the Clearwater dolphins, especially Nicolas, who lives alone in his own tank. “The proof will be in how the aquarium chooses to enrich and improve the current and future conditions for the dolphins held in its care,” she added.
Barbara Napoles, a Florida anti-captivity activist who took the video of Winter cowering in her pool, was more skeptical of Yates’ intentions.
“Who’s to say down the road he doesn’t change his mind when the cash stops flowing in?” she asked.
The aquarium says the new dolphin tank will triple the size of the habitat. But the whole enterprise may never come to pass. Clearwater must secure $68 million to finance the aquarium’s expansion by August 2016 or it loses a permit to construct the new attraction.
In addition to donations, loans, and grants, the company is also relying on admission ticket sales, especially after Hope has her star turn in theaters nationwide.