Beloved star of ‘Dolphin Tale’ films dies at 16 at Clearwater aquarium

Jay Handelman Derek Gilliam
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Winter, the 16-year-old bottlenose dolphin who survived losing her tail and became the beloved star of the 2011 film “Dolphin Tale,” died Thursday night at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The aquarium plans a memorial for the marine mammal on Nov. 20. Additional details, including start time, had not been released before the Herald-Tribune's print deadline.

After losing her flukes, the end of a tail that propels a dolphin through the water, at just two months old after being caught in a crab trap on the east coast of Florida, Winter wasn't expected to live. But with the help of a prosthetic tail developed by the Hanger Clinic, she defied the odds.

Her persistence has provided young and old alike inspiration to tackle challenges they face head on.

Just this past June, Sarasota Polio survivor Kathi Coleman visited the museum after the company that built her leg brace, invited her to meet Winter, as that company built the prosthetic tail for the dolphin.

Coleman requires the use of a leg brace to get around and felt connected to the dolphin through their mobility challenges.

“I love being here at the aquarium,” Coleman said during her visit. “Seeing Winter with the prosthetic, that's what’s pretty cool, that Hanger Clinic can do something for a mammal like that, as well as for humans.”

Others see how she's overcome the odds and feel a special bond.

According to Tampa Bay Channel 10, 15-year-old Grace Savage, who sufferers from a genetic issue,  had developed a connection with Winter in 2019 during a trip to the aquarium.

Katie Savage, Grace's mom, said each day they don't know what Grace's heath holds.

"She has so many things going against her but she continues to fight and conquer and overcome. That was something she always had in common with Winter, the overcoming of the medical challenge," Katie Savage, Grace's mother told the television station.

The aquarium announced the news of Winter's death shortly before 10 p.m. Thursday in a Tweet that said, “With heavy hearts, CMA announced that Winter the Dolphin died at approximately 8 p.m. as animal care experts from around the country worked to treat her gastrointestinal abnormality. The CMA family is devastated.”

Previously:Sarasota polio survivor shares unique connection with dolphin at Clearwater Aquarium

Prior to her death, the aquarium said it will temporarily close to treat the dolphin. In a statement, the officials said the venue will be closed Friday to give staff members time to grieve. 

The film starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman detailed the extensive efforts experts took to fit her with a prosthetic tail.

“While we are heartbroken by Winter’s death, we are comforted knowing that our team did everything possible to give her the best chance at survival,” the aquarium said in a statement, adding that the medical team tried several life-saving efforts but she died being held by caregivers.

Winter, seen here swimming in a tank at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, plays herself in "Dolphin Tale," the 2011 family-friendly movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson.

“We worked with specialists and marine mammal experts from around the country to provide her with the best care available,” said veterinarian Dr. Shelly Marquardt. “Our staff worked around the clock during this challenging time. I’m honored to work alongside such dedicated and talented professionals who gave their all for Winter.”

The film was shot primarily around Tampa Bay and at the Clearwater aquarium, which became an international tourist attraction for film fans eager to see Winter.

A sequel “Dolphin Tale 2,” released in 2014, featured Winter and Hope, a second rescued dolphin that was treated and cared for at the aquarium, which also includes sea turtle and manatee rescue programs.

The aquarium recently completed an $80 million expansion that included a 1.5 million-gallon dolphin complex to handle the crowds.

After news of Winter's death spread, posts flooded social media, including more than 26,000 comments and 194,000 shares on a post from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's Facebook page.

"Our household is devastated," wrote Missouri resident Jen Lee Reeves. "Thank you for making space for so many of our families to meet Winter. Our daughter’s meeting 10 years ago left a lasting impression."

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