Division A: Category 3 (Institutional)
Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Efforts to Save Sea Turtles Garner Major Public Support

Research/Situation Analysis: Founded in 1972, Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is a working marine life animal hospital. Our mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick or injured marine life. As a non-profit, getting information out to the public through the news media, website and e-mails is extremely important, as it results in increased attendance and donations. CMA has 30 staff members and 600 volunteers who work hard to teach people how to protect our marine life environment. The CMA stranding team is on call 24/7 to respond to calls of sick or injured marine animals. Six species of sea turtles are endangered and one is threatened, which makes their care and safety critical. Since 2002, staff members have rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 200 sea turtles. Caring for these animals is extremely expensive. Therefore, when Florida experienced record-low cold temperatures in January 2010 and thousands of sea turtles across the state washed up with “cold stun,” this provided a great opportunity for CMA to educate the public about our mission. “Cold stun” happens to sea turtles when the temperature of the water drops below their normal body temperature and they go into shock. More than 5,000 sea turtles were impacted by this and would have died had they not been cared for by facilities all over Florida. CMA was one of those facilities. Our target audience was everyone who follows our work (including media outlets, members, Web and social media followers, etc.).

Objectives:  Our objectives were to 1) provide accurate and updated information to the media, in an effort to educate the public about CMA’s mission, and to encourage people to donate a total of $1,000 to our “Emergency Sea Turtle Fund” to help us care for the sick sea turtles 2) find a local business that would allow us to borrow water heaters to keep the rescued sea turtles warm (since we didn’t have any heated turtle pools) and  3) increase public awareness of CMA by garnering 10 media stories on the “cold stun” event.

As the number of turtles washing up across Florida began to rise and we began rescuing and caring for more and more sea turtles, we decided ask the public for funding assistance. We sent an e-mail to our members (attachment 1) with information about launching an Emergency Sea Turtle Fund. We also put information about the Fund on our website and made it easy for people to donate to the cause (attachments 2-3). In addition, we included the need for funding in our media talking points and used our social networking sites (including Twitter, Facebook and MySpace) to spread the word about our emergency fund. We knew we had to do something to keep the sea turtles warm during their stay at CMA, since the cold weather was going to last for several days. We began researching area businesses that might be willing to donate water heaters. We also knew we needed the news media to help us get the word out about our need for money and our efforts to help the sea turtles. Media impressions are very important since we are a small non-profit. An initial press release was distributed January 7 (attachment 4). This resulted in 20 television, and several print and web media stories (attachments 5-12). Over the next month, we rescued and received about 120 sea turtles and continued to update the media regularly through e-mails, phone calls and media advisories, which resulted in many more stories (attachments 13-32). Due to public interest, we continued updating the media when new turtles arrived. The most rewarding part of this effort came when we were able to release some of the animals. This provided the perfect opportunity for the public to see our mission and work come full circle as we were able to rescue, rehabilitate and release the rehabilitated sea turtles. We invited CMA friends, donors and members to help us release 46 sea turtles that were ready to go back home. Participants stood in an assembly line to release them. CMA supporters truly enjoyed being part of this historic occasion. We distributed a press release (attachment 33) and again, the coverage was amazing (attachments 34- 41). We later released a Loggerhead on Clearwater Beach (attachment 42), which resulted in more stories (attachments 43-44).  We had steady media coverage for three weeks solid—a CMA record. Our work during the “cold stun” event allowed us to showcase our facility and mission in a way that had never been possible before.

Evaluation:  With regard to our original objectives: 1) Through information being disseminated in the news media and on our website, our “Emergency Sea Turtle Fund” raised $7,300. This far exceeded our original goal of $1,000. 2) After hearing of our need, a local pool company named Aquacal loaned CMA $45,000 worth of heaters to help keep the turtles warm. The equipment also allowed us to heat our dolphin pools. 3) After sending out the original news release, we received more than 26 stories in television, print and online media outlets. This far exceeded our original goal of 10 media placements on the initial announcement.  As additional turtles came in, due to interest from the public and the media, additional advisories were distributed and posted on our Web site. In March, The Weather Channel even did a story on a release of 12 rehabilitated cold-stunned turtles. We garnered a total of 176 media stories with 7 million impressions and a publicity value of $196,615from the entire “cold stun” event (attachment 45).

Budget: There was no budget for this effort. Our website and all web pages are managed internally, so web efforts promoting our efforts and the Emergency Sea Turtle Fund didn’t cost anything. The director of media relations spent about $1000 worth of her time gathering and distributing new information.