Everyone smiles at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater Beach, Florida! Trainers who hand-feed the otters smile. People attending the dolphin shows smile. Kids running their fingers along the back of sting rays in the touch tank smile. But of all the smiles, the most memorable and inspiring is from the aquarium’s most famous resident, Winter the Dolphin.
Featured on the NBC Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of newspapers around the world, Winter has a lot to smile about these days. In December 0f 2005, at only three months of age, Winter became inextricably entangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Although the odds of her survival were very low, the dolphin was transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for rehabilitation. As a result of her injuries, Winter lost her entire tail and two vertebrae.
Experts did not expect the dolphin to survive, as the mammals rely heavily on their tails to swim and navigate, but Winter surprised everyone. Not only has she completely healed, Winter developed a new swim pattern and learned to eat fish on her own. Winter utilizes her entire body in order to propel herself forward, moving from side-to-side like a shark, rather than the normal up-and-down movement employed by dolphins.
Inspired by Winter’s tenacity and enduring spirit, CMA’s trainers have partnered with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc., a leading human prosthetic company, along with Dr. Mike Walsh, a leading marine mammal veterinarian, to create a prosthetic tail for the dolphin. The first step was to fit Winter for a stretchy, plastic sleeve like the kind used for human prosthetics, in preparation for attaching a prosthetic fluke to her peduncle. Trainers taught Winter to use the prosthetic to swim in a normal up-and-down fashion, while still maintaining her ability to swim in her modified shark-like manner when the prosthetic is off. Over the past few years, Winter’s prosthetic tail has been modified and improved more than 30 times and with each version, her ability to swim improves.
Winter’s story has become an inspiration to children the world over who suffer from disabilities. Their mantra has become, “If Winter can do it, I can too!” The aquarium offers a “Wade with Winter” package that allows participants to sit, stand or kneel in waist deep water with the dolphin. During the 20 minutes spent in the water, not only do participants have an opportinity to touch and interact with Winter, they also don mask and snorkel for a close up view of how she has adapted to swimming without her tail.
The Wade with Winter Program is priced at $149 and is available Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from Noon to 1:10 p.m. Regular admission is $12.95 for adults, $8.95 for children ages 3–12, and $9.95 for seniors age 60. Hours of operation are Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Clearwater Marine Aquarium is located at 249 Windward Passage in Clearwater, Florida.
Video credit: CBS News
Photo credit: Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel at Hole In The Donut Travels