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Winter the dolphin's trainer has her own dolphin tale

CLEARWATER

Winter the dolphin glided slowly through the water, staring at the woman easing down into the pool.

It was Sunday morning, just after sunrise. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was still and quiet. Abby Stone carried Winter's breakfast, an iced bucket of fish and a dose of menhaden oil. She knelt and hugged the dolphin's soft gray skin.

"Hi, love," she said. "I see you."

Winter was a baby, 2 months old, when she was rushed to the aquarium. Rescuers had found her bloodied and weak off Florida's east coast, her tail torn to tatters by a crab-trap line. Few expected her to survive the loss of her tail.

Abby Stone, a trainer at the aquarium, was one of the first to hold her. She bottle-fed her goat milk and cradled her in the cold water of her pool. She held her for hours in the dark, afraid she was too weak to swim.

Now, six years later, Abby is known as "Winter's mom." She taught Winter signs and whistled commands. She taught her to swim with a prosthetic tail. She avoided stares at the store while buying cases of KY Jelly to lubricate the sleeve that covered Winter's stump.

"When I'm not here, I think about Winter a lot," Abby said. "When Winter hurts, I hurt."

Winter is a star now, the 273-pound inspiration for Hollywood's Dolphin Tale, premiering Friday. Abby, 31, remains her caregiver. She is lithe and pixie-esque, with deep blue eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a bun. She spends her days barefoot, flitting back and forth to Winter's pool on the aquarium's waterfront deck.

Last year, concerned that Winter would be spooked by the cameras when filming began, Abby asked volunteers to circle her with fake cameras made out of gas cans. For three months during filming, Abby worked 14-hour days caring for Winter, teaching her choreography and tutoring the actor who plays Phoebe, Winter's trainer in the film.

In the movie, Abby can be seen in the background of some shots, playing an extra in a movie about her own life.

On a recent afternoon, as Abby climbed from the pool, Winter swam into her, thrusting her underwater. The dolphin was upset. She didn't want Abby to leave the pool.

Abby lifted herself from the water and quietly collected herself. This was just one of Winter's rare temper tantrums, she said. It was important to let these things go.

She knelt by Winter's side and held the dolphin's head in her hands. She looked into her eyes and kissed her on the snout.

Like Winter, the other dolphins, otters and sea turtles at the aquarium arrived deeply damaged: stranded, run over, struggling to survive. It is the trainers' job to keep them alive. The work can be mucky, grueling and relentlessly frustrating. Nature promises nothing but the unpredictable.

Abby has spent 14 years at the aquarium; she's its longest-working trainer. She has devoted her life to not just nature, but its control: finding beauty in its strength, sense in its wildness. But over time, she has learned a cruel lesson.

Some things — in work, and in life — remain hauntingly outside her control.

• • •

Abby was 17, shy, quiet and lonely, when she first volunteered at the Clearwater aquarium. She was fascinated by the sea, especially by dolphins like the aquarium's famous Sunset Sam. In high school, she skipped homecoming and prom. Her friends, her life, were here.

She worked alongside Brett Stone, an Alabama-born marine biologist who charmed her with his intellect. Walking along the beach, he plucked things from the surf and described them to her in quick detail. They began dating when Abby was 20 and he was 31. In the trainers' office, Abby told him he would fall in love with her someday.

They married in 2005 on St. Pete Beach, at the Don CeSar resort. The next year, Abby was pregnant, which barely slowed her work. She worried she wouldn't be able to love her daughter as much as she loved the animals at the aquarium. "I had no idea," she says now, "what it was like to love a child."

Giving birth proved to be the most inspiring moment of her life. She looked into her daughter's eyes and saw herself. Abby and Brett named their daughter Eliza River Stone. In time, they called her Elly.

But at home, Abby said, Brett began to change. He would escape by himself to a liquor cabinet hidden in the garage. He would punch walls and scream in anger.

"Alcoholism is a monster," she said. "You would see the person you fell in love with, but it was like demons would take over."

Abby would listen because she loved him. She wanted, she needed, to help. But she kept quiet about their pain. She tried to protect Brett, wanted people to still believe in him the way she did. The aquarium became her refuge.

A week before Elly's third birthday, in 2009, Abby filed for divorce. She still loved Brett, but she worried for Elly's safety. Abby asked only for 20 potted plants, a staghorn fern and Elly's crib. She and Elly moved in with her mother in Redington Beach. Brett kept the home they had worked for three years to rebuild.

Brett lost jobs at the aquarium and Lowry Park Zoo. He stopped drinking and found work as a landscaper, but he went into cardiac arrest from alcohol withdrawal and spent six weeks in intensive care.

Though they had divorced, Abby still wanted to be there for Brett. But her life was increasingly chaotic: She was expected to be trainer, movie coach, mother and caregiver, all at the same time.

In October, Abby appeared in a wet suit on the Oprah Winfrey Show, talking about what amputee veterans gain from visits they make to Winter.

"Both of them have gone through events that will forever change their lives, and they're having to adapt," said Abby, perhaps unaware that she was also describing herself. "There's a lot of hope — especially when we're talking about very dark circumstances — that things can turn around."

In December, Brett was taken to Morton Plant Hospital. He had been drinking again, and this time, his third hospitalization, his body was shutting down. At his bedside, Abby rubbed his hair and looked in disbelief at his eyes and sunken chest. He was sobbing. "He didn't want to die," she said. "He was so scared."

To this day, Abby worries she should have done more: said the right thing, demanded he go to rehab, somehow stopped him sooner. She had wanted to do the impossible. She had wanted to save his life.

• • •

After Brett's death, Abby was quiet for a long time. She felt she had failed. She lived for mornings at the aquarium, when she didn't have to talk, when it was just her and the dolphins and her thoughts.

"Then," she said simply, "I decided to be a mom."

She began to exercise, eat healthy food, tear through self-help books. She started work on her new home. She devoted more time to Elly. "She is my blood," Abby said. "My life."

She learned that Elly likes to teach tricks to their Australian shepherd, Kaya. She heard Elly ask where her dad was, and if he was lonely. She heard Elly say, unprompted, "Some people go to the hospital to get better. Some go to heaven to get better."

At night, Abby reads to Elly from books like The Man by the Sea, written for her by a friend of Brett's. It reads that Brett was called back to the ocean, that he sees through the eyes of the dolphins, that his spirit lives on in the waves.

In the morning, just before sunrise, Abby drives back to the aquarium. She stands in Winter's pool. The water is cold, like the first night they met.

Abby kneels at Winter's side. Their eyes meet. Abby thinks Winter can see herself in the reflection.

"Hey, little girl," Abby says. "Look at you. You're just so full of life."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Winter the dolphin's trainer has her own dolphin tale 09/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 18, 2011 1:19pm]
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