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Mosquito Lagoon | Part one of four

Winter's tale: A dolphin in distress

The muddy waters of Mosquito Lagoon cloaked the baby dolphin in invisibility.

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She was two months old, 68 pounds, a bottlenose dolphin in perfect miniature. Inches from the dark surface, she thrashed in a snare of rope that bent her like a horseshoe, mouth to tail. She was down to one instinct: Breathe. Again and again, she fought to the surface. She gasped. She went down again. The sea waited to swallow her.

That was the end of one thing, and the miraculous beginning of another. The sea spit out the dying baby dolphin, cast her into a strange new world. She would be claimed by science and claimed by children. She'd become famous, appear on television. She'd receive visitors from around the world, and she'd help them feel whole.

They'd call her "Winter."

At dawn on Dec. 10, 2005, all the sane fishermen slept in. They'd heard the wind whistle outside and turned in bed toward their wives' warm backsides. Only one fisherman faced the gusty chop in Mosquito Lagoon.

Jim Savage thought about staying home when the cold front came through. But he pictured himself restlessly underfoot on a Saturday, aggravating his wife. Better to spend a few hours bundled up on the water. He trailered his 16-foot flats boat to the ramp at the north end of Canaveral National Seashore. It's one of those beautifully muted, monochromatic places in Florida that only fishermen seem to know about. He saw it, and he wasn't sorry for being there.

In the lagoon, he could see a line of crab pot buoys, all tilted over with the wind. He looked again — something weird there.

One buoy was tilted opposite, into the wind.

He motored toward it. The lagoon was just a few feet deep, but the water had churned into a brown chop. He couldn't see whatever was pulling the buoy over.

He heard before he saw: A heaving, desperate gasp.

Jim pulled on the buoy and retrieved a bleeding female baby dolphin, hog-tied in the crab pot line. She looked no bigger than an armful. She squealed in pain. Her tail looked a mess. The baby dolphin thrashed in the ropes, struggling to breathe.

Jim scanned the water, the shoreline, looking for help. He was on his own.

He figured the dolphin must have snooped the bait in the trap, tangled her tail in the rope, then tried to spin out of it.

The dolphin wriggled loose, rope embedded in her mouth. She drifted a few feet, out of reach, and stopped near the boat.

Jim reached out to touch her, but she squealed and moved away. Then she stopped again. She was listing, unable to swim. She was scared of Jim, but she clearly sensed a need of him. She seemed to be waiting for him to do something.

Jim was an auto mechanic. He had never been this close to a dolphin. He didn't know what to do, but he knew he couldn't leave. He would lose sight of the baby. He called an emergency number for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. They promised someone would come.

"Don't tell me you're going to send someone if you're not."

He waited, helpless, through the morning, drifting beside the dolphin as the sun climbed. He watched the gray shape in the water, listened to her ragged breathing. Each time he tried to touch her, the baby squealed — a shrieking whistle.

He talked to her, softly, to calm her.

"You'll be okay."

• • •

Teresa Mazza was visiting friends that day in Ormond Beach, not far from Mosquito Lagoon, when she got the call.

She was 23, a research assistant for the nonprofit Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando. Among the institute's many marine missions, it rescued stranded and injured whales and dolphins.

She had never been in charge of a rescue. She had no first aid kit for a bleeding dolphin. She grabbed what she had — a measuring tape and a stopwatch — and jumped in the car.

When she reached the ramp, Teresa could see Jim's boat, and a second boat that had stopped to help. Four men in the second boat taxied her to Jim.

As soon as she saw the dolphin, she kicked off her shoes and jumped overboard in her jacket and T-shirt. She felt the shock of the freezing water. The dolphin squealed and moved away. Teresa couldn't do anything for her this way. She climbed back in the boat.

They made a plan. The two boats slowly herded the dolphin toward a sandbar near the ramp, beaching it. Teresa and Jim climbed out of the boat and waded to her. Teresa got a clear view of her wounds, first the deep cuts in her mouth, then the exposed veins in her tail. The baby trembled. She looked at Teresa, eyes wide and panicked.

Teresa was sure the dolphin was dying. She lifted the baby slightly to support her organs. She placed Jim's hand on the dolphin's heart. He could feel it hammering against the skin.

They waited. They made more cell phone calls. Teresa called her colleague and friend Claire Surrey at the wildlife commission. She came right out. Teresa and Claire took turns cradling the dolphin in their laps. Hours passed. Their hands grew numb in the water.

Hubbs-SeaWorld contacted the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. Harbor Branch had a special ambulance for injured whales and dolphins. It dispatched the ambulance, plus a chase truck with a vet and a team of dolphin experts.

Jim and the other boaters eventually went home. The afternoon wore on. The two women sat together in the shallow water, talking little. Loud voices upset the dolphin. The baby was in obvious pain.

They took turns cradling the dolphin, scooping water over her head to keep her cool. Teresa thought she would die in her arms.

In the afternoon, Harbor Branch called with bad news. Its ambulance had blown a tire miles from the lagoon. The truckload of experts would continue on, but they would have to find another ambulance. They would try SeaWorld in Orlando.

About the same time, a family of dolphins appeared by the sandbar — two or three adults and several young. As they passed, the baby in Teresa's arms began to squeal.

Teresa knew the little dolphin was critically injured. Her ragged tail had begun to turn white. This was likely her last look at Mosquito Lagoon, her last moment of freedom, even if she lived.

For a crazy second, Teresa pictured the baby wriggling free, swimming off with her family. The dolphin squirmed as if aching to go.

The second passed. The dolphins disappeared.

Teresa watched them go. She couldn't imagine any happy ending. Even the other dolphins had given up. Animals have a way of knowing when a cause is lost.

She began to cry.

• • •

At dusk, a SeaWorld rescue van arrived. Teresa, Claire and the Harbor Branch team carried the baby ashore in a stretcher. She was headed across the state to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Teresa couldn't go with her. She had to catch a flight the next day to a marine science conference in San Diego.

At the conference, everyone had heard about the dolphin rescue. A few days into the conference, a colleague stopped her in a crowd.

"Did you hear what happened to your dolphin?"

No, she hadn't.

"Her tail fell off."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

Visiting Winter

To see Winter, visit the aquarium at 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater.

Admission $11; children ages 3-12, $7.50; seniors $9.

The aquarium also offers free tours for groups of children with disabilities through its Winter Team Program. Contact Jeni Hatter, 727-441-1790, ext. 228.

To celebrate Winter's rescue, three years ago this week, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has produced a video, Winter, The Dolphin that Could! It's available for purchase on SeeWinter.com.

Winter's tale: A dolphin in distress 12/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:17pm]

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