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The nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, has been doing marine mammal, bird, and turtle rescue work since the mid-1980's, after the city of Clearwater donated an old water treatment plant to the Aquarium, which was modified into holding tanks for rescued animals. More a working marine hospital than an exhibit aquarium, the center rehabilitates and releases injured and distressed marine wildlife, and keeps those animals which cannot be released on exhibit (currently including dolphins, sea turtles, river otters and pelicans) for use in educational shows and as a way to raise funds through admission tickets for the hospital operations. For years, the center was barely making ends meet. Then in December 2006, the aquarium took in a young rescued female dolphin who had become entangled in a crab trap and had lost her tail. Because it was December, the staff named her "Winter".

Without her tail, Winter could not swim properly--not only could she not be released back to the wild, but it was doubtful she would survive at all. But on her own, Winter learned to swim again, by moving her tail stump side to side like a fish, instead of up and down like a dolphin. Unfortunately, this produced bad effects on the spinal column, and it was decided to try to fit Winter with a prosthetic tail. After much research and trial and error, a workable prosthetic was made, which is now fitted on Winter several hours a day to allow her to swim properly and exercise, and ease the strain on her spine and muscles. Winter became a well-known local attraction.

Then in 2010, Hollywood came calling. A division of Warner Brothers approached the aquarium with an offer to make a movie about Winter. In exchange, Warner Brothers agreed to finance a full remodeling and expansion of the aquarium building, adding new exhibits like the Stingray Touch Tank, a new tank for dolphin shows, and several new rescue tanks. "Dolphin Tale", starring Morgan Freedman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr, and Kris Kristofferson, opened in 2011. Nearly the entire movie was shot on location at the Aquarium. With the publicity from the movie and increased attendance, the Aquarium was able to continue its rescue, rehabilitation, and education work. In 2012, the aquarium was able to open a second building in downtown Clearwater devoted to the movie, with behind the scenes exhibits and props used in the filming.

I hadn't been to the Aquarium since the expansion, so recently I decided to make a day of it by visiting the aquarium, the movie exhibit, and the nearby Clearwater Beach (consistently rated among the top ten beaches in the US). So here are some photos.

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I'm not really much of a "beach" person--I prefer areas with lots of wildlife and hardly any people. But Clearwater Beach really is a nice place to hang out for an afternoon.

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Pier 60. On weekends they show free movies here.

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A busker playing for the tourists.

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Crafts for sale at the beach pier. Grasshoppers made from palm leaves.  Or, as the craft-maker told me, "They start out as grasshoppers, but after a few days they turn into crickets."

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The white sugar sand that the tourists like, isn't really from this area. Each year, the city trucks in tons of white sand from the Atlantic Coast to replace sand that is lost to erosion.

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Clearwater Beach

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Hotels along the beach.

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Parasailing over the Gulf of Mexico.

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A coastal sand dune.  Home to several endangered plants, including sea oats and beach pea.

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The Intracoastal Waterway. A shallow channel that runs along Florida's Gulf Coast between the mainland and the offshore barrier islands. Because it is protected from wind and waves, it's a great place for boating and sea kayaking.

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Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Located on the Intracoastal in an old water treatment plant.

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The touch tank.

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A crab in the touch tank.

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Touchable shells, egg cases, and other marine objects.

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Two red drum fish and a lookdown fish.  They share a large tank with two rescued nurse sharks, Thelma and Louise.

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Nurse shark.

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Some of the rescue tanks. The animals on display here were injured or orphaned and cannot be released back to the wild.

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Titus is a green sea turtle who was hit by a boat and has an air bubble under his shell, preventing him from swimming properly.

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A recently-rescued sea turtle who will be returned to the wild.

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Cleaning the turtle tank.

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Nicholas is an orphaned bottlenose dolphin who does the daily dolphin show.

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A group of tourists get to interact with Nicholas.

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A boom camera filming the dolphin show--part of the Second Unit film crew from Warner Bros that has begun shooting "Dolphin Tale 2" at the aquarium.

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One of a pair of non-releasable pelicans named Lucy and Ricky. They played "Rufus" in the movie.

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One of the many volunteers giving an educational talk. There are talks every half hour at the dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, or pelicans tank.

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An aquarium volunteer and a river otter at feeding time.

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The fully functional veterinary clinic built for the movie and used as a prop.

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The stingray touch tank.

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Petting the stingrays.

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Bottlenose dolphins Winter and Hope, who share a tank. Winter is on the left.

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Winter's missing tail is clearly visible here.

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The Dolphin Tale Adventure, in downtown Clearwater, contains props and behind the scenes stories from the movie.

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The prosthetic lab set made for the movie.

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Prop bicycles used in the movie.

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One of Winter's prosthetic tails.

Originally posted to Lenny Flank on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 07:40 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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