Of all the things we got up to whilst in Florida, one of my favourite days was our visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This is not your typical aquarium, which, for me, is perfect because I really am not a fan of animals and creatures being kept in captivity. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a rescue centre and has taken in thousands of injured or orphaned sea life over the years, rehabilitated them and released those that are able to survive in the wild.
“We are not exactly like the aquariums you may have visited in the past. We exist to rescue marine animals (dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, etc.), rehabilitate them from sickness or injury, and release them back into their natural habitats”
Clearwater Marine Aquarium Website
One of their most famous rescues was Winter the dolphin, the star of the film Dolphin Tale. Winter was discovered at just months old, laying on a beach, entangled in a crab trap. Due to the injuries to her tail, she lost it and could not be reintroduced back into the ocean. Her story has touched many lives, mostly those living with disabilities or prosthetics as Winter herself had a prosthetic tail made in order to improve her quality of life. Her story is simply amazing and if you haven’t yet seen the film, I urge you to because it is a fantastic journey and now having seen her for myself, it’s just made it all so much more emotive.
We had such a great day visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium so I thought I’d share some of what we saw and did…
The aquarium is located just a few minutes away from the stunning Clearwater beach. There is plenty of parking here or the aquarium provides a multi-storey car park for visitors. It was all very easy to navigate and once in the entrance we were kept entertained in the queue by friendly chatty staff who made the kids laugh and reassured us that the wait wouldn’t be much longer and so on. A far cry from the customer service you receive in the UK!
The member of staff who took our payment was equally as cheerful and made us feel very welcome. We were offered the addition of boat trips with our entrance and car park fee and after a quick chat, we opted for the sea life safari over the dolphin spotting as we thought Jake would get far more out of it educationally… I’ll come to this in a while.
We were then greeted by some extremely bubbly photographers who insisted on us standing by a green wall to have some photos taken. We had no idea why and when we tried to decline (being oh so British) they wouldn’t have any of it. So we did the smiles and the odd poses and then Jake did a few by himself and the results? Absolutely brilliant! Don’t ever doubt the enthusiastic staff.
On from the photography area is a small cafe, to the left is an area to leave the pushchairs, which I would advise to do if possible simply because it is easier to get through the crowds plus the aquarium is on two levels, although there is a very small lift.
When you enter the building, be warned, you are immediately in the gift shop which is very distracting to little people! Try to hurry through and make your way to either the surgical suite to the left, down to the walkway (shipwreck alley) that takes you under the second floor with viewings into the tanks or to the stairs straight ahead which lead up to the large enclosures and to Winter. It is all easy to navigate and you’ll notice that most people travel around one way most of the time.
As we arrived, a talk and show of one of the dolphins, Nicholas, was just about to start. Nicholas was rescued as a baby, along with his mother back in 2002. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive and due to his age, Nicholas hadn’t learnt all that he needed in order to live safely in the wild. He was moved to this aquarium and currently lives in Dolphin Terrace which is on the top deck of the building. I loved hearing all about him but watching his jumps and tricks were the real show stopper (he was far too fast to capture him well!)
Of course, the stars of the aquarium are Winter and her friend Hope (who is the star of Dolphin Tale 2). They live together in the large tanks which can be viewed in Shipwreck Alley or from above in Winter Zone. They are on view all day so you can happily sit and watch them play and show off when they fancy it and at certain times of day, the staff will do their informative talk. We were lucky enough to see Winter have some of her physiotherapy.
Hope is younger and was much more playful on the day. She was also orphaned and just like Nicholas, she cannot be released into the wild as she lacks the survival skills needed. Her and Winter are great friends and perfect company for one another.
Winter’s story is told on the walls surrounding these enclosures and a timeline of her life and the film can be found along the Harbourview Deck. It really is remarkable how one little Dolphin has inspired so many people.
This floor is also home to the turtles that have been rescued all of which have been deemed not fit for release due to medical issues. Luckily for them, they have the amazing staff at the aquarium to look after them and see to all of their medical needs. You can read about each turtle on their website here.
In the medical suite you can learn about the huge number of turtles who have been released, their stories, their diet and even see the rehabilitation tubs through a glass window (these are obviously not on display to the public as they need to keep their distance from people in order to be eligible for release).
We didn’t actually make it around to each section on the day as we also had our boat trip booked in but other species at the aquarium include the otters, which we caught a glimpse of, the sharks, the pelicans (one of which is very famous thanks to the film), stingrays plus a variety of sea creatures in the touch tank area.
It may seem small but there is just so much to take in and enjoy so you could easily fill an entire day or spread the visit over a couple of days if you wanted to see every talk, enjoy both boat tours and to take your time around each section.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium provides a cafe, however, I was very surprised at the limited food on the menu, the fact that there were no healthy options and that there were no kids meals! I really thought that an establishment like this would have been a great place to get good food but it seemed that they just weren’t set up for it. They were short-staffed on the day too which made it feel like it was on a completely different level to the rest of the aquarium. If I went again, I’d hope that their new refurb would have a better cafe but I think I’d definitely take my own lunch just in case.
The toilets outside were portaloo cabins which may have been because of the refurb that was ongoing. Inside they were clean and roomy with a nice large changing area for William.
As I mentioned, there is a place to pop your buggies if need be and also a lift for access. The only stairs are the ones from the gift shop up to the next level, everything else is accessible.
If it is a chilly day, I would advise taking some extra layers of clothing because there are open doors, the cafe was open to the elements and Nicholas’ tank is outside. Also, the boat trip can get quite breezy!
The gift shop is brilliant and has plenty of toys, plush toys, clothing, trinkets, jewellery, water bottles and more. We bought some lovely keepsakes and I kinda wish I’d got some clothing for the boys too. It isn’t cheap though and don’t forget that they add tax at the till (that caught me out!)
The Sea Life Safari Boat Trip
This was most definitely the highlight of our day. We chose this boat trip because it was described as more educational and hands-on and it did not disappoint. The crew (who were all women) took us out to discover what creatures are living in this part of the water and to document the finds. It is an ongoing scientific investigation and it was amazing to see them at work.
A net is thrown overboard and then the boat moves forward just for 3 minutes in order to collect some samples, then the fun begins! I loved this, mostly because they asked the children to come forward and watch and help and to ask them questions. Jake got right in there…
By collating their findings the marine biologists will be able to see what is thriving and when and what may be struggling for survival. It was fascinating to hear what they have been achieving and discovering.
Once this part of the trip was completed, we were taken to a manmade island (treasure island to Jake!) in the middle of the water. Almost entirely made up of shells, it is like nothing you’ll have ever seen before. We had great fun searching for unusual shells and Jake even found his ‘X’ marks the spot (courtesy of my sister).
Once the boat sounds its horn, it is time to hop back on to start the journey back. The crew then bring around shells and findings from previous visits and continue to teach you about the area. This is also a great opportunity to see different birds and wild dolphins… and boy were we lucky on our visit?!
The Clearwater estuary meets the Gulf of Mexico just under the bridge here and due to the weather conditions, we saw the most amazing sights. Dolphins were just everywhere. They were fishing in one area, some were playing in another area, a few jumped by the side of the boat and others were under the bridge. Even the crew were in awe of it all. You honestly didn’t know where to look next because you had no idea where they might suddenly pop up. I tried to take photographs but it was impossible and I decided to give up and to just enjoy that moment as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was breathtaking.
If you choose to take a boat trip whilst visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium I can highly recommend the sea life safari.
Overall this day was one to remember and one that I will always treasure. Jake learnt so much and took so much from it which is something he wouldn’t ever get in school. We all had our favourites parts and I’m sure if we visited again we would find other aspects to fall in love with too. I cannot recommend it enough.
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