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Thar she blows! Whales sighted at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Bill DeYoung

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This breaching, life-sized inflatable humpback whale greets vistors to the "Whales: Living With Giants" exhibit at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Photos by Bill DeYoung

The sperm whale is a toothed whale, unlike the others in the exhibit, which consume tiny sea creatures strained trough the baleen in their mouths.

Here there be giants.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a facility dedicated to rescue and rehabilitation of marine creatures in distress, has always placed a high value on education, and the essential role it plays in the conservation of the world’s oceans and its inhabitants.

To that end, a new exhibit brings visitors up close and personal with some of the largest animals on earth – the great whales. In the third floor gallery they’ll encounter a humpback whale (35 feet) in full breach, a sperm whale (50 feet), a right whale (45 feet) and her 20-foot calf, and the Rice’s whale, only recently declared to be a separate species (40 feet).

Unlike Winter the bottlenose dolphin and the other marine mammals that reside here year-round because their injuries rendered them non-releasable, these cetaceans are not alive, swimming or eating – they’re inflatable. But they’re life-sized and physiologically accurate, from snout to tail.

Whale songs – eerie and somehow sad – are piped in through the sound system.

Whales: Living With Giants also includes displays of real whale skeletons, examples of baleen – the sieve-like material that some whales use to filter their food from salt water, and a to-scale model of the heart of a blue whale, the largest creature that ever lived. A blue’s heart is around four feet tall and weighs 400 pounds.

A full-sized blue whale, even an inflated one, would stretch from one end of the massive gallery to the other.

Perhaps most impressive is a 360-degree virtual reality experience, which transports visitors to the South Seas for a deep-water dive with a mother humpback and her calf. The chairs are motorized and dip up, down, back and forth as the “seaplane” and the “dive boat” motor in search of their quarry.

It’s like a real whale encounter, without getting wet.

Dr. James “Buddy” Powell with the Rice’s whale. This species lives in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and is extremely endangered – there are thought to be fewer than 100 remaining.

Creating a sense of awe in young people, and an appreciation for these massive, graceful creatures, is part of the CMA plan.

Unlike, say, New England, where humpbacks and other species venture relatively close to the coast to feed, this part of Florida doesn’t have any whale-watching excursion boats because the Gulf of Mexico is simply too shallow. Up to a point.

“All the species that you see in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, we have right here in the Gulf of Mexico,” explains Dr. James “Buddy” Powell, Vice President of Research and Conservation for the facility. “There was a humpback sighted right off of Clearwater Beach two weeks ago.”

Powell, a veteran Florida biologist whose work with manatees, sea turtles, dolphins and whales goes back decades, played a crucial role in setting up Living With Giants.

“Mainly,” he continues, “they’re further offshore because our coastal shelf here is so shallow. If you go out about 100 miles, to the Middle Grounds, there’s actually a drop-off. And that whole area is just full of whales. It’s just that most people don’t know about it.

“That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do here – using this as an opportunity to educate people to the fact that the Gulf of Mexico is really important when it comes to cetaceans.

“The other thing is, the Gulf of Mexico’s not that big. So when we talk about things that impact it, like oil spills, or nutrients and pollution that’s coming down the Mississippi and other rivers, they impact a lot of things because it’s a fairly refined area.”

There are thought to be fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales left in the word. Visible at left is the full-sized replica of a blue whale’s heart.

The exhibit’s life-sized right whale, with calf, is particularly impressive. And because there are fewer than 400 of the animals remaining – due to excessive whaling in the old days, and ship strikes and entanglement in discarded nets and fishing line in the present day – their study and conservation are crucial to groups like the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, which was formed in 2020 when CMA merged with Powell’s Sea to Shore Alliance.

“Clearwater Marine Aquarium does whale surveys now,” Powell explains. “And the only known calving area for the North Atlantic Right Whale is off the east coast of Florida, and off the coast of Georgia. Most people don’t know that either – so we’re using this as an opportunity to educate people, and also to let them know about the work CMA is doing.”

Whales: Living With Giants will remain at the CMA through Aug. 31; the entire experience is included with venue admission. In the months ahead, it will be augmented with a documentary film, guest speakers and additional educational material.

“Obviously,” says Powell, “with an exhibit like this, there’s a ‘wow’ factor. It gets people excited. But when they come in thinking it’s cool and exciting, we want them to leave changed. Because that means they’re more likely to do something about trying to save the whales, or whatever it might be environmentally.

“There are very few right whales and Rice’s whales left. And as a scientist, I don’t want to be just documenting their decline. The public awareness can help create the political will to do something to try and save species and habitat.”

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