CLEARWATER — When Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates saw an architect's initial design for the facility's massive expansion project, he told them to start all over.
Renderings of bleachers in front of the dolphin pools gave the wrong impression. The overall look was too theme-park.
Because here in 2017, as Sea World continues to hemorrhage from declining revenue and attendance, after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stopped touring amid animal welfare concerns, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is leaning in, investing $66 million in an expansion to rehabilitate more animals and host more visitors.
Attitudes on animals in captivity has changed since CMA opened in 1979 in a converted water treatment facility on Island Estates, between Clearwater Beach and downtown. So much so that CMA is considering a name change to shake the word "aquarium" and the stigma it has come to carry. Originally the Clearwater Marine Science Center, it added the aquarium in 1995 to let people know it was open to the public, Yates said.
Because of changing dynamics, public buy-in will be key for CMA's growth. On Thursday, the City Council will decide whether to give $5 million to the aquarium, long touted as the city's main attraction behind beach tourism.
"We are not a traditional aquarium and never will be," Yates said, noting CMA does not buy, breed or sell animals. "Animals in captivity for entertainment is really trending away. But our world is trending up, because that's what people really want to see. We're about rescue, rehabilitation and education."
The 17 resident dolphins, otters, pelicans and sea turtles at CMA cannot survive in the wild. But two have elevated the aquarium more than any others.
CMA found international fame with the 2011 Dolphin Tale movie about Winter, a dolphin given a prosthetic tail at the aquarium after being entangled in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral. Attendance shot up four-fold from 2010 numbers to 740,000 in 2012.
Dolphin Tale 2 in 2014 about Hope, rescued after trying to nurse off her dead mother, brought another surge with visitors reaching 800,000 in 2015.
Yates said ticket sales are essential to fund rescue and rehabilitation work. Over the past two years, staff deployed out to 794 rescue cases. But with a cramped facility, his staff has to literally turn animals away.
"Right now, we can't bring in a dolphin for rehab because we don't have the space," he said.
The expansion calls for five new dolphin pools, a 376-space garage and 93,000 square feet of additional guest space.
Staff will have room to treat about 45 rehabilitation cases at once, double what it can do now. With larger pools, they could take in nine more resident dolphins, 25 more turtles and create habitat for three manatees, which it didn't house before.
The aquarium is also planning a private medical facility in Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to treat injured and stranded animals before releasing them.
"This is just letting us get better at what we do," Yates said. "We're an animal hospital. Nothing will change that."
One year before CMA was featured in its second film, the Blackfish documentary spurred an international reckoning about marine captivity. With the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale at Sea World that killed three people during its life, it explained with scientific detail the psychological and physical torture captivity can be.
It hit the public consciousness like a brick, and Sea World stock price dropped 60 percent within a year. It ended its orca shows and breeding program in 2016.
But smaller aquariums that tout conservation without a large entertainment focus have been steadier. Attendance at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa increased every year between 2013 and 2016, when it hit 826,315.
"There is a higher level of interest and concern," said senior vice president Margo McKnight. "Bringing the underwater world to people who would never see it any other way is hugely important for people understanding it and caring for it and making sure the wild is healthy."
Some advocates though say any interaction between wild animals in captivity and the public amounts to exploitation, underscoring a need to phase out zoos and aquariums. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that has worked internationally against captivity, said rehab efforts are important. But combining them with public interaction defeats the purpose.
"It's encouraging people to go to these facilities for amusement," he said. "Swimming around in pools is not natural."
The Clearwater aquarium plans to break ground on the two-year project Dec. 1, and Yates estimated the new facility could bring in 825,000 visitors annually over the next 10 years. Funding is nearly completed — Pinellas County awarded $26 million in August; and aquarium reserves, a state grant, and financing is budgeted to cover about $27 million.
The rest is slated to come from fundraising, private donors and its long relationship with the city.
Mayor George Cretekos had reservations about the city's contribution, saying he objected to taking the money from reserves.
But City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said the grant is a way to support a key player in the local tourism industry.
"This is an investment in a community asset very similar to Ruth Eckerd Hall," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.