Winter the dolphin, who lost her tail as a calf and was famously fitted with a prosthetic in 2007, sadly died aged 16 on November 11, 2021. Her life inspired films, children’s books, and even video games.
“With heavy hearts, Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced tonight that Winter the Dolphin died at approximately 8 p.m. as animal care experts from around the country worked to treat her gastrointestinal abnormality,” said a statement from Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida, where Winter lived.
Winter was found tangled in a crab trap line in Florida in 2005, aged only two months old, by fisherman Jim Savage. The line cut off circulation to Winter’s tail, leading to necrosis (death of tissue).
Winter was taken in by Clearwater Marine Aquarium and nursed back to health. However, after losing her tail, Winter moved her tail stump side to side while swimming, rather than up and down as dolphins normally do, causing scoliosis due to pressure on her spine.
“Her story is a bittersweet realization of the dangers faced by animals as a result of human activities in the wild,” says a page about Winter on the aquarium’s website.
After hearing about Winter on the radio in 2006, Vice President of Lower Extremity Prosthetics at Hanger Clinic Kevin Carroll offered to help by providing the dolphin with a prosthetic tail. The prosthesis was developed by Hanger Clinic’s Sarasota Area Clinic Manager Dan Strzempka, who himself has worn a prosthetic leg since he was 4 years old.
However, the process of developing a prosthesis wasn’t easy, with Carroll saying in a statement that “When we fit a socket on a person, we have one long, solid bone, and the socket isn’t moving in every direction. With a dolphin, it needs to move along with her full spine.”
Winter swimming with her prosthetic tail. Video Courtesy Of Clearwater Marine Aquarium
In a joint statement following Winter’s death, Carroll and Strzempka explained that “Working with Winter forced us to think outside the box and come up with new approaches to how we think about prosthetic devices, so much so that we came up with a new material that we now call WintersGel that allowed Winter to use her prosthetic tail with comfort. Thanks to Winter, our amputee population now benefits from this innovative technology with thousands of people using it around the world.”
Winter went on to star as herself in the films Dolphin Tale (2011) and Dolphin Tale 2 (2014), which were based on her life.
On November 7, 2021, Clearwater Marine Aquarium put out a statement saying that keepers had noticed Winter wasn’t her usual self, becoming disinterested in food. Tests indicated that Winter was “likely fighting a gastrointestinal infection.”
On November 11, the aquarium announced that Winter had “died being held by her caregivers.” A necropsy indicated that the cause of death was intestinal torsion (twisted intestines) in a location that was impossible to reach through surgery.
“Showing resilience and strength, she defied all odds,” says a memorial page for Winter. “Though Winter’s time with us has come to an end, her spirit and inspiration will continue to live on.” The memorial for Winter has raised $26,468.71 for Clearwater Marine Aquarium so far.
“Winter has given back so much to us, especially when it comes to inspiring people of all ages with life-threatening illnesses, those who have experienced traumatic injuries, and even soldiers returning from war,” said Carroll and Strzempka in their joint statement.
“Winter has brought joy to the world and will be forever remembered for her spirited demeanor and her passion for people. Winter’s impact is significant and long-lasting, and she will always hold a special place in our hearts.”