CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — “Dolphin Tale” movie star and real-life rescued dolphin, Winter, who died at age 16 on Thursday at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, had been living at the facility since she was not even one year old.
On Wednesday, the world learned the movie star and beloved marine mammal was in critical condition while fighting a gastrointestinal infection.
A day later, the aquarium announced the dolphin had died after her battle with intestinal issues around 8 a.m. while being held by her caregivers.
As depicted in the movie, Winter was found by a fisherman in Mosquito Lagoon, abandoned by her mother, and tangled in a crab trap line when she was only 2-months-old. The trap’s line cut off circulation to Winter’s tail flukes which led to the loss of her tail and repeated on-and-off use of prosthetics.
Winter’s tail moved side-to-side, rather than up-and-down, so she was fitted with a new tail to help her swim normally.
Her prosthetic tail was designed by Sarasota doctor Dan Strzempka, who also wears a prosthetic.
8 On Your Side was there in Dec. 2019 when Winter was reunited with fisherman Jim Savage, who rescued her from the crab trap.
Savage was out fishing that day when he saw a buoy out of place. He figured a fish was just disturbing it, but when he went to check it out, he first laid eyes on Winter.
“Right when I got there, she came up to get a breath, gasped and had the trap and the rope and everything all wrapped around her,” Savage explained. “So I grabbed the buoy, cut the rope and pulled her up on the deck of the boat. The rope was embedded in her skin and her tail and I pulled it all out and cut everything away.
“It was so tightly wrapped around her that her tail and her head were almost touching from spinning, trying to get away.”
In 2019, Savage brought his great-niece, Gracie, who was born with a chromosomal syndrome, to meet Winter.
“There was, I believe, a higher power that was working this all out and bringing this all together that knew that this dolphin was needed, not just for Gracie, but so many kids around the world that have been inspired to just keep going and keep trying, because if Winter can, you can,” Gracie’s mother said through tears at the time.
“If I hadn’t gone by that morning, being a fisherman and knowing that the buoy was out of line and seeing that disturbance, it was like 50 yards away, and seeing something right and slowing down and going over there…well, she wouldn’t have made it,” Savage said.
According to the aquarium, no one knows Winter’s exact birthday, but it is estimated to be Oct. 10, 2005. Since she was found in December, she is named after the season she was rescued.
Winter became an ambassador for those the world over due to her resiliency after the release of “Dolphin Tale” in 2011. Stories of inspiration on Winter’s behalf are posted on the aquarium’s website. Others with inspirational stories and connections to Winter and rescued animals at CMA are encouraged to share their own stories via the “Winter’s Inspire Program.”
Winter had recently been moved to the aquarium’s newest dolphin habitat, the Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, with other female dolphins Hope and PJ.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, bottlenose dolphins can live at least 40 years, “with some females outliving males at 60 years or more.” CMA stated on its website that the species has an estimated lifespan of 35-50 years.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium plans to set up a temporary memorial outside of the main staircase at the facility where friends and fans of winter can leave messages.
CMA plans to hold a memorial ceremony on Saturday, Nov 20. More details are expected to be released soon.