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He brought Winter the Dolphin international fame. Now, he's leaving

David Yates helped turn Winter's inspirational story into a beloved movie and transformed Clearwater Marine Aquarium into a tourism destination.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The man who helped catapult Clearwater Marine Aquarium from an obscure wildlife rehab facility to the internationally-recognized home of Winter the dolphin is stepping down.

David Yates says the time is right.

The aquarium is on a successful path, and he wants to work on other projects like books and films, which he hasn’t had time for as the CEO of the aquarium for the past 13 years.

“It’s a bittersweet time for me, because I love it here,” said Yates. “If I’m not careful I’m going to start crying like a little kid.”

When Yates took over as CEO at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2006, it was virtually unknown and nearly broke.

“I think the first week I went home to my wife and said, ‘honey, I think I just became the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,’” he said laughing. “I’m not sure what I’m doing with this.”

What Yates did, over the course of 13 years, is turn the aquarium into a tourism destination.

CMA is internationally recognized thanks to movies Yates helped create, starring the aquarium’s most-famous resident – Winter the dolphin.

Credit: David Yates

“I realize that’s a sort of story that can inspire millions of people around the world,” said Yates. “A dolphin that lost her tail and refused to give up. It lived beyond what anybody thought she would. That’s a great story. I need to tell that.”

With money earned from the films – and the ensuing crowds that now flock to the aquarium each year – a massive expansion is underway.

The time was right, said Yates, to move on.

“I have the leadership in place, the vision in place, the board is in place. The building is going to open-up next year in a huge way and revolutionizing our work. So, if I am going to leave, I’m kind of in my sweet spot right now,” he said.

Yates says one of the most important parts of his decision to leave was his confidence in the person who will be taking his place – the aquarium’s Chief Operating Officer, Frank Dame. Dame has been working with Yates for more than a decade and is said to share his vision for the aquarium’s future.

Credit: David Yates

Yates has a lot to look back on, but his proudest accomplishment, he says, has been fostering the bond between Winter and those who have visited from around the world. Injured children and wounded soldiers are among those who have been inspired by the real dolphin’s tale.

“They connected to Winter’s overcoming story, and literally changed their life,” said Yates.

“That never gets old. That’s probably the number one thing I’m proud of.”

Although stepping down, Yates says he’s not stepping away from his mission at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Leaving, he says, will give him time to work on a number of projects like films, books and a television show, which could benefit the aquarium by attracting fans for decades to come.

“Nothing’s done until it’s done, but if we could have an animated show that’s about our work, sort of a SpongeBob-type show based on real life, there’s never been an animated show based on real life, that would be totally unique. That’s the first concept I’m working on right now,” said Yates.

Yates plans to stay on for a few more months, overseeing the completion of the aquarium’s $80 million expansion. There will be tanks for nine more dolphins, and a brand-new facility to rehab manatees.

Credit: David Yates

He won’t be there every day, but he’ll be around, he says. And he's as confident as ever in what’s to come.

“The reason I can leave today and be at peace is because I know it’s coming,” said Yates. 

“The greatest days are not behind us, as good as those were. Our greatest days are still ahead of us.”

Credit: David Yates

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