WINTER THE TAILLESS DOLPHIN
Winter has inspired millions of people of all ages across the world.
"Winter" is our most famous dolphin. You may have seen her featured on the NBC Today Show, CNN, BBC, or hundreds of newspapers around the world. Winter was one of the most difficult strandings we have had at CMA. Her story is a bittersweet realization of the dangers these animals face as a result of human activity in the wild.
On December 10, 2005, Winter was rescued from Mosquito Lagoon (part of the Indian River lagoon system) on the East Coast of Florida. A local fisherman noticed that the buoy, attached to a crab trap, was moving against the current. Upon inspection, he found an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf entangled within the ropes of the crab trap. It is unclear as to how she originally became entangled, but young dolphins tend to be very curious and interact with objects in their environment. We believe that she was entangled for an extended period of time because she was extremely malnourished and dehydrated. Hubbs Sea World Research Institute and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute were the first to respond to her case. It was estimated that she was about 2-3 months old. When personnel arrived on the scene they found that the ropes had been entwined around her entire body. They immediately cut the ropes and removed them, however it was clear that she had extensive injuries to her peduncle and flukes. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was then contacted to give Winter a permanent home and longterm care for her condition.
Upon arrival to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium she was in critical condition. The ropes of the crab trap had created several deep lacerations around her mouth, body, and peduncle. Her flukes were still attached when she arrived, but they were in poor condition. Throughout her rehabilitation process it became evident that her flukes would not make a full recovery. Since the ropes of the crab trap had been entwined so tightly around the base of her peduncle, her flukes did not receive adequate blood circulation prior to her rescue. The tissue in her flukes had begun to die and slowly piece-by-piece the tissue sloughed off. She also lost three vertebrae, which portions had to be amputated to prevent infection.
In the beginning Winter's future looked very grim, but day-by-day she began to improve. Initially we were unsure how we would teach a dolphin without flukes to swim, but it turned out we did not need to. She taught herself to swim in a new method utilizing her lateral (side) muscles. In another words she swims side to side like a shark or fish. It became quickly apparent that this new method of swimming was causing physical changes to her body. Dolphins are designed to swim up and down using primarily their dorsal and ventral muscles. However, Winter relies on the primary use of her lateral muscles to propel herself and since she is constantly using them they are becoming overdeveloped. These overdeveloped muscles are causing her spine to curve underneath her, which is a condition known as scoliosis. We cannot prevent scoliosis from occurring seeing that this is the way she swims, but we can slow down the progression by providing physical therapy. Part of Winter's physical therapy program is using a prosthetic tail, which utilizes the dorsal and ventral muscles. The tail was a collaborative effort made possible by our marine mammal staff and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. Together we came up with a prototype to see if it would work and it did! We have made several tails since for Winter, each one an improvement on the last. There are several reasons why we need to make new prosthetics some being: she is constantly growing, new technology, and new design.
As mentioned the prosthetic tail is only one part of her physical therapy program. Just like physical therapy for people, she has a whole series of different stretches and exercises that work her dorsal and ventral muscles. Stretching is a critical part to her physical therapy program because it loosens up her lateral muscles prior to partaking in any exercises. This aids in the ability for full range movements of her dorsal and ventral muscles. Winter participates in stretching and physical therapy exercises every day, however, this may or may not include the use of her prosthetic tail.
On September 23, 2011, the film "Dolphin Tale" was released; it was based on Winter's life story. Warner Brother's and Alcon Entertainment collaborated with our CEO David Yates and our marine mammal staff to produce the film. Several of the scenes in the movie was filmed right here at the Clearwater Maine Aquarium. As you walk around you can find several of the "Dolphin Tale" props and posters that were used. Winter, along with several of the animals, played themselves. It was a very successful film, opening at #3 in the box office in the first week and by the second weekend the film had reached the #1 spot.
Winter is a very playful and spunky individual. She seems to enjoy spending time with her trainers and playing with her pals Panama and Hope. Winter is a very vocal individual and one can hear her using her "tweety-bird" whistle from just about anywhere!