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Winter’s Tale: Read the original series about the famous Clearwater dolphin

The dolphin that would eventually star in the Dolphin Tale movies was the subject of an award-nominated 4-part series in the Times.
Winter the bottlenose dolphin swims in an aquarium tank on Sept. 7 at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater. Winter became widely known for having a prosthetic tail after being found entangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral on Florida's east coast on December 10, 2005. Injuries from the crab trap resulted in the loss of her tail.
Winter the bottlenose dolphin swims in an aquarium tank on Sept. 7 at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater. Winter became widely known for having a prosthetic tail after being found entangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral on Florida's east coast on December 10, 2005. Injuries from the crab trap resulted in the loss of her tail. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 12
Updated Nov. 12

The Tampa Bay Times (at the time the St. Petersburg Times) published a 4-part series in 2008 that chronicled the rescue of an injured baby dolphin. The dolphin had been caught in a crab trap and was brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium with little hope of survival.

Aquarium staff named the dolphin Winter. She survived and, with a specially designed prosthetic tail, thrived at the aquarium.

She become a star in the Hollywood movie Dolphin Tale (and its sequel) and a major tourist draw for Clearwater.

The series, by Times staff writer John Barry, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

We learned Thursday evening that Winter has died.

If you’re unfamiliar with Winter’s story — or even if you know it — here’s the original 2008 story about her rescue and recovery, and how she came to inspire children around the world.

Cieran Kelso, an 8-year-old from the United Kingdom, got to swim with Winter the dolphin in August 2013 at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Cieran had meningitis when he was younger and his lower legs had to be amputated. He had loved swimming, and when the amputations made it difficult for him to propel himself in the water. His father Gary Kelso figured out a way to attach a scuba flipper to the boy's prosthetic legs and now he swims well. A British newspaper wrote about it and mentioned that Cieran was obsessed with the movie Dolphin Tale and with Winter the dolphin, who also learned to swim with a prosthetic.
Cieran Kelso, an 8-year-old from the United Kingdom, got to swim with Winter the dolphin in August 2013 at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Cieran had meningitis when he was younger and his lower legs had to be amputated. He had loved swimming, and when the amputations made it difficult for him to propel himself in the water. His father Gary Kelso figured out a way to attach a scuba flipper to the boy's prosthetic legs and now he swims well. A British newspaper wrote about it and mentioned that Cieran was obsessed with the movie Dolphin Tale and with Winter the dolphin, who also learned to swim with a prosthetic. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times (2013) ]

Part 1

The muddy waters of Mosquito Lagoon cloaked the baby dolphin in invisibility. She was 2 months old, 68 pounds, a bottlenose dolphin in perfect miniature. Inches from the dark surface, she thrashed in a snare of rope that bent her like a horseshoe, mouth to tail. She was down to one instinct: Breathe.

Again and again, she fought to the surface. She gasped. She went down again. The sea waited to swallow her.

That was the end of one thing, and the miraculous beginning of another. The sea spit out the dying baby dolphin, cast her into a strange new world. She would be claimed by science and claimed by children. She’d become famous, appear on television. She’d receive visitors from around the world, and she’d help them feel whole.

They’d call her “Winter.”

A tilted buoy, a desperate gasp

At dawn on Dec. 10, 2005, all the sane fishermen slept in. They’d heard the wind whistle outside and turned in bed toward their wives’ warm backsides. Only one fisherman faced the gusty chop in Mosquito Lagoon.

Jim Savage thought about staying home when the cold front came through. But he pictured himself restlessly underfoot on a Saturday, aggravating his wife. Better to spend a few hours bundled up on the water. He trailered his 16-foot flats boat to the ramp at the north end of Canaveral National Seashore. It’s one of those beautifully muted, monochromatic places in Florida that only fishermen seem to know about. He saw it, and he wasn’t sorry for being there.

In the lagoon, he could see a line of crab pot buoys, all tilted over with the wind. He looked again - something weird there.

One buoy was tilted opposite, into the wind.

He motored toward it. The lagoon was just a few feet deep, but the water had churned into a brown chop. He couldn’t see whatever was pulling the buoy over.

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Jim Savage holds up a crab trap buoy and line very similar to the one he found the dolphin now known as "Winter" entangled in.
Jim Savage holds up a crab trap buoy and line very similar to the one he found the dolphin now known as "Winter" entangled in. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times ]

He heard before he saw: a heaving, desperate gasp.

Jim pulled on the buoy and retrieved a bleeding female baby dolphin, hog-tied in the crab pot line. She looked no bigger than an armful. She squealed in pain. Her tail looked a mess. The baby dolphin thrashed in the ropes, struggling to breathe.

Jim scanned the water, the shoreline, looking for help. He was on his own.

He figured the dolphin must have snooped the bait in the trap, tangled her tail in the rope, then tried to spin out of it.

As she spun, she tried to bite through the rope. That only cinched the rope tighter, cutting into her mouth. Jim dug out his filet knife and sliced the rope into pieces.

The dolphin wriggled loose, rope embedded in her mouth. She drifted a few feet, out of reach, and stopped near the boat.

Jim reached out to touch her, but she squealed and moved away. Then she stopped again. She was listing, unable to swim. She was scared of Jim, but she clearly sensed a need of him. She seemed to be waiting for him to do something.

Jim was an auto mechanic. He had never been this close to a dolphin. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he couldn’t leave. He would lose sight of the baby. He called an emergency number for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. They promised someone would come.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to send someone if you’re not.”

He waited, helpless, through the morning, drifting beside the dolphin as the sun climbed. He watched the gray shape in the water, listened to her ragged breathing. Each time he tried to touch her, the baby squealed - a shrieking whistle.

He talked to her, softly, to calm her.

“You’ll be okay.”

Knowing when a cause is lost

Teresa Mazza was visiting friends that day in Ormond Beach, not far from Mosquito Lagoon, when she got the call.

She was 23, a research assistant for the nonprofit Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando. Among the institute’s many marine missions, it rescued stranded and injured whales and dolphins.

She had never been in charge of a rescue. She had no first aid kit for a bleeding dolphin. She grabbed what she had — a measuring tape and a stopwatch — and jumped in the car.

When she reached the ramp, Teresa could see Jim’s boat, and a second boat that had stopped to help. Four men in the second boat taxied her to Jim.

As soon as she saw the dolphin, she kicked off her shoes and jumped overboard in her jacket and T-shirt. She felt the shock of the freezing water. The dolphin squealed and moved away. Teresa couldn’t do anything for her this way. She climbed back in the boat.

They made a plan. The two boats slowly herded the dolphin toward a sandbar near the ramp, beaching it. Teresa and Jim climbed out of the boat and waded to her. Teresa got a clear view of her wounds, first the deep cuts in her mouth, then the exposed veins in her tail. The baby trembled. She looked at Teresa, eyes wide and panicked.

Teresa Mazza was visiting friends in Ormond Beach in 2006, not far from Mosquito Lagoon, when she got a call to assist with a dolphin rescue. The dolphin was caught in a crab trap.
Teresa Mazza was visiting friends in Ormond Beach in 2006, not far from Mosquito Lagoon, when she got a call to assist with a dolphin rescue. The dolphin was caught in a crab trap. [ Courtesy of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institut ]

Teresa was sure the dolphin was dying. She lifted the baby slightly to support her organs. She placed Jim’s hand on the dolphin’s heart. He could feel it hammering against the skin.

They waited. They made more cell phone calls. Teresa called her colleague and friend Claire Surrey at the wildlife commission. She came right out. Teresa and Claire took turns cradling the dolphin in their laps. Hours passed. Their hands grew numb in the water.

Claire Surrey, who was working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2006, assisted with the rescue of the entangled dolphin that would later become known as, Winter
Claire Surrey, who was working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2006, assisted with the rescue of the entangled dolphin that would later become known as, Winter [ Courtesy of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institut ]

Hubbs-SeaWorld contacted the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. Harbor Branch had a special ambulance for injured whales and dolphins. It dispatched the ambulance, plus a chase truck with a vet and a team of dolphin experts.

Jim and the other boaters eventually went home. The afternoon wore on. The two women sat together in the shallow water, talking little. Loud voices upset the dolphin. The baby was in obvious pain.

They took turns cradling the dolphin, scooping water over her head to keep her cool. Teresa thought she would die in her arms.

In the afternoon, Harbor Branch called with bad news. Its ambulance had blown a tire miles from the lagoon. The truckload of experts would continue on, but they would have to find another ambulance. They would try SeaWorld in Orlando.

About the same time, a family of dolphins appeared by the sandbar - two or three adults and several young. As they passed, the baby in Teresa’s arms began to squeal.

Teresa knew the little dolphin was critically injured. Her ragged tail had begun to turn white. This was likely her last look at Mosquito Lagoon, her last moment of freedom, even if she lived.

For a crazy second, Teresa pictured the baby wriggling free, swimming off with her family. The dolphin squirmed as if aching to go.

The second passed. The dolphins disappeared.

Teresa watched them go. She couldn’t imagine any happy ending. Even the other dolphins had given up. Animals have a way of knowing when a cause is lost.

She began to cry.

En route to Clearwater

At dusk, a SeaWorld rescue van arrived. Teresa, Claire and the Harbor Branch team carried the baby ashore in a stretcher. She was headed across the state to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Teresa couldn’t go with her. She had to catch a flight the next day to a marine science conference in San Diego.

At the conference, everyone had heard about the dolphin rescue. A few days into the conference, a colleague stopped her in a crowd.

“Did you hear what happened to your dolphin?”

No, she hadn’t.

“Her tail fell off.”

Part 2

The dolphin arrived by van after 10 p.m., rescued from a tangle of crab pot line off the Canaveral National Seashore on the opposite coast. She was 2 months old, about the size of a big dog. Her eyes were shut. She bled from the mouth, from cuts under her pectoral fins. Her tail looked like frayed paper. A white rot advanced from the tail’s edges.

Only one aquarium in the state was willing or able to take her. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium had once been a sewage plant. They’ve painted the place aqua and pumped Calypso music through the intercom. The scent is fresh and briny. Dolphins frolic in deep concrete tanks that served foul past purposes. On Dec. 10, 2005, humble Clearwater was the baby dolphin’s only chance.

Veterinarian Janine Cianciolo, known as “Dr. C,” readied the big kiddie pool the aquarium uses for an ER. She lacked dolphin baby formula, but sent h

ead trainer Abby Stone to Publix for 10 cartons of goat’s milk.

 As part of around the clock care, Dr. Janine Cianciolo gets ready to feed Winter in the pool behind the main building at the aquarium facility.
As part of around the clock care, Dr. Janine Cianciolo gets ready to feed Winter in the pool behind the main building at the aquarium facility. [ BILL SERNE | Times (2006) ]

The issue of euthanasia hung in the air. The baby’s tail looked hopeless. They had never heard of a dolphin living without tail. If this one did, she would require round-the-clock care for months. At best, she would grow up crippled and captive for life. An injection now might curtail much suffering and expense.

But the aquarium already had three dolphins and a collection of sea turtles, most of which were disabled or disfigured by too-close encounters with humans. This place looked and sounded like Margaritaville, but its mission was to help animals with no other chance.

This dolphin would be euthanized only if her suffering was too great or her life wasn’t viable. It was Dr. C’s call.

The vet brought her sleeping bag. That was her answer to the euthanasia question. She planned to camp there through the holidays, if the dolphin lived that long.

In the ER pool, Dr. C fed a tube down the dolphin’s throat and pumped in electrolytes and fluids to stave off dehydration and stabilize the animal’s metabolism. She re-inserted the tube every two hours.

Trainer Abby rocked the dolphin like a baby. She had been starved and tethered to the crab pot for unknown hours, exhausted by a five-hour van ride across the state. But Abby felt her squirm in her arms. The fight in the baby dolphin was a good sign. Abby knew this motherless creature wouldn’t survive unless she wanted to.

The night wore on. After four hours, Abby was relieved by a veterinary technician and two high school volunteers. They took turns supporting the dolphin in their arms, guiding her through slow, gentle circles. They hoped the rhythm would relax her. They fought a night chill from a cold front by ducking under a hot shower.

The dolphin didn’t open her eyes. She barely moved as they floated her. But when morning came, she was still breathing.

Dr. C and Abby saw a winter miracle in the making.

Winter — that would be this dolphin’s name.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium Supervisor of animal training, Elaina Franklin feeds Winter in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's 80 thousand gallon pool, which was used as a prop in the filming of Dolphin Tale, the movie.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium Supervisor of animal training, Elaina Franklin feeds Winter in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's 80 thousand gallon pool, which was used as a prop in the filming of Dolphin Tale, the movie. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2010) ]

Swimming like a fish

Within days, Winter’s tail had virtually melted away, lost to necrosis, or cell death. The blood flow to the tail had been cut off by the crab pot line, probably for more than a day.

Dr. C couldn’t tell how far into Winter’s peduncle, or lower trunk, the necrosis had gone. She couldn’t reverse it. All she could do was wait to see how much more dissolved away. If the rot got to the spinal cord, Winter would die.

Day by day, Dr. C trimmed dead tissue and applied antibiotics. Winter accepted the care passively. Dr. C diagnosed her as too sick and weak, and “too young and dumb,” to show fear of humans.

After the first 48 hours, the vet attached a long nipple to a Dasani water bottle and began to nurse the dolphin. She concocted a formula that included an artificial milk product for zoo animals, safflower oil, vitamins and fish liquefied in a giant blender. The nursing was awkward. In the wild, baby dolphins nurse underwater. Winter also had serious mouth wounds. But she quickly got the hang of it.

Through January, the necrosis persisted and the stump of Winter’s tail shrank. Three vertebrae melted away.

Dr. C didn’t reach healthy tissue until Valentine’s Day had passed. The necrosis had stopped, one vertebra short of the spinal cord.

Even then the wound wouldn’t close. The baby remained isolated in the kiddie pool under 24-hour care.

They soon discovered that Winter would accept her meals only through a Dasani bottle. They tried Aquafina. Nothing doing. They bought Dasani by the case, pouring out the water, refilling with the fish goop.

Winter gained weight and moved around on her own. Dr. C added so many fish to the blender that the goop wouldn’t flow through the nipple.

Winter swam like a fish, moving the stump of her peduncle laterally, side to side, rather than up and down as dolphins do. She dog paddled with her pectoral fins, which are designed for steering, not for propulsion.

That raised a host of new concerns. The side-to-side motion subjected her spine to unnatural pressures, causing it to curve. Scoliosis became the new threat.

In the summer, about six months after her rescue, she left the ER. She joined the aquarium’s three other dolphins in the larger indoor tanks. She was matched in one tank with Panama, an older female, that they hoped would teach Winter how to be a dolphin.

 Winter swims in a tank with Panama, another dolphin being cared for by the facility in 2008.
Winter swims in a tank with Panama, another dolphin being cared for by the facility in 2008. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times (2008) ]

A tail for a dolphin

The aquarium had another newcomer getting adjusted — a new CEO named David Yates. He had been hired two months after Winter’s rescue. One of his first tasks was to consider Winter’s permanent residency. Dolphins are plentiful off Clearwater Beach. People see them leaping in the gulf every day. So what made this one dolphin worth months of intensive care and up to 40 years of room and board?

One of the first moves that David Yates had to make as Clearwater Marine Aquarium's new CEO was to consider Winter’s permanent residency.
One of the first moves that David Yates had to make as Clearwater Marine Aquarium's new CEO was to consider Winter’s permanent residency. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times ]

David had a role in mind for Winter. He understood that dolphins have a special relationship with humans. People bestow dolphins with human traits and feelings - a sense of humor, a mourning instinct, even empathy. Dolphins have been mythologically bonded to man since the Greeks. But the aquarium’s wildlife mission didn’t apply only to dolphins. It applied equally to its captured sea turtles, many of which had been maimed by monofilament fishing line, or other deadly litter. The point was to show the carnage. Let people see the price of human carelessness.

David also knew a good story when he saw one. He had formerly promoted the Iron Man triathlon. He had a lot of TV and radio contacts. He called every national media outlet he knew — NBC, CBS, BBC, NPR and AP. “I have a story for you,” he would say, “a disabled baby dolphin we’re teaching to swim without a tail.”

Everybody wanted that story. Winter found herself on the Today show. She found herself on the Early Show. Her story ran cross-country on the AP wire. It was broadcast internationally on BBC — audience: 270-million.

In Orlando, a guy named Kevin Carroll heard NPR’s version on his car radio. He called David. He introduced himself as vice president of a national company that makes artificial limbs — Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.

“I can put a tail on your dolphin.”

Part 3

Dan Strzempka works in a lab cluttered with loose feet, legs, hands, arms — all made of plastic and steel. Most are adult size. Some are sadly smaller — the size of a child’s foot or hand.

Dan has worn a prosthetic leg since age 4, when he slid under a lawn mower. He now makes them for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics. His lab is in Sarasota.

Two years ago, Dan got a call from Hanger vice president Kevin Carroll about a baby dolphin that had lost her tail. She was now in the custody of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The baby was doing all right, except she had developed scoliosis from moving her stump in an unnatural motion — side to side, like a fish.

How about going partners with me to design a prosthetic tail, Kevin asked. Think it will work?

The idea wasn’t outrageous. Dogs and cats have been fitted with new legs. An elephant named Motala in Thailand stomps around on a prosthetic foot. A stork in Bucharest sports a fake beak. Hanger once designed a leg for an ostrich. But Hanger had never had a client whose world is saltwater.

Dan didn’t hesitate.

“Of course it will work.”

Dan Strzempka, a prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, shows one of the prosthetic tails he created for Winter, a dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Dan Strzempka, a prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, shows one of the prosthetic tails he created for Winter, a dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. [ Times ]

Dan didn’t admit it to Kevin, but all he knew about dolphins was that they were cute.

What he saw was a challenge.

Dan spent two weeks at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota boning up on dolphin biomechanics. He made a list of foreseeable obstacles. The more he thought about them, the longer the list got.

Would a wild animal hold still for fittings? Is any prosthesis durable enough for saltwater? Will any prosthesis stay on a dolphin as it thrusts itself 9 feet in the air, or speeds through the water at 30 mph? And how would the dolphin tell him what hurt?

Dan had trouble with his own prosthesis. After 36 holes of golf, it sometimes slipped. How could he keep a prosthesis on a zooming, leaping, twirling dolphin?

The aquarium had already been approached by the Bridgestone tire company, which had made a prosthetic tail for a dolphin named Fuji in Japan. But Fuji still had part of her fluke. The tire-maker concluded it couldn’t help Winter because she had nothing left to which they could attach the tail.

Dan’s first challenge was to make a liner for Winter’s lower trunk, or peduncle. A liner fits like a sock over the stump, cushioning skin and bone. The prosthesis cinches to it. It’s often made of soft plastic. Winter would need something like that, but thicker and softer, able to stand up to saltwater, and perhaps sticky, so it would stay on.

Dan and Kevin worked with a chemical engineer, who concocted a stew of “silicone elastomer.” Out of the goo emerged a gel, soft like a baby-bottle nipple, but thick and strong and sticky.

Dan tried the gel on his own fake leg. It stood up to golf.

The next challenge was Winter’s state of mind. She had survived near-drowning and the loss of her tail by her sheer exuberance and resilience, and her emotional bond with her trainer Abby Stone. Over the first year, she had transformed from a traumatized, listless baby to a funny character who swam straight to strangers and enjoyed country music at mealtime.

If that changed, if Winter gave up, all the prosthetic technology in the world wouldn’t matter.

Abby began letting Winter wear the liner for short spells. Dolphins shed heat through their tails, so Abby had to be sure the liner didn’t wreak havoc on Winter’s metabolism. Abby found she needed a lubricant just to get the liner on. She got stares and smiles at the drugstores in Clearwater when she began buying KY Jelly by the case.

Winter didn’t mind wearing the big sock on her stump. After a couple of months, Dan fashioned a hard shell to fit over the liner, to get Winter used to the idea of wearing plastic. Winter didn’t mind that either. After two more months, he built her a tiny tail.

The first time they put the tail on her, an audience of trainers and Hanger technicians hovered, as nervous as helicopter parents on the first day of kindergarten. Winter kicked off her new tail, let it sink to the bottom of the pool, picked it up in her mouth, and fetched it back to Abby.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium trainer Abby Stone checks the movement on Winter the dolphin's new artificial tail while Panama keeps a watchful eye.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium trainer Abby Stone checks the movement on Winter the dolphin's new artificial tail while Panama keeps a watchful eye. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times (2008) ]

Abby put the tail on again.

Winter fetched again.

Abby went through buckets of fish treats to get Winter to stop playing fetch.

By now Winter had become Dan’s hobby. Instead of golf, he hung out at the aquarium. He brought his kids. The challenge seemed bigger than ever. Could he replicate one of nature’s finest propulsion systems?

He visited the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce to sit in on the necropsy of a dead 2-year-old dolphin. He used the dolphin’s fluke as a template for a new tail for Winter.

Over the next two years, Dan and Kevin built 50 prototypes and put in hundreds of unpaid hours. They burned through about $200,000 of Hanger’s money on myriad designs. Winter used up 20 cases of KY. Dan fried the high-tech, $3,000 microprocessor in his own prosthesis by kneeling at the squirting end of Winter’s water hose.

The latest design allowed the tail to swing up and down on stainless steel joints adapted from children’s leg braces. Dan has been working on a design that replaces steel support rods with either Kevlar or nylon. But the innovations have brought him only incrementally closer to the intricate workings of a real dolphin tail.

Winter’s biggest improvement: Her scoliosis has been reversed.

Does she know she’s a dolphin?

Her physical therapy was a ballet. It usually took place in the morning, when Winter was hungry. Thirty minutes of therapy required two six-pack-sized coolers of fish — double her normal feeding. By November, Winter weighed 250 pounds, four times the size she was when she fought for life in Mosquito Lagoon. She was more than half way to her adult weight of around 400 pounds.

Abby Stone gives Winter, the tail-less dolphin, a smooch during a training session in his tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2011.
Abby Stone gives Winter, the tail-less dolphin, a smooch during a training session in his tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2011. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times (2011) ]

In two years, Abby Stone and Diane Young, the aquarium’s director of animal care, had worked out a complex choreography of small, isolated muscle exercises and body motions to thwart scoliosis and nudge Winter toward swimming like a dolphin.

Abby started with a whistle that brought Winter to her side. Winter positioned her peduncle so Abby could slide on the liner and the tail. Winter got a fish.

Winter gently moved her tail up and down. Abby paddled beside her, watching Winter’s pectoral fins. Winter had compensated for her lost tail by using her pectorals to help her swim. It was an unnatural motion. Abby had tried for seven months to break her of the habit. Winter held her pectorals still. Abby blew her whistle, meaning “good job,” and tossed her a fish.

Abby turned Winter loose. Winter dove, using her tail. They circled together in a waltz, Winter’s tail undulating, up and down. She was clearly using the tail properly, but it was not the breakthrough Abby longed for. In surrounding tanks, other dolphins wowed tourists with their acrobatics. Abby wanted to see Winter someday shoot across the tank, leap in the air and clear the water.

They knew that Winter used the tail only to please them, to score fish.

She hadn’t figured out — and maybe never would — what this tail can do. She might not even know she’s a dolphin.

From one dolphin to kids

The project started as an interesting challenge, but two years later, what had it all been for? How was one dolphin worth so much time and money? Dan and Kevin didn’t worry about that in the beginning. The nights and weekends were theirs to give, and innovation always leads someplace unexpected.

Kevin, who first had the idea to put a tail on a dolphin, hoped someday the project would lead to new therapies for humans.

A year and a half ago, he heard about a kid in Oregon who had lost both legs to meningitis. She was just 10. She used a wheelchair. Wearing a prosthesis was painful and abrasive. The skin on her thighs was too fragile, the consistency of paper.

It occurred to Kevin: Why not try Winter’s gel liner on this little girl?

Kevin arranged for her parents to bring her to Sacramento for a trial. Months later, she was walking to class on two prosthetic legs.

She was the first kid. One by one, other kids fell into the picture.

They just started showing up.

Part 4

Third grade was a doozy. Katrina Simpkins, survivor of a half-dozen surgeries and body casts, had a stunted right thigh. Her right foot reached only to her left knee. She wore a prosthesis to school, and never found a way to fit in. There was this kid, this one little torturer, who kept at her all year.

For her hard slog through third grade, Katrina was allowed to pick the family’s first vacation trip. Katrina’s surgeries and expenses had made vacations an impossible luxury. But in June 2007, they hit the road for Florida. Katrina had chosen her personal Mecca, Cinderella Castle at Disney World. Her mom checked the route from their home in Columbia City, Ind., and found an aquarium not far from Disney. Might as well stop there, too.

At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Katrina peeked into a dolphin tank.

“Did I just see a stub?”

The dolphin was “a little girl” like her, an aquarium worker told her. She had lost her tail and nearly died when she entangled herself in rope from a crab pot. This girl dolphin was named Winter. She had a prosthesis of her own, a plastic tail, that helped her swim.

Katrina crept to the tank’s edge. Winter came to her. She stopped. She lifted her head. She made eye contact. She seemed to be speaking to Katrina:

We’re the same.

Katrina Simpkins, 8, watches Winter, the tailless Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphin, swim at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2008.
Katrina Simpkins, 8, watches Winter, the tailless Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphin, swim at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2008. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times ]

Journeys to see an injured dolphin

For two years, it has been one child after another. They’ve showed up on prosthetic legs, or in wheelchairs, or sick from cancer, or hearing impaired, all hurting or struggling in some way.

Sophie, 3, from Texas.

Heath, 5, from Orlando.

Brandon, 11, from Hudson.

Aidan, 7, from St. Petersburg.

McKenna, 9, from Dallas.

Phoebe, 8, from Clearwater.

Bailee, 4, from Knoxville, Tenn.

No one anticipated these kids when the aquarium launched a project to fit a baby dolphin with a prosthetic tail. But the list keeps growing.

Aquarium head trainer Abby Stone, right, and Diane Young put Winter's prosthetic fin on her as Katrina Simpkins, back left, Anthony Burruto, Alex Miller, Melissa Stockwell and the VP of Prosthetics with Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., Kevin Carroll, watch in 2007.
Aquarium head trainer Abby Stone, right, and Diane Young put Winter's prosthetic fin on her as Katrina Simpkins, back left, Anthony Burruto, Alex Miller, Melissa Stockwell and the VP of Prosthetics with Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., Kevin Carroll, watch in 2007. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2007) ]

Under Winter’s spell

Back in Indiana, all Katrina talked about was the dolphin with no tail. For two weeks, she cried and begged her mother to take her back to Clearwater.

Maria Simpkins called the aquarium’s CEO, David Yates. He had introduced himself to Katrina on their visit. He told her to call him any time. On the phone, Maria asked him to help her out. “Please tell Katrina that Winter is all right.”

David assured Katrina that the aquarium and Winter would always welcome her back. The call began a phone and text-messaging relationship between the CEO and the child that continued for a year and a half. She would watch him come and go on a Web camera set up over the dolphin tanks. On any given day, David had 10 text messages from Katrina on his BlackBerry.

She returned to the aquarium five times. The aquarium paid for one trip. The staff treated her like one of its own. She roamed the building, helped with the shows, assumed the role of someone in charge. She sometimes called herself the CEO. David would find her seated behind his desk.

This is a child, David said, who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Under the spell of Winter, she feels confident. She belongs.

Katrina Simpkins gives Winter, the tail-less dolphin, a kiss while assisting Clearwater Marine Aquarium Head Trainer Abby Stone with Winter's prosthetic tail in 2008.
Katrina Simpkins gives Winter, the tail-less dolphin, a kiss while assisting Clearwater Marine Aquarium Head Trainer Abby Stone with Winter's prosthetic tail in 2008. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times ]

‘She raised her flipper’

Other children like Katrina talk about “feeling normal” around Winter.

Aidan Schmitz, a solemn 7-year-old from St. Petersburg, was born with only one bone in her left lower leg. Aidan saw Winter on the Today show, and visited her at the aquarium.

“Winter looked at me. I waved at her, and she raised her flipper.”

Aidan Schmitz prepares to give Winter a fish as trainer Abby Stone directs the tail-less dolphin in 2008.
Aidan Schmitz prepares to give Winter a fish as trainer Abby Stone directs the tail-less dolphin in 2008. [ Times (2011) ]

Brandon Saunders, 11, from Hudson, lost his leg on Memorial Day 2006 to a boat propeller. Brandon was sitting in the back of his dad’s boat, snuggled up in a towel when the boat hit a rock. Everyone fell out, even the dog. Brandon’s towel caught on the propeller and pulled him into the blades.

David Yates heard about Brandon on the news and invited the boy to meet the dolphin. They had both survived a tragedy at sea. They bore the scars of kindred spirits.

Winter let Brandon pet her.

The dolphin that could

Fourth grade has been another doozy for Katrina Simpkins, the little girl from Indiana.

She fell on the hardwood floor at home and broke her hip. While fixing her hip, doctors found a knee fracture. When those healed, she broke her shin. Katrina was in a wheelchair from April to August. She started fearing school again, didn’t want the kids to see her that way.

David Yates, her telephone pal, flew to Chicago to be with her at Shriners Hospitals for Children. He got there before she did and surprised her in the parking lot.

He had brought good news. Since Winter was rescued, summer attendance at the aquarium had doubled. Soldiers hurt in Iraq had discovered Winter. Donations were way up. A $2-million renovation was almost completed. Winter was getting a new tank. A video documentary, Winter, the Dolphin That Could!, was coming out soon. A book was in the works.

David had brought a video camera, hoping to include Katrina in the documentary. He followed the girl into an examination room and sat beside her. A doctor came in to explain bad news. She would need more surgery on her hip. Not now, but in a couple of years. David watched Katrina react. She quietly asked questions.

David was awed by her composure. In that sterile examination room, the CEO, the talkative promoter, fumbled for words.

Winter’s legacy

On a recent visit to the aquarium, Katrina ran into Dan Strzempka, the prosthetics designer who made Winter’s tail. He and his boss, Kevin Carroll, were beside the dolphin tank, taking more measurements of Winter. Katrina saw Dan’s prosthesis. Dan told her how he had lost his leg as a small boy.

Winter looked happy. She glided around the pool like a diva, flirting with her human admirers. But Dan was more concerned about how Katrina looked. He and Kevin didn’t like the prosthesis she wore. The protective covering for her skin was missing. She had blisters. She complained it didn’t fit right. Dan looked it over, frowning.

“How about I make a new one for you?”

In October, Katrina came to Dan’s Sarasota lab for fittings. She stayed a week as he labored on a complicated design, intent on preventing those chronic fractures and blisters.

He worked on it all week. He secretly borrowed Katrina’s favorite T-shirt from her mom. He sewed it over the top of her new prosthesis.

He unveiled it at the end of the week. It was pink and purple. The lettering was bordered by sea shells. It read:

Winter.

Katrina Simpkins shows off her new prosthetic  printed with Winter's name on it.
Katrina Simpkins shows off her new prosthetic printed with Winter's name on it. [ JIM DAMASKE | Times ]