CLEARWATER - The film "Dolphin Tale" told the story of Winter, the injured bottlenose dolphin now a permanent resident of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The publicity from the movie tripled attendance at the aquarium, prompting an ambitious expansion.
A press event announcing the details of that expansion was timed with the release of "Dolphin Tale 2" later in September.
The initial plan envisioned spending up to $160 million and included stadium seating that some assumed would be used for dolphin performances. But now the budget is roughly half that and the stadium seating is gone.
"I think the Clearwater Aquarium is making a very smart business decision in terms of not supporting or putting on any shows with the animals," said PETA spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt.
PETA and other animal rights activists applaud the decision, pointing to the documentary "Blackfish" that detailed alleged abuses in the capture and treatment of orca whales by Seaworld. Since the film's release last year, Seaworld's stock and attendance are down or flat. The backlash was even felt in Tampa when The Beach Boys, Pat Benatar and Neil Girardi canceled concerts at Busch Gardens because of the park's ownership connection to Seaworld
Clearwater Marine Aquarium's CEO David Yates said the normal therapy and exercise of their captive dolphins, Winter and Hope, will be on display but denies that Seaworld-style shows were never part of the plan.
"It's 100 percent mission-centric about what we do. It's not an entertainment-centric facility. It's fun, but educational," said Yates.
Not having to build a stadium sharply lowered the cost of the facility planned for a 2017 opening. And avoiding the controversy of captive animal performances could earn the Clearwater Marine Aquarium valuable goodwill from the public for years to come.
"Clearwater is moving in the right direction by focusing solely on rescue and rehab from here on out," Rajt said.
Meanwhile, Seaworld issued a statement in December saying it no longer captured wild orcas and spends millions on the care and treatment of their animals.