Ever seen a movie star in person?
Far from the mind-bender of the big screen, they’re often shockingly tiny. In real life, they’re a sliver of their persona, a reminder that no one and everyone is special.
Winter the dolphin was that way. Based on her international stardom, her impact on so many lives, it was reasonable to expect a giant.
But she was little and impossibly cute in her pool at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. She chirped, played with a ball and a dumbbell, flopped on a mat, painted pictures for kids, unaware of her own legend.
Winter died Thursday night before surgery to treat an intestinal blockage. She was 16.
She was 2 months old when an angler found her in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral. Many people thought she was a lost cause, but the aquarium took her in. Fitted with a prosthetic tail, she learned to live and thrive. She became a tourist attraction and brought significant money and influence to Tampa Bay.
I checked in on her the weekend Dolphin Tale premiered in 2011. Human celebrities came to Clearwater to sip blue cocktails and Perrier, eat pain au chocolate and sushi. Reporters got six minutes at a time with Morgan Freeman.
Back at the tank, Winter used her little fin to wave at fans. She spent a lot of time alone in the wee and late hours, though, just being herself.
Stars, they’re just like us. That’s what made Winter so remarkable.
A dolphin without a tail? It’s almost a gag, easy to reduce to a stuffed animal with a removable appendage. But she represented so much about our messy, cross-species entanglement.
She should have lived a normal dolphin life, swimming up and down without silicone on the end. She should have never been in a movie with Harry Connick Jr. We should have never known she existed.
Instead, she put money in our pockets and hope in our hearts. She helped spread a conservation message and became an icon to people with disabilities. She illustrated the bad things humans can do, but also the good.
She gave us a chance for redemption.
I liked to watch Winter by herself, playing with her food. She shoved a capelin into the pool grate, then tossed it back to the top over and over. She was oblivious to the money, the merch, the political battles springing up around her. In that little game of solitaire, she showed why we should care. Everyone, and everything, deserves a chance at peace and a decent life.
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Winter was optimism swimming sideways, the biggest kind there is.
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