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Winter the dolphin died of twisted intestines, necropsy report confirms

Clearwater Marine Aquarium details the results of a necropsy performed on Winter, the beloved bottlenose.
Monica Braithwaite, 10, sheds a tear near a memorial to Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Saturday, November 13, 2021. She and her mother, Maritza Braithwaite come to the aquarium several times a week. Last Wednesday they were told Winter’s tank was empty and the dolphin was seeing a doctor, “I had to tell her eventually,” Maritza said.
Monica Braithwaite, 10, sheds a tear near a memorial to Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Saturday, November 13, 2021. She and her mother, Maritza Braithwaite come to the aquarium several times a week. Last Wednesday they were told Winter’s tank was empty and the dolphin was seeing a doctor, “I had to tell her eventually,” Maritza said. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Nov. 13
Updated Nov. 13

Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff members pinned cards, photographs, letters and drawings to a memorial set up for Winter as the facility reopened Saturday following the dolphin’s death Thursday night.

Floral designer Amy Dineen, with Clearwater-based All About the Vase, arrived 30 minutes early with a dolphin-shaped flower arrangement that she rushed to put together in time for the reopening.

“I’m absolutely honored,” Dineen said. “She was such a huge part of our lives. She will always be treasured and remembered.”

Winter died of intestinal torsion, or twisted intestines, a preliminary necropsy report confirmed Saturday.

“There’s nothing we could have done,” aquarium veterinarian Shelly Marquardt said. “We take comfort in knowing we did everything we could for her.”

Flowers and cards remembering Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Saturday, November 13, 2021.
Flowers and cards remembering Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Saturday, November 13, 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Intestinal torsion cuts off blood flow to the intestines and can happen to any species, including humans, Marquardt said. The torsion was “impossible” to reach through surgery. Marquardt and a group of veterinary experts across the country performed the necropsy, or animal autopsy, Friday morning. Marquardt said tests still are being done but the staff may never know if the loss of Winter’s tail when she was little had any impact.

Winter was on pain control, Marquardt said, and the staff did everything to make her as comfortable as possible in her final moments.

The bottlenose dolphin was rescued in 2005, at the age of two months, after she was found tangled in a crab trap off the Cape Canaveral coast. The dolphin’s recovery and resilience with a prosthetic tail inspired people around the world — especially kids with disabilities — and her story was transformed into two major motion pictures in the Dolphin Tale movies.

The design for her tail also helped make improvements for prosthetics, positively affecting thousands of people.

Related: Winter the dolphin’s legacy: A role model for kids with disabilities

Winter is still contributing to science after her death, the aquarium said in a statement. Intestinal torsions affect many people and animals and the results from the necropsy could help scientists better understand what causes the condition.

Winter was 16 years old when she died. Dolphins typically live for 28 years in the wild and longer in captivity, said James “Buddy” Powell, the aquarium’s executive director, while providing an update about Winter’s health Thursday. Because the Dolphin Tale star had a severed tail, some of her organs were displaced, causing chronic health issues.

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During her last days, staff would give Winter back rubs and support her as she relaxed in the water, said Brooke Bowersox, a senior animal care specialist. They also laid the dolphin on her famous blue raft and would gauge what she was enjoying during her last days.

Winter lived with two other female dolphins, Hope and PJ. Bowersox said the dolphins’ behaviors haven’t changed after Winter’s death, but staff are monitoring them.

Staff members still are processing Winter’s death, Kelly Martin, vice president of zoological care, said during a press conference Saturday.

“We’re all grieving right now,” Martin said. “It’s nice to feel a sense of community and that community has such reach. It’s national. It’s international.”

Vicki Franklin, a longtime Largo resident, placed a bouquet at Winter’s memorial and was one of the first to stand in line for the reopening. She said she would often bring her nieces and nephews to visit the dolphin when they came to town, and said they were upset to learn of Winter’s death.

About 50 guests waited at the ticket line as the aquarium officially reopened.

Winter’s empty dolphin tank had a sign above it saying, “In loving memory of Winter the dolphin, this pool will remain unoccupied.” Beside the tank, animated videos continued to play, explaining how Winter swam.

The aquarium will host a public memorial event Nov. 20. Additional details will be announced later.