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The Life-changing Legacy of Winter the Dolphin

Five stories of lives forever changed by the inspiring animal behind A Dolphin Tale

Feature Photo_Elizabeth Bonert
© Elizabeth Bonert

Winter the dolphin, known far and wide as the dolphin with no tail, the star of A Dolphin Tale, passed away in late 2021 at the age of 16 due to an inoperable intestinal torsion. Her extraordinary legacy, however, lives on.

Back in 2005 when this orphaned bottlenose dolphin calf was found entangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Lagoon, Florida, she seemed well on her way to certain death. Yet, against all odds, her discovery resulted in a remarkable 16-year span filled with inspiration and hope, all in the name of conservation.

This little dolphin, who was removed from her environment while fighting for her life, endured a long and rigorous rehabilitation at Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). While the ultimate goal of rehabilitation is to release animals back into the wild, Winter’s injuries were so severe that although she was stabilized, she would not have been able to survive in the world. After losing her tail as a result of her injuries, she was fitted with an innovative prosthetic tail. As she healed and adjusted to this new tail, she inspired millions of people around the globe with her resilience and determination. Through her story, she brought people together from all walks of life and showed not just the importance of marine conservation and rehabilitation work but also the incredible ability it has to send a message that truly touches the entire world. People’s lives were changed in great numbers because of the inspirational impact Winter had on those who were fighting their own battles and enduring their own hardships. Her determined spirit reached far and wide. This one little dolphin not only survived but motivated others to keep trying and keep hoping, against all odds.

Winter the Dolphin
© Lesley Ferguson

As a volunteer on CMA’s Rescue Team myself, I saw firsthand the impact Winter had on so many people. Below are five stories of passion and life-long bonds that formed within our tight-knit group of rescue team members whose lives were forever changed by Winter’s lessons of hope, love and perseverance.

Elizabeth Bonert

Elizabeth Bonert profile photo
© Elizabeth Bonert
Before becoming a member of the Rescue Team, I interned in the marketing department at CMA, assisting with events, VIPs and any related press events. Back in 2010, most of these groups visited because they heard of a little dolphin who had lost her tail.

One day it might be a camera crew, coming from across the country to tell the story of a young kid who was inspired to not let losing his legs break his passion for life; the next, a family with tears of joy, thanking us for the opportunity to meet Winter, sharing how that had changed their lives. No matter the person or group, no one could contain their excitement to meet and know Winter. Each individual would light up as they stepped onto the dive platform. As they knelt beside Winter’s pool, you could see the rest of their world melt away–fully engaged, fully enthralled, in an electric connection. Winter would look back up at them, and you could see the instant bond was made.

While every individual encounter left an imprint on my life, the group I will never forget was Hanger Prosthetics’ Camp No Limits. They would fill the aquarium with amputees from all walks of life, all ages, all sharing the same ear-to-ear grin as they looked upon a little dolphin that didn’t give up when life dealt her an unfavorable hand. Every one of them had experienced having a prosthetic made for them and their unique individual needs, just like Winter. Each of these experiences has stuck with me to this day. It has been incredible to witness what one individual, human or animal, can mean to the world.

Tracey Muffs

Tracey Muffs profile
© Tracey Muffs
I first met this dolphin when a friend invited me to attend a volunteer open house at CMA. Admittedly, I was at first a skeptic, assuming that this poor dolphin without a tail could not possibly have a good life. I had only seen news clips of Winter, who at that time was actually starring in the movie A Dolphin Tale, which I assumed was meant merely for people’s entertainment. I could not have been more wrong. At that visit I learned that the non-profit aquarium’s mission statement included rescue, rehabilitation and release. When I watched the showing of Winter’s documentary, I was deeply moved by her influence to change the lives of so many people from different walks of life.

I started volunteering at the aquarium soon after that visit. Once there, I was truly inspired by witnessing firsthand this dolphin’s connection to children, adults and families whose lives had been touched by prosthetics, illness and many other hardships. Even though so many people came to see Winter, they were exposed to all the animals at CMA and learned their stories as well. They learned about the importance of conservation and how they can make a difference.

I’m grateful for everything Winter taught me, including the critical lesson of reflecting on my assumptions and being open to other perspectives. Because of Winter, I was introduced to a whole new world where I am now passionately involved in marine-mammal stranding rescues and have made life-long friends. Winter has inspired me personally because of her determination to never give up. She had a good life and made countless other lives better, including mine.

Kim Agresti

Kim Agresti Profile
© Kim Agresti
When I was first introduced to Winter, I immediately became aware of her uniqueness and the beautiful ways she touched lives. I watched a documentary of her influence and inspiration. In that documentary was a boy named Levi who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. In the beginning of the documentary, Levi appeared disconnected. He barely communicated and did not show much emotion. He spent much of his time in an unknown world within his mind. His mother heroically searched for ways to reach her son. Upon the recommendation of one of his doctors, Levi was given an opportunity to meet Winter.

As Levi was lowered to Winter’s platform, no one knew how he would react. This was new and different for him. When Levi entered the water and was introduced to Winter, everything stopped. The connection was immediate. According to his mother, his eyes danced and sparkled. A true connection was made that opened a door to his world that hadn’t been seen before. When he and Winter looked at each other, it was like a light inside Levi’s soul had been illuminated and a lost boy was being set free. As I sat and watched the story and the introduction, I felt like I was witnessing a miracle caught on film. I don’t have the words to describe the impact it had on me. From that moment on, I told as many people as possible about Levi and Winter’s story. I don’t know how many DVDs I bought to give to friends.

Over time, as Levi’s anxiety began to decrease, he started to express himself and grew into a beautiful and brilliant teenager with a smile that said he was happy. Levi’s miracle continued and into his late teen years he began volunteering at CMA where he was assigned to my volunteer shift! Levi worked every moment to overcome his challenges. Winter connected so intensely with Levi that day they met, and because of that, Levi went on to become an inspiration to countless individuals as well. It’s incredible how one individual can have such a rippling effect of love, hope and inspiration. Thank you, Winter. Thank you, Levi.

Wendy Bonert

Wendy Bonert profile
© Wendy Bonert
Inspiration is the word that most people associate with Winter the dolphin. We saw this inspiration in her strong will and determination to live as a very young, orphaned calf with a debilitating injury. We saw it in her ability to adapt to a life without a tail, finding her own way to move and propel herself through the water, swimming with the correct movements to help her body stay as healthy and fit as possible. Winter’s ability to adapt and thrive and maintain her fun-loving spirit was a source of inspiration to people all over the world dealing with hardships, disappointments, illness and disabilities.

As a volunteer in the marine mammal department at CMA, I saw Winter’s inspirational light shine through in yet another way. She inspired people to come to the aquarium and learn more about the animals that live in our ocean. Interacting with guests at the aquarium leads to conversations about the resident animals, including rescue cases like Winter. Guests are educated about the natural and man-made dangers that marine animals face in their environment, and we share with them the ways we all can do our part to prevent and combat these hazardous situations. I watched the transition from curiosity to downright excitement in learning about the ocean and its creatures. Winter inspired them to come, and the aquarium helped them learn and care. Winter was just one dolphin who was able to touch so many others in such a deep and meaningful way. That is truly inspiration.

Hada Herring

Hada Herring Profile
© Hada Herring
It is a profound experience to see a dolphin in real life. Imagine a dolphin swimming at the water’s surface. The dolphin deeply exhales and inhales. As the dolphin approaches you, it partially rolls over, exposing its belly, then tilting its head towards you, so they can see you with both of their eyes. In the dolphin world, this is the highest form of a compliment. This means, “I see you.”

Winter likely saw millions of people, and those people saw her, too. People witnessed a unique individual who made waves and inspired others to learn about (and want to protect) marine life. Winter epitomized how animal ambassadors can remind us of our connections to the environment and the important role we play in the future conservation of wildlife. The ripple effect of people’s support for Winter ultimately resulted in the rescue and rehabilitation of hundreds of animals, including dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, manatees and birds. It is of great comfort to know that Winter’s legacy will persist through the continuation of this noble effort.

For people who endured struggle, felt different or lived with a disability, Winter also served as a reminder that we are not alone. Despite her disability, Winter lived a good and quality life with her animal and human companions. Some of the best memories of Winter were when she excitingly made tweeting sounds when interacting with her loving trainers, filling the aquarium with the sound of joy. Winter reminded us that where there is a will, there is a certainly a way, and that the life of one should never be discredited. An individual matters. An individual can make a difference. An individual is worthy of a second chance. An individual can provide hope, even in the most uncertain of times. What a gift it is to truly ‘see” someone. Thank you, Winter, for imparting this critical lesson to us.

Against all odds, this one little dolphin survived, persevered and inspired the world with her larger-than-life spirit that showed what we can do when we come together, conserve and protect, and the ripple effect that can have on the entire world.

The animal kingdom lost one of its greatest ambassadors in 2021, but her legacy will live on in our hearts and continue to inspire for years to come.

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