Clearwater Marine Aquarium is about to debut its most immersive whale exhibit ever — minus the whales

Guests will find multimedia exhibits, a virtual reality experience, a theater where whale-related films will be screened, a walk-through life-size whale gallery and more.

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Clearwater Marine Aquarium is about to debut its most immersive whale exhibit ever — minus the whales

With a recent expansion that quintupled the amount of public space, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is going big with its newest exhibit. Whales: Living With Giants stretches across 20,000 square feet, an area that could hold more than 12 average American homes. In it, guests will find multimedia exhibits, a virtual reality experience, a theater where whale-related films will be screened, a walk-through life-size whale gallery and more.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is best known for its resident rescue dolphins, Winter and Hope, but the Gulf Coast research and rescue facility has also done groundbreaking research into Gulf of Mexico whales. That research led to discovering a brand-new whale species, the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's whale (Rice's whale) species. It’s believed that fewer than 100 of the extremely vulnerable whales remain, making them one of the most endangered whales on the planet.

"This exhibit brings our guests into an undersea experience where they come eye to eye with a wide variety of whale species found in Florida waters," said Dr. James "Buddy" Powell, executive director of CMA's Research Institute. "It's especially timely with the recent groundbreaking discovery of an entirely new whale species not far from CMA off the Florida gulf coast.

"Powell continued, "The discovery of the Rice's whale, previously thought to be a type of Bryde's whale, and the fact that it is already considered endangered, is a stark reminder of how much we still have to learn from these beautiful creatures and the impact they have on our shared environment."

One thing missing from the exhibit is the whales themselves. Even with the massive new expansion, the aquarium, obviously, doesn’t have the space for actual living whales. Instead, visitors will get an up-close experience with the gentle giants via the latest technology, allowing them to learn about whales around the world.

Clearwater is just the latest aquarium to embrace technology to enhance its storytelling. This means guests can learn about animals that previously were not included at aquariums and zoos. The VR experience at the aquarium is similar those offered at the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. Both facilities have partnered with virtual reality entertainment group Immotion, known for its animal-focused live-action VR films.

As guests become more demanding in their expectations of out-of-home entertainment while also pushing for higher-quality animal care facilities, many animal attractions have evolved to ensure that such institutions' education storytelling goals are not lost. This means fewer live exhibits and more tech-based experiences. Orlando-based Falcon’s Creative Group has led this initiative, first with attractions like Turtle Trek at SeaWorld Orlando and more recently with its design work for the groundbreaking National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey attraction, which features no live animals or water throughout its aquarium-like experience.

Few have gone to the extremes of Ocean Odyssey, but more aquariums are looking at narrative-first, tech-driven experiences that feature fewer live animals. In Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, the $53 million Pacific Visions expansion stretches across two floors and fills 29,000 square feet but features just three small live tanks. The primary focus is a massive multi-level theater, interactive exhibits, and projection mapping-based displays.

Clearwater’s new exhibit doesn’t go this far, in part because of its temporary nature. One of the primary focuses of the Tampa Bay area aquarium’s expansion was its animal residents, most of which are rescues that cannot be released. Many of the aquarium's animal habitats have been enlarged, including tripling the size of the dolphin habitat.

Like many aquariums, Clearwater is working to find the balance between live animal exhibits and technology-based attractions. It’s clear the aquarium is aware of the changing demands of guests. In the marketing material for the new exhibit, Clearwater Marine Aquarium promises that this will be the “most immersive exhibit” in the aquarium’s history.Whales: Living With Giants runs from March 13 through Aug. 31, 2021. Masks are required for all guests 5 years and older. Pre-purchasing tickets is encouraged due to decreased capacity for social distancing. Timed entry admission tickets can be purchased on the aquarium’s website.

This article first appeared at our sister publication Orlando Weekly

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