Parents, movie fans and animal care workers were among thousands of people taking to social media to express their sorrow at the death of Winter the dolphin on Thursday night.
Just a couple months old when she was rescued from crab-trap rope near Cape Canaveral, Winter was fitted with a prosthetic tail and became an inspiration to people with disabilities and fans worldwide at the aquarium where she lived for 16 years. Her story was told in the hit 2011 movie Dolphin Tale and a sequel featuring Hope, another dolphin at the aquarium.
Winter died as she was undergoing treatment for a suspected gastrointestinal infection.
Stuart Saltzman, 63, was there for Winter’s entire life at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. He was in his front yard, across the street from the entrance, the day in December 2005 when Winter was rushed across Florida and arrived at the aquarium in a special ambulance.
He was there for both of Winter’s films, working as an extra, and paid her regular visits. He is among those who believe Winter saved the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in the same way the aquarium saved her.
“Without Winter, I doubt that aquarium would’ve stayed open another three or four years,” Saltzman said Friday. “The transformation was spectacular, from what it was then to what it is today. I almost don’t even recognize it anymore — and that’s a good thing.”
Winter’s popularity brought guests to Clearwater from all over the world. She became an inspiration to millions, especially those who suffered from disabilities. On his visits, Saltzman said he saw pure joy on the faces of children in wheelchairs and U.S. military veterans in tears.
“Her impact here will last far beyond the 15 years she was my neighbor,” Saltzman said. “She was truly Clearwater’s first real celebrity and has changed the city for the better.”
What made Winter so special? You needed to see her in person to answer that, Saltzman said. His last visit was three months ago.
“I’m not sure what you can find that’s more inspirational than seeing a dolphin with a prosthetic fin swim, play and make the most of life even in the horrible situation she came from,” he said.
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Heartbroken when he heard the news of her death, his biggest regret is never getting a photo with the famous dolphin.
“I was just enjoying the miracle that she was in the moment. Now I wish I could go back and just ask someone — anyone — to snap just one picture of us together.”
Saltzman joined legions of fans mourning Winter’s death. More than 26,000 people posted their condolences at the aquarium’s Facebook page by 3 p.m. Friday. Many more posted on Twitter and Instagram, including people tagging some of the stars of the movie — Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.
Connick, who played the movie’s main character, Dr. Clay Haskett, said in an Instagram video Thursday, “my heart is heavy.”
Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who played Haskett’s daughter Hazel, posted a three-minute video on Instagram mourning Winter’s loss and describing what it was like to work with the dolphin.
“It was the greatest honor of my life,” she said. “I don’t say that ironically, because, through playing Hazel, I got to be an ambassador for the aquarium for over 10 years. And I got to see first hand all of you who loved her in a way that was so deep.”
Another star, Austin Highsmith Garces, who played head dolphin specialist Phoebe, posted on Twitter, “How can I put into words what Winter meant to me & to millions of kids and people … this one little dolphin changed the world.”
Winter meant everything to 12-year-old Aaliyah Romero of Tampa, her mother Denise Pierson said in an interview Friday. They visited her at least once a year since 2014, usually for Aaliyah’s birthday.
“It started when my daughter fell in love with the movie when she was just 5,” Pierson said. “She loved that she was a fighter and that she went up against all the odds. She would just go up to the tank and talk to Winter about her day.”
She and her daughter cried as they drove to school Friday morning. They last saw Winter in July and planned to make another visit this weekend. Now, Pierson said, they may be too sad to return.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard issued a statement on Winter, saying, in part, “What a gift Winter’s 16 years have been to Clearwater and people around the world. It is humbling and makes me ask what have I done to impact my neighbors’ lives. Winter’s legacy can live on in each and every one of us.”
Many of the comments on the aquarium’s Facebook page included photos and drawings from visits with Winter through the years. One mother posted a photo of her young son curled up asleep with the stuffed Winter he embraced after she informed him of the dolphin’s death.
“This is beyond sad news,” Claudio Thalmann said in a post. “We were due to visit you guys on Saturday to see you all again after 3 years. Our son Thiago just tonight made this picture wishing Winter a quick recovery.”
“Please know your fellow animal caregivers in facilities all over the country are holding you all in our thoughts, lifting you with prayer, and grieving with you,” posted Shea Eaves. “Winter was given an incredible second chance at life, because of everyone at CMA. Her precious life was, and will continue to be, a testament to what strength and willpower can overcome.”
Staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.