Orlando has been at the centre of the theme park wars over who’s the biggest, flashiest and the most expensive for years.

But a two-hour drive from Orlando to Clearwater will take you out of extravagance and into authenticity when you visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). It’s a non-profit, working animal rescue centre that rescues, rehabilitates and releases once-injured or sick marine animals.

It’s also the home of Winter, the movie-star dolphin without a tail. As a baby, Winter was sent to the CMA for rehabilitation, after being trapped in a crab line. Unfortunately, she lost her tail as a result of the injuries, but her spirit and determination to swim with a specially made prosthetic tail inspired the movie A Dolphin Tale. Winter’s story has helped the CMA spread its message about environmental issues affecting sea animals.

“We try to impress upon people the impact they have when they’re out in the water,” says Cammelle Zodrow, Winter’s trainer. The rising popularity of dolphin encounters means humans need to be mindful of their interactions, she says. Swimming with mammals habituates them to humans, so you’re best off interacting with marine mammals at an aquarium where the animal has been trained to meet people.

“So long as it’s done in a safe, controlled environment, it saves people from doing something dangerous,” Zodrow says.

Though it seems harmless, interacting with wild animals (even marina seals) puts them at great risk. “Be wary of people who bring animals to you,” advises Zodrow. “Doing so disrupts the animal’s natural behaviour and jeopardizes their survival.”

The CMA doesn’t encourage wild dolphin encounters, but you can work side by side with a trainer during a Dolphin Encounter (US$75) and learn about the creature’s anatomy and intelligence. By interacting this way, you’re also supporting more rehabilitation and rescue, as all money generated goes right back into the facility.

Ask Before You Swim

Before plunging into an oceanic wildlife encounter, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How safe is it for me? Would I feel comfortable allowing my kids to do this?
  • How safe is it for the animal? Does this activity cultivate begging behaviour?
  • How is the trainer interacting with the animal? Are the animals treated respectfully?
  • Are they feeding the animals off the boat?