CLEARWATER — Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO Frank Dame announced on Oct. 30 he will step down Nov. 5 to focus on his ongoing treatment for cancer.
Dame, 74, was diagnosed in January 2020 with myelodysplasia syndromes, a group of rare blood disorders, and has been undergoing chemotherapy. He said he is now pursuing a bone marrow transplant, a process that will require more of his energy.
James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium research institute, will serve as interim CEO while the nonprofit conducts a nationwide search for a new leader. Dame said he will work closely with the aquarium in the meantime as a chairman emeritus and ambassador to ensure a smooth transition.
“This is a new challenge for me,” Dame said. “I just want to make sure CMA has a great future, and I think it does.”
Dame served as the aquarium’s chief operating officer for 11 years before taking over as CEO in March 2020. He succeeded former CEO David Yates, who helped bring the aquarium international fame with two Hollywood films about their dolphins and a mission for healing and housing marine life.
The aquarium closed for two months last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Dame said 2021 has been “the best financial year ever.”
The nonprofit is near completion of an $80 million expansion at its facility on Island Estates, which includes new dolphin habitat with five connecting pools and nine viewing windows, 197,500 square feet of new guest space, and expanded education and hospital facilities.
“Frank has truly poured his heart and soul into CMA over the past 15 years and we wish him and his family the very best as he addresses his health challenges,” board chair Paul Auslander said in a statement. “He is leaving CMA at its strongest financial condition in our history. Now we will focus on searching for a worthy successor who, with this as a foundation, can lead the aquarium into the future.”
Dame said he is most proud of new programs that have highlighted the aquarium’s focus on research, conservation and education.
In 2019, the aquarium opened an emergency medical center in Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park to provide critical care to marine mammals that become beached or stranded in shallow waters of the gulf. That facility will soon accommodate manatees, a new species for the aquarium.
On Sept. 7, the aquarium announced plans for an exhibit called Manatee Springs to care for sick and injured sea cows at a time when their deaths in Florida have hit record numbers.
The expansion has been facilitated by Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s 2019 merger with Sea to Shore Alliance, a conservation group co-founded by Powell, who advanced research on manatees, sea turtles and North Atlantic right whales.
When his cancer stopped responding to chemotherapy treatment about a month ago, Dame said he formed an office of the president and put Powell in charge. He named Lisa Oliver, vice president of conservation education, as chief operating officer and promoted vice president of marketing Trisha Blake to chief marketing officer.
“I set up this reorganization to ensure continuity of leadership if something did happen to me,” Dame said.
A low point came earlier this year when the aquarium board of directors hired a law firm to conduct an internal investigation after visiting workers changed clothes in a room where there had been a security camera. In August, the investigation concluded that the cameras in the room “accidentally and unintentionally” captured the women changing without their knowledge, Auslander said at the time.
Vice president of operations and zoological care Mike Hurst, who Auslander said showed the video to Dame to ask him what to do, resigned on July 31 amid the investigation. Auslander said Dame ensured the footage was deleted but should have investigated how the accident occurred. The December incident was not brought to the board’s attention until June, when a former employee reported it.