CLEARWATER ― Winter the dolphin, the beloved star of the “Dolphin Tale” movies whose story of resilience with a prosthetic tail, and recent illness, captured attention around the world, has died.
Winter died at about 7:45 p.m. as she was being prepped for exploratory surgery to treat an intestinal blockage at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, according to aquarium board chairperson Paul Auslander. She was 16.
Aquarium staff noticed Winter stopped eating and began to behave differently on Nov. 1. She was being treated around the clock for a gastrointestinal infection and initially responded to antibiotics but took a turn on Thursday, according to the board chairperson.
Auslander said a team of about 15 veterinarians and technicians were preparing Winter for the “last-ditch effort surgery” to treat the blockage when her blood pressure spiked and breathing became heavy.
”She was pretty lively and feeling pretty good and when they started to do all the preparations with the IV and taking blood and all of that, in medical terms, you’d say she stroked out,” he said.
Auslander said a necropsy will determine the cause of death, but that heart failure is suspected. “These are highly intelligent animals and you got the feeling she’s been through a lot and she didn’t want to go through it anymore,” he said.
“While we are heartbroken by Winter’s death, we are comforted knowing that our team did everything possible to give her the best chance at survival. We worked with specialists and marine mammal experts from around the country to provide her with the best care available. Our staff worked around the clock during this challenging time,” said Dr. Shelly Marquardt, a veterinarian. “I’m honored to work alongside such dedicated and talented professionals who gave their all for Winter.”
”There are some people here who have literally grown up with this animal, and they are sitting in corners crying,” Auslander said.
Her story began in a bloody tangle of crab-trap rope in the muddy shallows north of Cape Canaveral. It ended in the aquarium that she made famous, in a county that benefited greatly from her unlikely aquatic superstardom.
In the years after Winter the dolphin was rescued and rehomed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, she became a movie star, an economic engine and a symbol of perseverance. Her recovery, after losing her tail and adapting to a prosthesis, made her a local icon: In St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Bay Times stories over the past decade and a half, she was called the Elvis of Tampa Bay, the Laurence Olivier of the Clearwater aquarium, the Mickey Mouse of Pinellas County.
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On a cold Saturday in December 2005, a fisherman found Winter, then two months old, badly injured and struggling to breathe. Only Clearwater Marine Aquarium was willing to take her. Necrosis ate away at her tail; her survival was uncertain. But she gained weight by sucking fish smoothies out of Dasani bottles, relearned to swim and eventually moved in with an older dolphin, Panama, who became an adoptive mother to Winter before dying in 2013, at around age 40.
The first few years of her life were chronicled in a 2008 St. Petersburg Times series, written by John Barry, that was later a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. It followed her incredible recovery; the media blitz by the aquarium’s then-chief executive, David Yates, who made Winter international news; and the prosthetics builders who created Winter’s new tail, and in doing so created designs that could also help people — including some of the children with disabilities who felt intense bonds with the dolphin.
Yates had already been pitching a movie about Winter for years. Soon after the Times series, the news began trickling out: Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd, would come out in 2011. Winter would appear as herself, with help from computer graphics and animatronics. And the film would be shot in Pinellas County.
Dolphin Tale, which later spawned a 2014 sequel, was a boon for the aquarium, which saw annual attendance grow from 200,000 to 750,000, and for Tampa Bay tourism. It did not come without controversy: Political battles sprung up around the efforts to expand the aquarium, and some former employees and aquarium board members criticized Yates’ publicity-forward approach.
Winter, though, remained herself, those close to her said over the years. She chowed pounds of capelin and silverside; she swam in her tank, sometimes without her prosthetic tail, propelling herself side-to-side like a fish, rather than up-and-down like dolphins usually do.
When Abby Stone, a longtime trainer who had worked with Winter since her arrival at the aquarium, was asked earlier this year if the dolphin was a Hollywood diva, she laughed.
“No,” Stone said. “Not at all.”
Auslander said Winter had contracted infections before, but that they had never been as serious. With a severed tail, some of the dolphin’s organs were displaced, which caused chronic health issues, he said.
“This was managed in the past, but for whatever reason, this got pretty serious and they kept treating her as they normally did and she wasn’t responding,” he said.
“Sixteen is not that young nor that old for a dolphin,” said James “Buddy” Powell, the aquarium’s executive director, while providing an update about Winter’s health Thursday morning. A dolphin can live to be around 28 years old in the wild, and in aquariums they are known to live longer.
As Winter’s story of resiliency had inspired children and adults all over the world, condolences and messages of concern have been flooding in since the news of her illness was announced earlier this week.
Auslander said the Today show was scheduled to film a segment at the aquarium on Friday.
Much of the aquarium’s fame has come from Winter’s story, but Auslander said the facility’s mission of rescue, rehabilitation and education will only be strengthened with her legacy.
“We’ve always known Winter, unfortunately, wasn’t forever,” he said. “She’s so much of the history of CMA and Clearwater. She was a special creature.”