The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), which opened in 1972 on Clearwater Beach in Florida, is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured marine animals, as well as research, education and animal-assisted therapy.
Now a thriving global organisation where attendance is predicted to top 800, 000 this year, the CMA has come a long way in ten years.
In 2005, when David Yates took over as CEO, the aquarium was failing in every aspect. There was no money, the donors had left, attendance was down and falling still further, and the building was falling apart.
David Yates (pictured left) spoke to Blooloop about how he took on the aquarium at its lowest point and, with the help of a dolphin called Winter, turned it into a global success story.
David Yates had been working as a certified public accountant for two or three years when he was approached to work for the Ironman Triathlon Company. He joined as Vice President in 1989, then became CEO for around a decade.
Ironman events take place all over the world, often in the most exotic of locations: Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to name a few: beautiful places with a rich variety of marine life.
“I fell in love with marine life and the environment, and spent a lot of time out on the waters, " says Yates.
“We had brought our kids over the years to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to visit, back before it took off, in the early days, and so we were familiar with it. I had left Iron Man in ’98, and I was now asked by the Board of Clearwater Marine Aquarium to do a turnaround, because it had got into very serious trouble, and was ready to close down.
"My second boy, Chris, a keen animal lover, heard about the possible job and he said, ‘Dad, you’d better take that, or I’ll kick your butt.’
"I thought, my kids like it here; it’s very small and kind of run down, but it has a kind of homey feel, and I thought I’d do something nice for the community, maybe do a turnaround and spend a year here, then pass it on to somebody else.”
It was a risk: “…if I could not get it up and running again, it certainly wouldn’t help my career. I knew if I didn’t change things quickly, within three or four months it would close down.
The search for a story
“I had to find something to tell our story. I saw the work we did, and knew people would love the it.
“But, I had to go out and quickly tell the story so more people would come and see us, and would want to donate.”
Yates had no idea that when he joined Clearwater Aquarium, that Winter the dolphin was there fighting for her life.
“I started here in early 2006, which is exactly the time that Winter the Dolphin was rescued. I knew nothing about her.”
Winter had been found in Mosquito Bay, in the coastal waters of Florida, caught in the ropes of a crab trap in December 2005 – hence her name. She was found by a small fishing boat, and first taken to the local Marine Discovery Centre and then transferred to Clearwater. The trap had cut off the blood supply to her tail, and she was in a serious condition, young, alone, critically injured and stressed by having to adapt to captivity.
Winter the dolphin – survival against all odds
When he was made aware of Winter and her struggle, Yates was inspired.
“She really should have died many times, and we were advised to euthanise her, but she just kept finding new ways to overcome her difficulties.”
When Winter was first brought to the CMA, her tail was severely damaged. She was put in a small medical pool, about 20 ft wide and 4 ft deep, and over the next few weeks as she swam the skin came off in bits and pieces. Eventually she lost her tail flukes and two of her vertebrae.
“At that point we assumed she had no chance of survival, " says Yates. "We are overseen by a government agency, and the agency and a number of other veterinarians around the country advised us to euthanise her. That would be normal protocol.
"But we’re an animal hospital so we wanted to give her a chance. We saw her fighting for her life, and very gradually, day by day, she got better over a number of months.
“I was amazed at her spirit and the way she refused to give up. She lost her tail, had really no odds of surviving, and everything was going on in her life, but she would just find ways to go through it, and we would literally go home every day thinking she’s not going to be alive when we come back tomorrow, but we’d come back the next day and there she’d be again, swimming around and happy and excited for life.
"I told my team. I said, listen, this is really inspiring, what Winter is doing here.”
The tale of the tail
Eventually, it was decided that a prosthetic tail would help Winter swim better.
A team headed by prosthetist Kevin Carroll spent eighteen months constructing and testing a tail for the dolphin, eventually deciding in 2007 on a silicone and plastic design over a gel-like sleeve, to protect her skin, a project complicated by the extent of Winter’s injury.
“Once we started making the prosthetic tail, I decided to put it out to the media, ” says Yates.
Winter's story goes global
Yates’ past career gave him a keen eye for the marketing potential of Winter’s story. He had found the tale on which the aquarium’s turnaround would hinge.
He began to initiate a media plan, promoting the story worldwide, attracting the attention of animal lovers and people dealing with life-altering circumstances who could relate to Winter's inspirational story.
“I brought in the NBC Today show in America, and I did an AP wire piece, and it took off round the world.”
The story of the severely injured dolphin and her refusal to give in to her disability provoked a huge public response right from the start.
“We started getting letters and emails and visits and calls from kids, or maybe their mom, saying how Winter had inspired their young child through chemotherapy; through having a prosthetic leg; through being sick in some other way.”
Good Morning America picked up the story, as did numerous national and international media outlets, including Oprah, the BBC, CNN, and publications including Time, Reader’s Digest, People – and many more.
“It just grew and grew. And that led to the books, and then documentaries, and then eventually the movies.”
Dolphin Tale – the blockbuster movie
In 2011, Winter appeared in the blockbuster movie, Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., co-produced by Yates, and its 2014 sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, featuring another baby dolphin, Hope, rescued five years after Winter. Both movies were shot partially on location at the aquarium.
CMA’s future was secured.
A happy ending for Winter and Clearwater
Yates is keen to emphasise the impact that Winter’s story had on people.
“The very first weekend that the first movie came out, we had about ten thousand emails. Most were moms telling us how Winter’s story had inspired their child through a very difficult time in his or her life.”
Subsequently, there have been hundreds of thousands of calls, emails and visits.
“Every day I can walk through the aquarium and find forty or fifty families who are here for a very specific reason – because somebody in their family had a life-changing connection to Winter’s story. It has been amazing to see how little Clearwater Marine Aquarium has become a Mecca for kids around the world, and adults, too, who connect with Winter’s story of overcoming adversity. We work with wounded soldiers here, some of whom have been suicidal, and Winter helps turn their life around.
"It’s just one of those great, inspirational, feel-good stories.
"Not only did we save Winter, but Winter saved Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
"And, she is still helping millions of people.”