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Clearwater Marine Aquarium Breaks Ground on $12 Million Expansion

Winter the dolphin, Clearwater's own marine miracle, will soon have a much bigger stage to inspire her audience. Among other things, the facility will boast stadium seating overlooking its 1.4 million gallon tank.

The broke ground Friday morning on a $12 million project to expand its facilities.

The project adds stadium style-seating to the dolphin pool and will double the sea turtle rehabilitation facilities as well as increase other visitor accommodations and marine life recovery programs.

The project is set to be completed late this year or early 2012.

Once it is finished, guests will be able to watch demonstrations by Winter and her friends from stadium seating that could rival Sea World.

“We expect that after this movie we will be even more renowned than we already are,” said Krista Rosado, spokeswoman for the aquarium.

The quick production is because thousands of new visitors are expected after the movie Dolphin Tale premieres in September. The movie stars Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman. It is based on the life and recovery of Winter.

Winter has been cared for by aquarium staff since her rescue Dec. 10, 2005.  She was discovered caught in a crab trap just off the coast of New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County. Rescuers brought her to Clearwater where she received a prosthetic tail. It has been her home ever since.    

Winter isn’t the only animal to benefit from the aquarium expansion. The facility  also will include a new surgical room for other injured wild animals. It can also be used for continuing care.

“We are doubling the size of the sea turtle rehab,” Rosado said. “And we are tripling space for resident dolphins.”

This will make room for some friends for Winter. She has inspired countless people with . On its website, visitors to the aquarium offer testimony about visiting Winter and other rescued marine life. Young and old, people suffering from mental or physical weaknesses find inspiration in Winter’s story of survival.

Luke Conrad, 6, from Ohio, had the opportunity to visit the aquarium and hold one of Winter’s prosthetics that was made by the same company that makes his foot braces.

“For Luke to see an animal with a brace, it has made him realize it is okay to be different,” the testimonial said about Luke’s experience.

In 1972, passionate volunteers established the Clearwater Marine Science Center in a former waste water treatment plant. The hope was to bring a much needed marine biology education center to the area. Over the years the center continued to expand and in the 1990’s the name was changed to reflect the center’s growing involvement with the city.

The facility is already getting worldwide recognition for Winter’s miraculous recovery. Her story continues to be one of inspiration to those who suffer disabilities.

In addition to laying the background for a major motion picture, there is already a documentary about Winter, a Scholastic children’s book and even a Nintendo DS game. 

Each year the aquarium’s traffic expands by about 30 percent. The release of Dolphin Tale is expected to give that rise an even bigger boost. The attendance expection makes this expansion, one that includes additional parking for guests, an absolute necessity.

While funding for the project is secured by bonds, the aquarium still needs to raise $12 million. A paver fundraising effort is underway. The brick will be placed along “Winter’s Path," a walkway that will hold thousands of individual stones. They can be purchased starting at $100.

“With affordable pavers available it is possible for anyone to take an important part in this project,” Rosado said.

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