Published on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

FLORIDA: A close encounter with Clearwater's famous resident

It's not quite Seaworld, but Clearwater has its own quirky little aquarium with a very special attraction. Bev Fearis and family check it out.

Just a 10-minute walk from Clearwater Beach is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a compact but cute aquarium that has recently become internationally known thanks to one particular resident. Dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured marine animals, the aquarium is home to Winter the dolphin, who at just three months of age found herself wrapped tightly in a crab trap line and was unable to escape. Unfortunately, as a result, Winter lost her entire tail as well as two vertebrae. However, thanks to the dedication and expertise of aquarium staff and a team of vets, she has learnt how to swim again with the use of a prosthetic tail. Her journey has been made into a film, Dolphin Tale, which was released worldwide in 2011, starring Winter herself, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick, Jr. and Kris Kristofferson.

The success of the film has put the aquarium firmly on the map, with Winter the star attraction, but it is also home to sea turtles, river otters, stringrays, sharks and other rescued dolphins who all have their own sad but heartwarming stories. Throughout the day, visitors are invited to demonstrations or talks about the inhabitants, learning how they are trained and how the aquarium is managing their rehabilitation. We watched as staff put on Winter's prosthetic tail, explaining how she doesn't use it all the time because it would be too tiring. We also watched Winter and her 'pool mate' Panama do some painting, holding the brushes in their mouths, and jump out of the water on command.

For the $20 entrance fee (children $15), you can also visit a second new site a short boat or bus ride away which focuses more on the film. If you pay extra, you can pat a dolphin, or have your photo taken with one, buy one of the pictures painted by a dolphin (apparently they all have their own individual style - yeah right!), or even be a trainer for the day. In the gift shop you can buy the DVD of the film and countless other Winter-themed souvenirs. It starts to feel a bit like you're always being pushed into spending more money, but then you stop and remember that it's all in a good cause.

On the way back to the hotel, we strolled through the little marina where you can book trips in boats of all shapes and sizes, fishing excursions, jet skies, pirate cruises - you name it, you can do it. Freddie was keen to do the pirate cruise, but we managed to drag him past the kiosk with the promise of making sandcastles on the beach.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach, making sandcastles (as promised) with a plastic cup (we hadn't got a bucket and spade at this point of the holiday), and jumping over the small waves - well, small to us, but big enough to make Freddie scream with delight. This beach is very child-friendly, with the super soft sand and gentle waves.

That evening we took the 40-minute drive into downtown St Petersburg. It's home to to six award-winning museums, including a Salvador Dali Museum with the world's most extensive collection devoted exclusively to this famous Spanish master. On the first Friday of each month, it hosts a street party, with live music, dancing and food and drink. We wished we had more time to explore it. Next time...


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