Winter the Dolphin: A Tale of Loss, Love, and Strength
By Alyssa Olmeda
I have been interested in Winter the Dolphin after visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium last summer. She lost her tail to a crab trap and has been the first-ever dolphin to wear a prosthetic tail.
This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Winter the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Like many other tourists in Florida, I knew of her story through the 2011 film series Dolphin Tale. The film tells the story of Winter, a young dolphin who loses her tail in a crab trap and becomes the first dolphin ever to wear a prosthetic tail. Despite the film being based on a true story, many events were exaggerated and distorted. I came to learn this upon my visit to the aquarium, where workers and diagrams displayed within the exhibit told Winter’s true story.
I was touched by the resilience this young dolphin was able to have after such a life altering tragedy, but I was even more inspired by the love Winter received. The love people had for Winter became even more evident after her passing in November 2021. Not only did the members of the CMA adore her, but she personally touched the lives of many in Florida and around the world.
While it is true in the film that Winter did lose her tail, the process and reaction she had to her new, prosthetic tail was much different than what was displayed in the movie. In order to truly understand Winter’s legacy, I needed to know the full story, beyond the cinematic experience. I reached out to expert Dr. Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Lower Extremity Prosthetics at the Hanger Clinic in Florida, who helped create Winter’s tail, and Camelle Zodrow, Animal Care Program Manager at the CMA who worked with Winter.
While Carroll did have experience in creating prosthetics for other animals like dogs, and prosthetic flippers for turtles, the idea of creating a prosthetic tail for a dolphin was something entirely unheard of up until this point. Still, Carroll had a positive outlook. “We can put arms and legs on people, why not put a tail on a dolphin?” Carroll told me. He would find himself developing this prosthetic tail for the next 18 months.
Carroll and his colleague Dan Strzempka, manager of the Hanger Clinic in Sarasota, Florida, started by spending “nights and weekends coming up with ideas and concepts,” Carroll says. Having a supportive, hands-on approach and team, which included marine veterinarians at the CMA, was crucial to the success of Winter’s prosthetic.
Similar to the movie, Winter was introduced to the tail slowly. Carroll explains, “we showed Winter the materials just like we would a child… and then let her feel the material… until eventually we had a full piece of this on her body.” After Winter got used to each of the materials, which included the soft silicon and rigid material, the team was ready to put the prosthetic on her. The team started by introducing a smaller tail to Winter, about one quarter the size of a full anatomically correct tail to get her accustomed to swimming with the tail.
However, the movie did embellish Winter’s reaction to the tail, showing her rejecting it at first. Carroll explains that Winter never had a negative reaction to the tail and it was all Hollywood.
Still, there was a bit of a problem. Dolphins cannot verbally communicate if something is wrong, and will try to conceal any pain as they don’t want to show signs of weakness, behavior they would display in the wild. Carroll and the team needed to ensure the prosthetic was not harming Winter. To execute this, he says, the team “used thermography to determine the heat around the material and we found hotspots (like pressure points) that were causing concerns– if we left it on long enough it would hurt the skin”.
Carroll says, “we went back to the drawing board and we came up with a very soft gel material …for Winter and to this very day we call it Winter’s gel”. The team took their time developing the gel, and Caroll says “today across the world now there’s now thousands of humans [that use prosthetics] that are walking around with Winter’s gel.”
When I spoke with Camelle Zodrow at the CMA, she shared the difficulties of putting on the tail for the first time. “We’d have to use water-based lubricant and roll it on like pantyhose or socks.” Zodrow told me Winter was very patient during this process.
Zodrow notes that the aquarium is “very quiet without her, because she talked all the time, to the very end she would tweet… it’s kind of weird and eerily quiet without her.” Zodrow showed me the old tails that Winter had outgrown, along with her old toys that are like keepsakes that are kept at the CMA.
Despite Winter’s passing, Zodrow says that people still visit to learn about Winter. While talking with her, it’s clear that Winter’s presence is missed beyond the walls of the aquarium.
Winter’s company provided great comfort to not just the members of the aquarium, but also to children and families. People would talk about how Winter provided the inspiration for them to wear Winter’s gel to make their prosthetics more comfortable, Zodrow explains. “She represented so much to so many people; people would connect with her and feel drawn with her.”
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I’ve always been fascinated by marine life, and after Winter’s passing in November 2021 I felt compelled to share her legacy. Winter’s story inspired me because she was the first-ever dolphin to lose her tail to a crab trap. I was lucky enough to talk to a researcher who developed her prosthetic tail, and an animal care program manager at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium who worked closely with Winter. I learned a lot beyond what I saw at the aquarium like they were always making new tails for her that fit her better.
Alyssa Olmeda is a lifelong writer who first began creating other worlds and characters in the third grade. Alyssa has spent the last few months reading and writing short stories and graphic novels, giving her words and imagery a palpable spark.
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