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Clearwater aquarium’s $32M expansion includes sea lion, penguin exhibits

Work on several new exhibits and other major upgrades will begin shortly after construction of a manatee rehab center finishes in the spring and a fundraising drive kicks off.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 4:30 p.m. February 6, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The penguin exhibit is one of several new attractions the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will build as part of a $32 million expansion.
The penguin exhibit is one of several new attractions the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will build as part of a $32 million expansion.
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The Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced a $32 million expansion Tuesday that will include building new exhibits, bringing new animals — among them sea lions and penguins — and starting work on a center in Central America.

The expansion is set to begin soon after the completion of the facility’s new Manatee Rehabilitation Center in the spring. To pay for the project, the aquarium also launched a fundraising campaign Tuesday that will include a gala in March.

Anthony Rivera, CMA’s chief operating officer, says the expansion both allows it to “extend our footprint in conservation to address species that need our help” and to update part of the 51-year-old aquarium’s original building that is in “dire need of repair.”

The manatee rehab center is under construction in the older section of the facility.

“And that's where we are today, we are working on a part of the aquarium that is in need of” work, Rivera says. “That has forced our hand to have to do something either way. So, instead of returning it to what it was, we're returning it to something bigger for the future.”

The aquarium plans to bring in sea lions, sharks, penguins, albino alligators and additional dolphins. It also plans to expand its existing animal hospital and to break ground during summer on the Belize Marine Rescue and Educational Center.

(For 20 years the CMA Research Institute has rescued and released manatees in Belize, which the aquarium says has the highest known density of Antillean manatees in the world.)

As part of the bringing in the new animals, the aquarium will build sea lion, shark and penguin exhibits as well as a jellyfish exhibit that visitors will see as they walk in. CMA also will add new immersive attractions.

The sea lion exhibit will be the first to get built with work planned to begin shortly after the manatee center is finished.

Construction of the new exhibits will be staggered with the hope that the entire project will be done in five to six years.

However long it takes, it will bring big changes to an aquarium that has grown in the past 20 years in ways people who visited in the 1970s and 1980s could never have imagined it. That growth was driven by the popularity of the 2011 film "Dolphin Tale" about a bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail. A sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2," came out in 2014. 

Winter died Nov. 11, 2021. She is still talked about at CMA, and officials say what you see today would not have been possible without her.

The movie and the story behind it drew millions and led to an $80 million renovation and expansion announced in 2020.

In turn, the growth has helped the aquarium work on its fundamental mission.

“We understand that you need to have both,” says Rivera. “I call it edutainment. We educate and we entertain at the same time.

“Conservation and research are at the core of who we are, that will never change. We have our scientists out there doing the work, the conservation work. But we also understand in order to support those missions we need to drive people to the aquarium, entertain them. So, part of our (process) is we try to tie any entertainment to our mission to educate people.”

CMA is not the only local aquarium that is growing.

Across the bay in Sarasota, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is building the $132 million, 110,000-square foot Mote Science Education Aquarium next to Nathan Benderson Park. 



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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