CLEARWATER — Tears ran down the faces of Kerry Thormeier and her daughter, Montie, on Saturday as they both jotted down their notes to Winter.
In Thormeier’s backpack, the Lakeland local carried a rubber duck, one of the iconic dolphin’s favorite toys, and a framed collage of photos that her 17-year-old daughter took of Winter. They would bring their offerings inside the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as a final gift.
“You were and always will be an inspiration to millions. Swim in peace sweet angel,” Thormeier wrote.
Crowds of visitors lined up, spilling out the door as the aquarium opened for the first day of its public celebration of Winter’s life. The bottlenose dolphin was rescued in 2005, having famously lost her tail after becoming tangled in a crab trap off of the Cape Canaveral coast. She inspired many people around the world, and had two major motion pictures about her life made in the Dolphin Tale movies.
About a week ago, she died of twisted intestines, an early necropsy report confirmed. The intestinal torsion was in an inoperable location and little could have been done to save her, aquarium veterinarian Shelly Marquardt told the press last Saturday.
The dolphin was 16.
The public memorial will last through Wednesday. The aquarium will host special presentations on Winter’s prosthetic tail and screen original footage of the dolphin’s rescue in its Dolphin Tale theater. To commemorate the years she lived, the aquarium temporarily lowered the price of admission to $16.
Hundreds of messages, pictures and flowers have been left at the aquarium since the dolphin died.
“You have been such an important part of our lives ever since we heard your story,” read one note posted on a corkboard wall. “Thank you for showing us how difficulties can be triumphed by playfulness, spunkiness and determination.”
“You brought a whole world together,” another message said.
Inside, electric candles lined the pavement in front of Winter’s empty pool. A human-sized bouquet of roses, shaped like a heart and a dolphin, stood in the center.
Claire Park, 10, came up to the tank with her own origami flowers. The Tampa girl spent four or five hours folding different colors of paper together for the dolphin she had visited many times with her family. After she heard of Winter’s death in school, she sat silently on the ride home and cried in her room.
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“She inspired me. She didn’t give up,” Park said. “If a dolphin kept on trying to swim without a tail, I could do anything.”
Winter’s tale of perseverance not only motivated Park, but it led her to action. When she goes to the beach, she said, she makes sure to pick up any trash she finds in the water.
Debby Rudolph flew with her daughter Delaney from Cleveland to pay their respects. The 10-year-old girl loves all dolphins, especially Winter. Delaney, wearing dolphin earrings, approached the outdoor memorial and left a picture she drew of Winter swimming. She wrote above, “We’ll miss you.”
“She’s been crying every night,” Debby Rudolph said.
Another girl, Genevieve Stallings, left a bouquet of flowers. She teared up explaining how much she loved Winter. The 14-year-old used to watch Dolphin Tale almost every day when she and her family lived on a military base in Germany.
Stallings said she looked up to Winter when she was moving across the world, returning to the U.S in 2016. One of the first things she wanted to do was visit the dolphin. She did, multiple times.
Thousands of people sent letters to the aquarium, and hundreds of thousands have liked, commented or shared posts online, aquarium spokeswoman Kelsy Long said. Many aquarium partners and organizations also donated gifts, such as Wheelchairs 4 Kids, which sent a wreath. Public officials offered condolences.
Before the aquarium opened Saturday, staff, volunteers and interns met for a private goodbye. They came together at Ruth Eckerd Hall, where both Dolphin Tale movies first premiered. It was very emotional, Long said.
Those who had worked with Winter gave speeches and shared their stories with each other. For some, the dolphin’s story had encouraged them to change their careers to work with marine life.
At the end, Long said, everyone got a small vial of bubbles and blew them together — something Winter would have loved.