CLEARWATER — David Yates, the marketing man who used the story of a tail-less dolphin to save Clearwater Marine Aquarium, is stepping down. Chief Operating Officer Frank Dame will become the new CEO, aquarium officials said.
“Leading CMA has been the joy of my life,” said Yates, whose last day is March 15. “We’ve come a long way since 2006. Working with the amazing CMA team, we’ve been able to save thousands of marine animals while inspiring millions of children and wounded soldiers.”
His departure was a surprise to aquarium executives, whom Yates informed during a leadership meeting New Year’s Eve day, said Kelsey Long, the aquarium’s spokeswoman. The aquarium opened in 1972.
“There was shock, surprise, but then also we understand the thoughtfulness and time it took for him to make that decision, she said. “It is very bold and tough to make a change, especially from what he calls ‘the best job in the world.’”
A big change
Yates told Tampa Bay Newspapers that he hopes to write inspirational books, undertake a speaking tour, and examine producing documentaries, family TV and feature movies that inspire people to see the possible. He also wants to consult for small to medium nonprofits. The message from his first book is about overcoming, that “God uses average Joes and Janes to do big things,” he said.
The decision to leave the aquarium after 14 years came after long discussions with his wife, Joan.
“We’ll be traveling a lot, it’s a big change,” he said. “Joan and I have been doing a lot of talking and praying and considering this for two years.”
Yates isn’t just putting his finger in the air to see if there are any projects. He’s gained international visibility through his years at the aquarium and through co-producing and marketing feature films of its most famous residents: the dolphins Winter and Hope.
“I have a book that’s almost finished and though I can’t name specific plans, I’m in talks with people about documentaries and other projects.”
Yates hopes to build on his association as CEO of the Ironman Triathlon Company — which sees athletes in wheelchairs and running blades compete — and his time watching children with disabilities interact with a prosthetic-enhanced dolphin at the aquarium. He says he has learned much about injury, struggle, rehabilitation, and recovery during more than two decades at both organizations. He left Ironman in 1998 after a decade.
Winter at the aquarium
Yates’ time at the aquarium, which he joined in 2006, will forever be linked to a dolphin named Winter. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin had been found trapped in a crab pot line near Cape Canaveral. Though rescued and transported to the aquarium for rehabilitation, it was sorely sick the day the aquarium board brought Yates on board.
In 2015, Yates told blooloop.com, an industry magazine for roadside attractions, that he hadn’t been impressed by the aquarium. In fact, he hadn’t expected to last 14 years in the job, which he did.
“I had left Iron Man in ’98, and I was now asked by the board of Clearwater Marine Aquarium to do a turnaround, because it had got into very serious trouble, and was ready to close down,” he told the magazine. “I thought … maybe do a turnaround and spend a year here, then pass it on to somebody else. (If) I could not get it up and running again, it certainly wouldn’t help my career. I knew if I didn’t change things quickly, within three or four months it would close down.”
Though Yates knew from his time at Ironman that ticket sales are directly linked to public interest, he initially didn’t see the story that would turn the aquarium around and change his life.
“I started here in early 2006, which is exactly the time that Winter the Dolphin was rescued,” Yates told the magazine. “I knew nothing about her.”
Yates was impressed by Winter, who kept trying to swim long after she lost the flukes at the end of her tail. Though the aquarium’s marine veterinarians and staff did what they could to feed and treat her, without the ability to swim, she was doomed.
“She really should have died many times, and we were advised to euthanize her, but she just kept finding new ways to overcome her difficulties,” Yates said.
Excited for life
“We would literally go home every day thinking she’s not going to be alive when we come back tomorrow, but we’d come back the next day and there she’d be again, swimming around and happy and excited for life.”
Yates had his story; he began spreading the word about a prosthesis the aquarium’s specialists were developing and how the animal was creating hope for its survival. Winter’s story, or “tale,” resulted in an avalanche of letters from parents of wheelchair-bound children and adult paraplegics, amputees, and other physically challenged people. In 2011 and 2014, Warner Brothers produced two movies about Winter and a second dolphin, named Hope, and the floodgates of interest were opened. Both movies were shot partially on location at the aquarium.
Yates credits the dolphins for awakening something in the public.
“Every day I can walk through the aquarium and find 40 or 50 families who are here for a very specific reason – because somebody in their family had a life-changing connection to Winter’s story,” he told Blooloop.com.
Winter is alive and well at the aquarium today.
Story drew attendees
Yates' decision to bet on Winter's recovery not only increased the aquarium's coffers, but helped fill Clearwater hotel rooms and spread tourist dollars throughout the city and Pinellas County.
A 2012 University of South Florida/St. Petersburg’s College of Business survey found that 72.7 percent of aquarium patrons pointed to the "Dolphin Tale" movie as their reason for visits to Clearwater.
The Washington Post reported in 2013 that annual attendance at the aquarium was 100,000 visitors before the "Dolphin Tale" movie. Attendance since the movie was released: 750,000 visitors a year.
The surge in ticket sales and revenue from film rights, T-shirts and other items with the images of Winter and Hope (the star of "Dolphin Tale 2") lifted the 501(c)(3) coffers to the point where the aquarium could undertake a $50 million expansion. Slated for a grand opening in 2020, the improvements will triple dolphin habitat space, expand its marine surgery/veterinary facilities, double its educational space, and fund other improvements at its Island Estates facility.
“It was David Yates’ vision and his ability to tell the story of Winter that allowed us to share her story and grow,” Long said. “And what we’re able to accomplish with the renovation will help us to reach audiences all over the world.”
Dame has reins in hand
“There was no vote by the board that he should leave, rather the board is very sad to see him leave,” she said. “He’s just looking to start a new chapter in his career, to do things he’s hoping to do.”
Long said Yates’ departure comes at a time when the aquarium’s future is bright.
“We’re doing very well,” she said. “One of the reasons he is leaving now is he felt confident, he felt fine that this was the best timing possible for this to happen. We had a very successful holiday season, attendance is up.”
Yates isn’t going far, he said. After March, he’ll be available in the background, consulting for the aquarium as it unveils its new facilities, helping where he’s needed. He said he has not finalized his separation agreement or what his background role at the aquarium will be.
Frank Dame, his replacement, has worked next to Yates for 13 years.
“He’s the reason I’m leaving now, because I didn’t want to leave until the next successor is in place,” Yates said. “Our new building is in place, the team is in place, the campaign in place, and a whole another level of experience is in place. I needed Frank Dame to step into this role, this is now the time. He knows everything we do and what we built and our stakeholders know him. He’s the perfect guy to handle the explosive growth that’s coming.”