CLEARWATER, Fla. - A small bouquet of flowers rested at the entrance of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Friday morning, hours after Winter the dolphin – whose story of resilience captured the world’s attention – died in the arms of her caretakers.
"We’re all devastated. Our staff is devastated, the world is so sad to have lost an animal ambassador that has inspired us all," offered CMA's director, Dr. James ‘Buddy’ Powell. "Her legacy will continue to live on through the work that we do. The hospital behind us will continue to save the lives of animals and inspire others. We are very grateful for what Winter brought to us."
Counselors are on hand and the aquarium will remain closed Friday to allow time for the staff to grieve. A memorial will be held on November 20, Powell said, with more details to come.
Winter is seen with her famous prosthetic tail in this file image courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Meanwhile, work will resume at the aquarium on Saturday when it reopens, Powell said.
"Winter’s legacy is going to live on," he insisted. "Not only in a virtual way as we reach out and all these people that she has touched in 16 years, but part of her legacy is what’s behind me right now, which is what’s going to allow us to be able to rescue and rehab and release many more animals in the future."
Winter was being treated for a gastrointestinal infection, but her condition quickly deteriorated. Thursday, CMA staff were preparing another round of treatment for Winter when her vital signs and behavior began to decline. She died around 8 p.m. Thursday.
The news came as a shock to many. Winter was a fixture at the aquarium since 2005, years before she became a household name and starred in ‘A Dolphin Tale.’ She was just 2 months old when she was entangled in a crab trap line and subsequently lost her tail due to her injuries.
"She was a medical marvel, a very unique animal, not only because of her physical condition that inspired so many people," Dr. Powell added. "But as well, I think that we have learned something, too, as far as what we can do to be able to save and rehabilitate these animals."
Flowers left at the entrance of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Response to Winter's death
The news of Winter's death brought an emotional response throughout the Bay Area, where the famous dolphin was a fixture. Powell said the entire staff was touched by the "heartwarming" messages that had been filling social media since the announcement.
"R.I.P. Winter The Dolphin! She was a true inspiration to me and disabled "warriors" all over the world! Swim free sweet girl and Rest In Power," shared Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, the national anthem singer for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In another tweet, the Clearwater Police Department wrote: "Our thoughts are with the @CMAquarium family who so deeply loved and cared for her and to all those whose lives she touched worldwide over the years. #RIPwinter."
One of the actresses who starred alongside Winter in ‘Dolphin Tale’ said some of her favorite memories were with the dolphin:
Harry Connick Jr., who also played a starring role in the movie, said in an Instagram video Winter was an "amazing creature who really did change the world."
Winter’s story has uplifted and inspired people around the world. She beat the odds to survive and is not limited in life by her injury. After coming to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005, a team of experts worked to develop a prosthetic tail for winter, the first of its kind.
The completely custom-design tail evolved over a three-year period, from just a brace to a functional prosthesis. CMA said Winter adapted to her new physical form and made a complete recovery, learning how to swim like the other dolphins.
"I spent weeks in there just studying anatomy, physiology of a dolphin," said Dr. Dan Strzempka, certified prosthetist at Hanger Clinic. "And then we kind of came up with the idea that we're going to do."
Strzempka helped design and manufacture the prosthetic tail. He said the first challenge was figuring out how to keep the tail on Winter underwater. The next was creating a liner to help her stump with the pressures of the prosthetic.
"We needed something stickier. And also her skin couldn't tolerate the forces that the humans can. So we had to make something a little bit more elastic or stretchy," he said.
CMA team member kisses Winter the dolphin
The result was WintersGel Prosthetic Liners. An invention that has helped countless other amputees over the last 15 years, including Maja Kazazic.
"Due to my injuries, and extent of them, and the type, there was nothing out there that would allow me to walk pain-free," she said.
At 16, the Palm Harbor woman survived a bomb explosion during the Bosnian War. Kazazic escaped the country with her life but lost most of her left leg.
Years later, Kazazic met Winter. There was an instant connection through the glass, and seeing how strong and resilient the dolphin was with her new tail made a lasting impact.
"And I remember sitting there, I was like, feeling sorry for myself. I remember thinking, wait a minute, I mean, if she could do this, if they could do this for her, I should be able to do the same thing. And from that instant, my life changed," said Kazazic.
And she is not alone. Winter has inspired other amputees and people with disabilities, folks who can relate to the injury and see Winter has no limits. They have made pilgrimages to meet her, and she has changed people’s lives for the better.
"Anyone that's overcoming obstacles," Kazazic said, "can really learn a lot of lessons from Winter."
MORE ‘WINTER’ STORIES:
- Winter the dolphin dies, leaving legacy of perseverance and inspiration
- 'Nothing we will not do': Dolphin experts brought to CMA to treat Winter
- 14 years later, Winter the dolphin reunited with fisherman who found her
- Teen athlete, quadruple amputee meets inspiration, Winter
- Bloomingdale Library attack survivor meets Winter the Dolphin
- Shark attack survivor meets Winter and Hope at aquarium
- Winter the dolphin continues inspiring kids around the world
- Clearwater Aquarium's Winter and Hope celebrate birthdays with special guests