CLEARWATER — She splashed. She flipped. She popped her bottlenose out of the clear blue water for a brief second. Then she darted back to the bottom of the tank.
As the playful 4-month-old dolphin cavorted in the sunshine Wednesday at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, aquarium officials were announcing their plans for her future.
The dolphin calf, rescued from almost certain death in December, will become a permanent resident of the aquarium, joining the aquarium's four other dolphin residents, including the now-famous Winter. Federal officials have determined that the calf could not survive in the wild.
The calf, at about 2 months old, was found trying to suckle milk from her dead mother in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast. Rescued by Teresa Mazza of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Melbourne Beach, the dolphin was delivered to the Clearwater aquarium on Dec. 11.
Her arrival was five years and one day after the rescue of Winter, the dolphin who lost her tail to a buoy line, was nursed back to health at the aquarium and was taught how to swim with a prosthetic tail created just for her. Winter was rescued in the same location as the baby dolphin, at the same age and by the same person.
"The similarities in their stories are just striking," said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO.
Winter finished filming her first major motion picture, Dolphin Tale, the day of the calf's arrival at the aquarium.
"We rarely get calls to go out and rescue juveniles. They normally come up dead on the beach," Yates said. "The last one for us was Winter five years ago and that's what makes this so much more extraordinary."
The energetic baby dolphin is already getting a share of the limelight. A story about her ran this week on the Today Show.
Aquarium officials were notified about two weeks ago that the calf could remain there permanently. They decided to have her "coming out" at a news conference Wednesday.
Laura Engleby, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said her agency decided the calf should remain in captivity because she was so young when she was rescued.
Engleby said the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that rescued marine mammals be released back into their habitat within six months unless the attending veterinarian is concerned they might infect other marine mammals with a disease or virus, or unless the animal is not likely to survive in the wild.
"This was a dependant calf," Engleby said. "Her teeth had not erupted. She was not able to hunt and lacked the survival and socialization skills needed to be successful in the wild."
Bottlenose dolphins may nurse from their mothers for up to three years, Engleby said. When the baby was found, she was underweight and had virtually no immunity to disease.
The calf's mother likely died of a bacterial infection, according to Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
At the aquarium, the little dolphin receives 24-hour-a-day monitoring, is hand-fed about 20 times a day and now weighs nearly 80 pounds. Yates said her immune system is stronger and she has no major medical issues.
Yates said that because dolphins are extremely social creatures, the ones in captivity must have a partner. The aquarium plans to first put the young dolphin in with Panama, a 40- to 45-year-old female dolphin. Later, the calf will be paired up with Winter. The calf will become Winter's life partner when Panama, her current partner, dies.