The dolphin arrived by van after 10 p.m., rescued from a tangle of crab-pot line off the Canaveral National Seashore on the opposite coast. She was two months old, about the size of a big dog. Her eyes were shut. She bled from the mouth, from cuts under her pectoral fins. Her tail looked like frayed paper. A white rot advanced from the tail's edges.
Only one aquarium in the state was willing or able to take her. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium had once been a sewage plant. They've painted the place aqua and pumped Calypso music through the intercom. The scent is fresh and briny. Dolphins frolic in deep concrete tanks that served foul past purposes. On Dec. 10, 2005, humble Clearwater was the baby dolphin's only chance.
Veterinarian Janine Cianciolo, known as "Dr. C," readied the big kiddie pool the aquarium uses for an ER. She lacked dolphin baby formula, but sent head trainer Abby Stone to Publix for 10 cartons of goat's milk.
The issue of euthanasia hung in the air. The baby's tail looked hopeless. They had never heard of a dolphin living without a tail. If this one did, she would require 'round-the-clock care for months. At best, she would grow up crippled and captive for life. An injection now might curtail much suffering and expense.
But the aquarium already had three dolphins and a collection of sea turtles, most of which were disabled or disfigured by too-close encounters with humans. This place looked and sounded like Margaritaville, but its mission was to help animals with no other chance.
This dolphin would be euthanized only if her suffering was too great or her life wasn't viable. It was Dr. C's call.
The vet brought her sleeping bag. That was her answer to the euthanasia question. She planned to camp there through the holidays, if the dolphin lived that long.
In the ER pool, Dr. C fed a tube down the dolphin's throat and pumped in electrolytes and fluids to stave off dehydration and stabilize the animal's metabolism. She re-inserted the tube every two hours.
Trainer Abby rocked the dolphin like a baby. She had been starved and tethered to the crab pot for unknown hours, exhausted by a five-hour van ride across the state. But Abby felt her squirm in her arms. The fight in the baby dolphin was a good sign. Abby knew this motherless creature wouldn't survive unless she wanted to.
The night wore on. After four hours, Abby was relieved by a veterinary technician and two high school volunteers. They took turns supporting the dolphin in their arms, guiding her through slow, gentle circles. They hoped the rhythm would relax her. They fought a night chill from a cold front by ducking under a hot shower.
The dolphin didn't open her eyes. She barely moved as they floated her. But when morning came, she was still breathing.
Dr. C and Abby saw a winter miracle in the making.
Winter — that would be this dolphin's name.
• • •
Within days, Winter's tail had virtually melted away, lost to necrosis, or cell death. The blood flow to the tail had been cut off by the crab pot line, probably for more than a day.
Dr. C couldn't tell how far into Winter's peduncle, or lower trunk, the necrosis had gone. She couldn't reverse it. All she could do was wait to see how much more dissolved away. If the rot got to the spinal cord, Winter would die.
Day by day, Dr. C trimmed dead tissue and applied antibiotics. Winter accepted the care passively. Dr. C diagnosed her as too sick and weak, and "too young and dumb," to show fear of humans.
After the first 48 hours, the vet attached a long nipple to a Dasani bottle and began to nurse the dolphin. She concocted a formula that included an artificial milk product for zoo animals, safflower oil, vitamins and fish liquefied in a giant blender. The nursing was awkward. In the wild, baby dolphins nurse underwater. Winter also had serious mouth wounds. But she quickly got the hang of it.
Through January, the necrosis persisted and the stump of Winter's tail shrank. Three vertebrae melted away.
Dr. C didn't reach healthy tissue until Valentine's Day had passed. The necrosis had stopped, one vertebra short of the spinal cord.
Even then the wound wouldn't close. The baby remained isolated in the kiddie pool under 24-hour care.
They soon discovered that Winter would accept her meals only through a Dasani bottle. They tried Aquafina. Nothing doing. They bought Dasani by the case, pouring out the water, refilling with the fish goop.
Winter gained weight and moved around on her own. Dr. C added so many fish to the blender that the goop wouldn't flow through the nipple.
Winter swam like a fish, moving the stump of her peduncle laterally, side to side, rather than up and down as dolphins do. She dog paddled with her pectoral fins, which are designed for steering, not for propulsion.
That raised a host of new concerns. The side-to-side motion subjected her spine to unnatural pressures, causing it to curve. Scoliosis became the new threat.
In the summer, about six months after her rescue, she left the ER. She joined the aquarium's three other dolphins in the larger indoor tanks. She was matched in one tank with Panama, an older female, that they hoped would teach Winter how to be a dolphin.
• • •
The aquarium had another newcomer getting adjusted — a new CEO named David Yates. He had been hired two months after Winter's rescue. One of his first tasks was to consider Winter's permanent residency. Dolphins are plentiful off Clearwater Beach. People see them leaping in the gulf every day. So what made this one dolphin worth months of intensive care and up to 40 years of room and board?
David had a role in mind for Winter. He understood that dolphins have a special relationship with humans. People bestow dolphins with human traits and feelings — a sense of humor, a mourning instinct, even empathy. Dolphins have been mythologically bonded to man since the Greeks. But the aquarium's wildlife mission didn't apply only to dolphins. It applied equally to its captured sea turtles, many of which had been maimed by monofilament fishing line, or other deadly litter. The point was to show the carnage. Let people see the price of human carelessness.
David also knew a good story when he saw one. He had formerly promoted the Iron Man triathlon. He had a lot of TV and radio contacts. He called every national media outlet he knew — NBC, CBS, BBC, NPR and AP. "I have a story for you," he would say, "a disabled baby dolphin we're teaching to swim without a tail."
Everybody wanted that story. Winter found herself on the Today show. She found herself on the Early Show. Her story ran cross-country on the AP wire. It was broadcast internationally on BBC — audience: 270-million.
In Orlando, a guy named Kevin Carroll heard NPR's version on his car radio. He called David. He introduced himself as vice president of a national company that makes artificial limbs — Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.
"I can put a tail on your dolphin."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.