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Greetings from Tampa everyone! Yes, this is our extra stop this trip. We try to do a roadtrip each year – have done Miami, Key West, and well, had to take a break last time around due to a hurricane, but we got back on the road and ready to explore some place new out of Hurricane Sandy’s path!

One of the places we really wanted to visit while in Tampa was the Clearwater Marine Aquarium – the home of Winter from the movie Dolphin Tale. My sister was talking about it since I was here a year ago, and I finally managed to catch the movie to see what this “dolphin with no tail” was all about.

An image from the movie poster – you can see Winter’s prosthetic tail there cos she lost hers…

The movie of course includes and adorable little boy who finds the dolphin and they end up absolutely inseparable, but is based on true events. In real life, Winter was found on a beach by a local fisherman (not a little boy with no friends) with a crab trap tangled around her tail.

The guy who found her called the team from the aquarium, who went down to rescue her. But blood from her tail had been cut off for so long that the flesh was dying and falling off in chunks and all that nasty stuff. Of course in such a scenario, the risk of infection is very real and can even be life threatening, so her rescuers decided that in order to save her, they would have to amputate, though no one knew how a dolphin would be able to get by without a tail. The end result looked strange and sad in the movie, and is almost surreal in real life.

Winter had all of her tail, and a few of her vertebrae removed. She does have a prosthetic tail that was made specially for her, but she spends most of her time without it. This is how she was in full tail-less glory when we saw her

One of the big worries was how the lack of a tail would of course, affect her movement. Dolphins get about by moving their tails in an up-down motion to propel themselves through the water. Without a tail, Winter kinda has to wiggle from side to side instead, much like the way a shark swims. But of course, dolphins and sharks aren’t made the same, and the side-to-side motion really isn’t what her spine is built for. That’s why they had to design a special prosthetic for her from scratch. If you look at her little stump, you can see why it wasn’t an easy ask – there isn’t much for the prosthetic to latch on to to stay in place, especially when in water. There was a special exhibit that documented her journey and we got to see all the prototypes that the team had to go through before they settled on the special gel sock she uses now. We touched it – it was soooo soft!

As a really kid friendly place, they did a very good job of explaining Winter’s condition, giving everyone a chance to see and understand what not having a tail means for a dolphin. Winter will always need exercises to slow spinal problems from having to swim different, and even with her tail, will never be able to jump out of the water like we know dolphins to.

Winter was a real sport, and she was really good in the presentation and shows, which she did so happily and willingly, all without her prosthetic. If anything, I never knew dolphins to vocalize their joy and delight so openly and loudly! We hear it all the time in movies, but somehow it’s almost like the voice of the dolphin has been dubbed over at strategic moments, just so we know its happy. NOT TRUE. Their squeaks and squeals of delight, as their trainers explained, come not from vocal chords (dolphins have none) but from their blowhole, and trust me – it is even louder and sharper than in the movies and its impossible for you not to hear and feel how excited the animal is – it was almost infectious!

We also had the pleasure of meeting of many of the facility’s other residents. There was Panama, a really massive dolphin that was found as a beggar dolphin – one who approaches boats for food and it was a point of contention whether or not she would ever be able to hold her own in the wild. There was Hope, a little baby found beached by the same guy in the same spot he found Winter, on the 5th anniversary of her rescue. And then there was Nicholas, who was found beached with his mum. Both of them were so badly sunburnt that he still carries the scars of his ordeal all over his back, and his mummy didn’t survive. He was an absolute sweetie, swimming by us and bringing out his toys to show around. There were also a bunch of other residents, including an otter paralysed from the waist down in a boat accident, and injured turtles without flippers or with terrible buoyancy issues from being hit by sea vessels. Apparently, other than having their limbs chopped off by propellers, they can also have the air knocked out of their lungs and into their body cavity, making their butts float up and it becomes impossible for them to swim below the surface.

The other resident of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. On the top row, Panama, the oldest resident that proves that age really is just a number when you’re young at heart and have a yoga mat handy. In the middle, a bubble-butt turtle whose behind will stay above the surface for the rest of its life, a hungry and affectionate ray, and an otter facepalm – this is the one who’s lost the use of his hind legs. Below, Nicholas, who’s kinda lonely in his own tank and so happy to see anyone who comes to visit that he brings out all his toys.

I had my concerns that the facility would be a huge tourist trap because of the movie. I’m not gonna lie. It is clear from the moment you arrive that everything revolves around the show and its star. But, it is also plain to see how the publicity has helped  the animals. Even as they are building a brand new wing, no doubt from the spike in visitors and donations following the movie’s release, the facility is small, simple, almost spartan, and looks exactly like the rundown building in the show. Looking around, it is clear that if they were to receive another candidate, they would have to turn it away. And as I watched Panama, the funny, lazy joker of a dolphin amuse herself by jumping onto this floating yoga mat and splashing around as she watched us watch her, it really hit home how these guys were just trying to create an environment where animals that could no longer belong in the wild could still have a good life in captivity. So glad we did it. Definitely something to put on the travel plans of any animal lover headed to Tampa!

If you feel like you want to do more for the animals, whether you’re in Tampa, passing through, or if you’re far away but still want to help, click here to find out on how you can support the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.