01 02 03 Life, Unconditionally: Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release

In an effort to check another item off my ever-growing Life List, in early March I made a last minute decision to take a trip to Clearwater, Florida.  Why this particular city in Florida, you ask?  Well, some of you might remember a little story about a dolphin who lost their tail.  Some of you might also remember my intense love of dolphins.  I really hope I don't have to spell it out here.

I had not been back from Portland for very long, but that long weekend had reignited my need for random adventures.  So when I had two days off in a row from my job, I made the quick decision to book a hotel room in Clearwater so I could visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium the next day.  Lucky for me, one of my friends also had some time off work so she volunteered to join!  As soon as she got off work, we set out on our mini-adventure.

That night we spent most of our time walking around Clearwater Beach before grabbing dinner at a pizza place.  Initially, seeing the aquarium was my only reason for going, but I'm glad we took the time to explore the beach nightlife - it was great people-watching.

The next morning we got up bright and early, because I'm an eager nerd and wanted to get to the aquarium before it opened so I could be one of the first ones inside.  It wasn't the worst thing to arrive early, because they have a pretty cool setup outside the aquarium.  There is a video display with one of the actors from A Dolphin Tale narrating some background of the place.  Another clever feature was a little snack stand, because snacks.  

I was literally the first person through the doors once they opened.  You enter through the gift shop and there are a couple of different directions to go from there.  Katie and I decided to go left and found an open pool with sting-rays who have been de-stung.  I was a brave soul and touched one.  Katie was a normal human-being and touched a couple.  There were a couple of other petting stations on the ground floor, as well as windows into the large pools where you could see the larger animals swimming around.  Going upstairs takes you to the top of the pools, where you can see a couple sharks, many sea turtles, some otters, and of course, the dolphins!

I was BEYOND excited to see the dolphins Winter and Hope.  Winter is the dolphin who lost her tail and Hope was rescued as a baby.  As it turns out, Hope is very social, but Winter is definitely more shy.  They also have a third dolphin in another pool, named Nicholas.  Nicholas has third-degree sunburn which means he is unable to go back out into the wild.  All three stories are heartbreaking, but at least they have each other, and sometimes others for varying lengths of time.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium's motto is "Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release", but there are some animals who cannot be safely released back into the wild.  Many of the animals that will be able to be released are not in areas for the guests to see.  They do this to limit human contact and dependence, so that the animals will retain their basic instincts.  When they feed the sea turtles who can be returned after some rehab, the volunteers and employees cover up part of their individual pools and hide while throwing the food in to them.  How do I know this?  Well, Katie and I did the Behind-the-Scenes tour, so we got the skinny on everything happening in the aquarium.  It was truly fascinating.

After the tour, Katie and I went back down to the first level and found a sea turtle area that we hadn't noticed before.  You can see the turtles through windows at eye level.  The best part?  For the most part we had the area to ourselves so one turtle kept hovering near us and held his flipper out.  We're best friends now.  His name is Bailey and he has a buoyancy deficiency, so he can't go to the bottom of the pool.  He has to work hard to stay fully submerged in the water.

But wait, there's more!  The aquarium also has a secondary location which you can reach by trolley or boat.  Katie and I opted for the boat.  As it turns out, the second building is dedicated more to the Dolphin Tale movies and sets, although they also have a couple of petting stations and some interactive activities.  It was worth seeing, but if I go back to the aquarium, I'll probably skip that part.  The boat ride alone is worth it, though.

Overall, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was incredible!  I enjoyed every second of it - finally seeing Winter, making friends with some sea turtles, and learning about the rescue process.  I hope to go back again, mainly because I don't think I could ever get enough of those amazing animals.

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