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Winter at Clearwater Beach Marine Aquarium

Who’s Tired of Winter?

Certainly not the staff of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium nor Winter’s loyal fans.

For most visitors to Clearwater Beach, Florida, winter is a season to escape, but for others, especially those in need of inspiration, she’s an animal to seek out. Named for the season in which she was rescued, Winter is a eight-year-old dolphin who inspires child amputees, Iraqi war vets and medical researchers interested in recent developments in prosthetic limbs.

When she was two months old, Winter got caught in a crab trap. By the time rescuers from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium found her, she was not expected to last the night, so severe were her cuts from the trap ropes. Fifty percent of the staff voted to euthanize her, but Winter persevered, minus her tail.

The plucky dolphin started swimming like a fish until experts realized these movements would cause spinal damage. Next came the series of prosthetic tails to match her growth spurts and Winter started learning to swim all over again.

Staff shows prosthetic tail
Staff shows prosthetic tail

As a result of her unfortunate accident and amazing recovery, Winter has become a media sensation and the star of her own feature-length film.

Everyday, visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium can watch Winter interacting with her trainers as she adjusts to her new tails. The latest one features a stainless steel joint that propels her forward.

Dolphin tail prosthetic
Dolphin tail prosthetic

To the delight of Winter and her fans, trainers turn the exercises into a play session. Winter swims around the pool for a few minutes before returning to for pettings and a few adjustments. She appears happy with the new appendage, ducking away when staff try to remove it.

Prosthetic tail attached
Prosthetic tail attached

Totally impressed with the show, visitors including children, have been donating toys to the dolphins and money to build Winter’s new home. The larger, circular pool allows Winter to swim continuously and provides a hospital emergency room for other rescued sea mammals like her dolphin friend, Nicholas.

Nicholas, a 375 – pound a victim of severe sunburn, the result of a beaching, has been at the aquarium since being orphaned at six months. Today, he shimmies around the pool in a series of comical forward thrusts while maintaining an upright position.

Spectators reach out to pet him before he darts away to grab a fish. The dark streaks running from his forehead to his dorsal fin are the only evidence of his life threatening sun exposure.

The show’s grand finale finds Nicholas competing with Rudy, a younger male dolphin, to see who can jump the highest and create the biggest splash, soaking the bolder kids who hug the edge of the pool. Who needs theme parks when young and old alike can enjoy the antics of these mammals at a fraction of the price while supporting a good cause?

Winter with tail attached
Winter with tail attached

Clearwater’s love and respect for her dolphins is also evident in the attitude of her tour boat operators. As a static burst of the ship’s radio advises of dolphin spottings at our six o’clock position, northern tourists rush to the back of the boat, anxiously scanning the powder blue and aqua horizon.

“Dolphins are highly intelligent creatures and sometimes they’re just not in the mood to play. If that’s the case, we’re moving on”, Captain Jack announces.

Fortunately, the duo, lured by the wake of the 40 – foot tug seem eager to follow, albeit from a safe distance. Moving along, Captain Jack reminds us of the strict rules protecting Florida dolphins.

Respecting the dolphins makes good business sense. If these Atlantic bottlenose feel threatened or pursued, they will abandon the area, or worse, beach their young. Most times, according to Captain Jack, the dolphins are happy to play in the wake of the boats and seem almost as curious about the visitors as they are about them. Indeed, scientists have made underwater recordings of dolphins mimicking the delighted squeals of tourists.

While visitors will never see Winter or Nicholas performing on the larger stage of Clearwater Bay, successfully rehabilitated dolphins like Rudy, who have retained their hunting skills, will be playing here for years to come thanks to the staff of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the generous donations of loyal fans.


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