Photos courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium
One cold winter morning, a two-month-old dolphin got tangled up in a crab trap off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Her mother swam in circles around her, not knowing how to help. No one knew the hurdles this baby dolphin would conquer and the countless lives she would eventually inspire.
“Winter,” named for the season when she was rescued, was found badly injured by a fisherman in December 2005. The outlook for the baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was grim. The crab line wrapped so tightly around her tail that circulation to it had been cut off. For several weeks, staff and volunteers at Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) in Florida cared for the fragile 72-pound dolphin. They carried her around a shallow pool because she was too weak to hold herself up to swim. Staff fed her with a bottle while playing country music.
Over the next two months, Winter’s tail fell off in pieces. She is the first and only dolphin known to have survived losing an entire tail. She also lost two vertebrae. This made swimming extremely challenging for Winter because dolphins use their tails in an up-and-down motion to swim. Winter’s doctors knew she would need a lot of physical therapy to exercise her back muscles so she could swim without a tail.
One day, Kevin Carroll, a vice president with Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, heard Winter’s story on the radio. He offered to make Winter a prosthetic tail—for free—to help her swim like other dolphins. A prosthetic tail had never been made for a dolphin with such severe injuries. This would not be easy. Hanger worked with trainers and doctors for several months to make the perfect tail. It worked, and Winter has been wearing one for three years now. Winter will have new tails made for years to come, because as she grows, so do her tails!
Winter is now 5 years old. With her new tail, she can swim like other dolphins. She wears her tail for about an hour each day. But this amazing story does not end here.
Hanger Prosthetics also created a special gel sleeve to go on underneath Winter’s artificial tail to hold it in place. The gel had to hold up to salt water and lots of movement as Winter swam. Experts figured out that the gel in the sleeve invented for Winter could be helpful for humans with prosthetics. Thanks to a dolphin, those special gel sleeves are now being used on hundreds of people with prosthetic arms and legs to help them move comfortably.
People from all over the world flock to the CMA every year to see Winter—the dolphinwho could. Children and adults have adopted the “If Winter Can, I Can” attitude. One of them is 11-year-old McKenna McGough of Garland, Texas. She was 8 years old when she first met Winter during a family trip to Florida. McKenna has tumors in her ears and needs to wear a hearing aid to hear. But she didn’t like wearing it, because she didn’t want to have to explain it to people.
After McKenna met Winter at the CMA, she returned home and started putting her hearing aid in first thing every morning without being asked. When her mother mentioned it, she said, “If Winter isn’t afraid to show off her stump, than I shouldn’t be afraid to show off my hearing aids.” When McKenna got her second hearing aid last year, she wanted to show it off. McKenna now proudly wears two hearing aids and participates in lots of activities, including choir, theater, jazz dancing, and baton twirling.
McKenna’s mom shares, “Without Winter, she would not be as confident as she is now. Not every child has a dolphin as a best friend. McKenna loves to talk to people about her hearing aids. She even seeks out other children with hearing aids to tell them about Winter.”
McKenna has returned to see Winter at the CMA eight times over the past three years. Each time she visits, their friendship grows stronger and McKenna is more confident. She looks forward to Winter whistling when she spots McKenna walking to her pool. The two of them share a special connection, one that does not require words. Now, McKenna even wants to be a dolphin trainer when she grows up.
Winter will be featured in a Warner Brothers-based Alcon Entertainment movie called Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Look for it in theaters this September! She also has a Scholastic book called Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again, and a Nintendo DS game.
Visit seewinter.com to learn more about this amazing animal and Hollywood star!