The past 24 months have been a period of thrilling highs and devastating lows for Clearwater Marine Aquarium. In late 2020, it unveiled the results of an ambitious, $80 million renovation and expansion project. A year later, the institution was in mourning, stunned by the sudden death of Winter, the beloved bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail who starred in two “Dolphin Tale” feature films, which collectively earned more than $150 million at the box office.
In September, change again came to CMA when it welcomed a new CEO, Joe Handy, who spent 15 years at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, eventually becoming president and COO. He left that post in late 2020 to serve as president and CEO of the National Black M.B.A. Association, but the call of the sea lured him back to the life aquatic.
The Business Observer spoke with Handy, who succeeded Frank Dame as CEO, in late November.
You worked for the Georgia Aquarium from the very beginning, when it was founded in 2005. What were some of your signature accomplishments there?
One is opening the aquarium, because there were times when we were like, “What are we doing? We’re in a landlocked area? Is this going to be successful? Are we going to get the reception from visitation from the community that we had hoped for?” The fact that we welcomed 3.5 million visitors the first year of opening, that was a huge success, and I feel a huge sense of pride in that. The second thing, toward the latter part of my tenure, I hired someone and she said, “I remember coming here as a kid, and because of what I saw, that made me want to be part of this organization.” That gave me a sense of pride that what we were doing was something that was going to last for generations. I'm looking to establish that here at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
What prompted you to return to an aquarium after your time with the National Black M.B.A. Association?
It’s a magical experience when you connect people with animals. I got a call about Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and I had heard about their research and obviously had seen “Dolphin Tale” and knew of their facility. I thought, “This is a jewel of a facility, and here’s an opportunity to highlight the work that that it currently does and look at ways to tell more stories so that people know the impact that CMA is having in the aquatic community.” There’s a lot of energy here.
The death of Winter was a huge blow for CMA and its supporters around the world who loved her and drew inspiration from her story of survival and adaptation. How are you and your team working to turn her loss from a negative to a positive?
Winter’s legacy is built into our DNA. Winter opened the door, gave us exposure and put us on the map. Now it’s our responsibility to take that and build upon it so that people are aware of the ailments that exist in the world’s oceans. How we've pivoted from Winter’s death is to build upon the interest that the world has had in her and her story, and talk about sea turtles, other dolphins, the pollutants in our oceans, red tide and algae blooms — a whole laundry list. So, looking at Winter as opening the door, it’s now our responsibility to go into that room and fill it with education and information for our guests.
How concerned are you about rising inflation and how it will affect people’s spending on discretionary things likes trips to CMA?
The aquarium is a business. We are driven by a mission, but we have to pay attention to what’s going on in the world. The economy definitely has an impact on our visitation. But we’re not just about turnstiles — we're about impact in the aquatic community. Although we might see softness in our attendance, we still have to operate; we still have to take care of our animals. We want to make sure that when people visit us, they understand that we're doing mission-based work, so when we go to the community for fundraising and capital campaigns, they know we’re balancing entertainment with impact.
Brian Hartz is the Business Observer’s Tampa Bay editor. He has worked for the publication since 2017. Brian holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.