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    Posted February 28, 2008 by
    Clearwater, Florida

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    Winter Has A Special Purpose


    Winter Has A Special Purpose

    Photos and story by Robert La Follette


    Finding Her Way Home

    It was the beginning of another beautiful Florida winter’s day in

    Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral two years ago, as the sun was just

    coming up over the horizon. With the gentle warm breeze as it swept

    across the lagoon, a few friends out fishing that morning found

    something that was a bit unusual. Off into the distance, there was a fin

    coming up out of the water. Being that this area was always popular with

    dolphins, the friends didn’t think too much about it at first, for they

    are regularly seen in the area. Dolphins love to come into the shallow

    waters around Mosquito Lagoon as they hunt for fish in these shallow

    waters, especially around the mangroves.


    However, the dolphin wasn’t swimming away as they approached, and seemed

    as if it was stuck. Perhaps the dolphin swam unto a sand bar, so it just

    needed a little push off they thought. As they got close, it became

    apparent that something was terribly wrong, something no one had ever

    seen before.


    It was a baby dolphin, and she was stuck to a crab trap. It appeared

    that she had been trying to get some of the freshly caught crabs out of

    the trap, when it somehow snapped onto her tail, trapping her instead.

    It was clear that the little dolphin was injured, for the trap was

    cutting into that tail that was being held. Knowing that there was

    nothing they could do to help the little dolphin, the fishermen called

    for professional help, and a team of rescuers from Harbor Branch

    Oceanographic and Hubbs Institute of Orlando was dispatched to answer

    the call. When the team arrived, they were shocked to see such a sight,

    for no one could have imagined the horror that they were looking at. The

    mother was nowhere to be found, but right now, all the focus and energy

    was placed squarely on that little dolphin to help save its life.


    The little dolphin had deep wounds on both sides of her mouth, across

    the tongue, under both of the pectoral fins, and on her peduncle from

    the crab trap lines. The deep wounds on the upper and lower tail stalk

    were so deep that the blood flow was cut off, and the tail tissue was

    dying and falling off. She was dehydrated and thin, and had problems

    eating. She was not expected to live, but the team at the Clearwater

    Marine Aquarium wanted to give this little dolphin a chance to fight the



    Only three months into her life, she was transported and under the care

    of the specialists of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and she needed a

    name. After much debate, she was now known as “Winter”, and she seemed

    to take nicely to the name. Winter has not only surprised everyone by

    living, but has become an inspiration to the thousands of visitors that

    have seen her. Even though now she has no tail, for it had to be removed

    due to the damage of the crab trap since it cut off the blood flow to

    her tail, Winter is a warm and energetic juvenile dolphin that will

    certainly capture the hearts and imagination of anyone who has had the

    chance to meet her. She has become the star attraction at the aquarium,

    and she certainly loves the attention.


    Although Winter can never be released back into the open waters, she has

    a dedicated and loving team of trainers, veterinarians and volunteers

    that have devoted their life to her survival. Winter has beaten the

    odds, and survived. Fast forward two years now, and Winter is a playful

    two-year-old dolphin that loves to entertain the huge crowds that have

    come from all over the world just to catch a glimpse of this incredible

    little dolphin. But something was missing, and the staff at the

    Clearwater Marine Aquarium had an idea…


    A Call For Help

    The staff at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium wanted to give Winter the

    ability to swim like a dolphin. Although she can swim and interact, as

    dolphins love to do, she simply wasn’t able to swim as a normal dolphin

    can. Since she had to have her tail removed, her ability to swim

    normally was restricted, which causes her to change her swimming

    technique. She now swims side to side like a shark instead of up and

    down like a dolphin. Veterinarians agree that adaptation could

    eventually harm the dolphin's health and well-being. Something had to be



    The term “shrimping” is how the staff refers to Winters curved spine,

    and they are concerned that if something cannot be done to correct it,

    the unnatural way she curves her body will cause permanent injury,

    perhaps even shortening her life. Winter was facing her greatest

    challenge yet. The call went out for help, and the staff waited

    anxiously for anyone who could answer that call. It was a tall order to

    fill, for never had anyone ever designed a prosthetic tail for a dolphin

    before to this degree. Fuji, a male dolphin in Hawaii was the only other

    dolphin to get a prosthetic tail, but his situation was entirely

    different, as much of the tail fluke was still on. It was a last ditch

    effort to save the life of a little dolphin that has become a part of

    the lives of so many, and time was rapidly running out.


    A New Beginning

    In Orlando, Kevin Carroll of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics heard

    about the news of Winter, and it touched his heart. Kevin read as many

    news articles as he could about Winter, and shortly after hearing the

    news, Jim drove to Tampa to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see

    Winter. Kevin‘s expertise is in designing and developing prosthetics for

    human patients, for Hanger is the world leading research firm for

    helping find new ways to help victims of car accidents and war soldiers

    that lose an arm or leg in terrible accidents. Kevin a dolphin lover

    himself, decided to take on this daunting task, all at no cost to the

    aquarium. Little did Kevin know that the goal was a large one, but he

    had made a commitment to help Winter.


    Hanger took several molds of Winters stump, and began to formulate ideas

    on how to fasten a tail to her. Kevin knew that the material had to be

    flexible, but strong enough to withstand the incredible amount of power

    a dolphin can generate with that tail, so the task started to seem

    almost impossible. Dolphins not only use their tail to swim, but also to

    communicate, so the solution had to withstand a lot of punishment. After

    weeks and weeks of burning the midnight oil, Hanger started to develop a

    flexible, silicon-based prosthetic tail that seemed to be just the

    answer they were looking for. The materials that Hanger developed was a

    science onto itself, and was specially designed and developed just for

    Winter. The team from Hanger took the new tail back to the aquarium to

    see if it was the answer they were hoping for.



    Kevin and the rest of his team from Hanger came to Clearwater with the

    hope that their hard work had paid off, but no one was sure it would

    even stay on Winter, for this delicate and extremely difficult task had

    never been done before. Everyone was hopeful, and the tension was

    mounting. Winter had to get comfortable with her new tail, and hopefully

    would not reject it, since it would be the first time in a long time she

    would gain the ability to swim like a normal dolphin. The staff from

    Hanger and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium gathered early one morning,

    and Winters trainer got her ready for a “test run”. Everyone in the

    building held their breath as they waited and watched as Winter got into

    position to be fitted for the first time with her new tail.


    First, a silicone sleeve is rolled around the end of the stump where

    Winters tail used to be. This material provides protection to Winters

    skin, and also is critical to help provide the grip necessary to hold on

    her prosthetic tail, which is held on by suction. Next, the more rigid

    inner component is attached to provide the primary strength of the

    device. Then lastly, a second silicone sleeve is rolled over the entire

    piece, ensuring the tail remains in position. After all the pieces of

    Winters new tail were affixed, SUCCESS! It worked just as Kevin has

    dreamt it would, although there will be several modifications made to

    the original tail, to both improve the design and technology. However,

    the first step had been made, and the staff and team were extremely

    thrilled with the results. For all the time and efforts, some of the

    most exciting developments are some of the materials and technologies

    developed for Winter will be used to help human amputees, a first in

    modern science.


    Several months and several different versions later, Winter finally has

    a new tail, thanks in part to human kindness and determination. Although

    Winter does not swim with her new tail all the time, the staff has seen

    a huge improvement in her rehabilitation, so much, that the odds now

    that Winter will live a full and healthy life has greatly increased.

    Winter will see many new tails over the next several years since she is

    still growing, but the future is bright for this cute and adorable

    little dolphin.


    A Special Purpose

    Winter has become world-renowned as the news of this special little

    dolphin has reached every corner of the world, and thousands of visitors

    have come to see her. David Yates, the aquariums executive director, saw

    a young girl one day that came to visit the aquarium, and this little

    girl, named Katrina, was an amputee herself. David walked over to the

    little girl and her mother, and they started talking about Winter, and

    how they have something in common. Yates had one of the dolphin trainers

    take Katrina for a private interaction with Winter. Katrina’s eyes lit

    up when she saw Winter and how she was just like her.


    That chance meeting with that little girl that now has the determination

    to become happy and healthy thanks to Winter to meet her challenge head

    on, gave David an idea. After several meetings with aquarium staff, they

    discussed how they could help other amputees deal with their disability,

    and Winter would be the perfect “spokesdolphin” for the new program. The

    Clearwater Marine Aquarium is developing just such a program, where

    others, such as veterans and accident victims with similar disabilities

    can interact with Winter. The program is designed to show them that they

    too can beat the odds and become a healthy and happy person, just as

    Winter has done. The aquarium is partnering with several organizations

    in the Tampa Bay area, as well as the Tampa Veterans Administration

    Amputee Support Group and the Wounded Warrior Project to help the many

    others with similar challenges.


    Winter has come into her own at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and even

    though she had a terrible accident and will never swim free in the warm

    waters of her home in Florida, she is providing hope for thousands of

    others around the world that life can be beautiful and fulfilling after

    all. For if a little dolphin can overcome her disabilities, people can

    too, for if you ever have the opportunity to see this special little

    dolphin in person, you too will believe.


    About The Clearwater Marine Aquarium

    Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Inc. (CMA) is dedicated to public education,

    research and rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick or injured

    animals. CMA is a Florida non-profit organization, which has tax-exempt

    status under IRC 501 (c)(3). CMA's stranding response team is one of the

    nation's most successful stranding teams. Although many of the sick or

    injured animals we rescue are released after rehabilitation, some become

    permanent CMA residents, due to the extent of their injuries. Residents

    include dolphins, sea turtles and river otters. To learn more about CMA,

    please visit www.seewinter.com.


    About Robert La Follette

    Since 1989, Robert La Follette has been working as a graphic designer

    and photographer. His photos have won numerous awards and have appeared

    in Shutterbug Magazine, Informant Guest and Creation Magazine. La

    Follette is also a contributing writer and photographer for Florida

    Wildlife Magazine. Robert was awarded “Best of Show” at the Boyd Hill

    Nature Photography Contest in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has also been

    featured on “i On Tampa Bay” for PAX Television in Tampa.


    Robert’s photography also appears around Tampa Bay, most notably with

    the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, where his images showcases

    the beauty and attractions that make Tampa Bay a world-renowned vacation

    destination. Robert also teaches creative photography online and

    personal workshops around Tampa Bay. Robert lives in Tampa, Florida with

    his wife, Dawn, whom he has been happily married for over 18 years.

    Wildlife enthusiasts, together they perform volunteer work with Tampa's

    Lowry Park Zoo and Clearwater Marine Aquarium. To view more of Robert's

    award-winning photography, please visit www.robertlafollette.com.

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