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Tail of Survival at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Winter the dolphin
Trainer Abby Stone works with Winter while volunteer Nicole Antaya holds a prop designed to look like a camera to help the dolphin get used to equipment associated with a film crew. [Photo: Jim Damaske / St. Petersburg Times]

When David Yates was hired as CEO in 2006, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was in danger of shutting down. Attendance and donations were declining, and there were worries about meeting payroll. Yates, who had helped revive the Ironman triathlon brand when he was president of World Triathlon Corp., looked around for something to promote.

"I knew that people would love us if they could just find out about what we do," Yates says. "We actually rescue marine life. It's very appealing, but we had to find a way to tell our story."

David Yates
David Yates

Then, he learned about Winter. The baby dolphin, who was rescued from a crab trap off the coast of Brevard County in December 2005, had lost her tail and was rehabbing at the aquarium. When she arrived just two months before Yates did, her prognosis was bleaker than the aquarium's. Yates, calling on the global media contacts he made during his Ironman days, worked to turn Winter's improbable survival story into national news.

Later, when the dolphin was fitted with a prosthetic tail, the story went global. A book deal with Scholastic followed, and a feature film called "Dolphin Tale," starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, was filmed at the aquarium last year. Annual attendance, meanwhile, went from 80,000 five years ago to more than 200,000 in 2010, despite the economic downturn and tourism losses from last year's oil spill. In June, the aquarium started work on a $12-million expansion.

The aquarium is undergoing a $12-million expansion.

Yates says the challenge now is dealing with the expected attendance boost to follow the release of "Dolphin Tale" next month. "Attendance could go up anywhere from five- to 10-fold," he says. "If we get 10,000 people to show up on a day, it's going to create a challenge. We literally have a positive tsunami coming our way. Our job is to be ready for it. Our job is to make sure we don't get overrun."