CLEARWATER, Fla. — Two months after the beloved “Dolphin Tale” star died, Winter the Dolphin has officially made her return to the sea.
The famous Atlantic bottlenose dolphin’s ashes, encased in a Himalayan sea salt urn, were released Thursday into the Gulf of Mexico. Her Clearwater Marine Aquarium animal care staff took part in the emotional release aboard a U.S. Coast Guard response boat.
“Being able to return Winter to her natural home was the best feeling in the world,” said VP of Zoological Care Kelly Martin. “Our goal at Clearwater Marine Aquarium is always to rehabilitate rescued marine life so they can return to the wild. In Winter’s case, as is the case with all non-releasable animals, she unfortunately could not complete her return to the wild in life. But today, we were able to give her that final step – a return home.”
The ceremony-at-sea honoring the 16-year-old dolphin’s life included a C-130 flyover and a poem reading before Martin and Veterinarian Dr. Shelly Marquardt released Winter’s ashes.
“Flower petals of roses and orchids were released into the Gulf and the team blew bubbles, honoring one of Winter’s favorite enrichment activities,” a press release reads.
Winter, who inspired millions around the world with her story, died on Nov. 11 after days of fighting a gastrointestinal infection. Caretakers, at the time, said they first noticed Winter wasn’t acting like herself and had lost her appetite.
Her care team fought to keep Winter alive through treatments and around-the-clock care, but her condition deteriorated. The famous dolphin would later die in the arms of her animal care team at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
"She truly inspired hope and was loved by millions of people worldwide," CMA said at the time. "Winter, we love you."
Preliminary results from a necropsy — an animal autopsy — show Winter’s cause of death to be “intestinal torsion,” meaning her intestines had twisted.
In the time since her death, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has honored Winter’s legacy through an onsite memorial, virtual reality experiences and an endowment to “safeguard indefinite support” of CMA.
Winter's story has inspired those near and far for years after she was rescued on Dec. 10, 2005, in a place called Mosquito Lagoon. It's on Florida's east coast, not that far from Cape Canaveral.
A fisherman named Jim Savage was out on his boat when he spotted a crab trap buoy that was bobbing against the current. When he went to investigate, he found Winter, at the time a dolphin calf, wrapped up in the rope of that crab trap.
Following her rescue, Winter was taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium where caretakers came to a heartbreaking realization. The rope of that crab trap had been so firmly wound around her peduncle that it had cut off all the blood supply to her tail flukes. She eventually lost her tail flukes, as a result.
But the difficult situation didn't keep Winter down.
Together, the staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium watched as Winter healed without her tail flukes and figured out a new way to swim on her own. Unlike the up-and-down tail motion she'd done before, she figured out how to wiggle side to side – swimming more like a shark traditionally would.
As her survival story made national headlines, it was noticed by a man named Kevin Carroll, who is vice president of lower extremity prosthetics at the Hanger Clinic. He teamed up with Dan Strzempka, the area clinic manager, to develop a prosthetic tail that Winter could use for some of her day.
In using it, she could work her muscles in the up-and-down motion, helping minimize the negative physical effects of her side-to-side swimming pattern.
Ever since, she inspired aquarium visitors with her resiliency.
Winter gave hope to people with prosthetics. She wore her prosthetic tail during physical therapy sessions with her care team.
Winter was the star of "Dolphin Tale," which hit the big screen in 2011. The Hollywood film attracted major film actors, including Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Connick Jr. Three years later, "Dolphin Tale 2" was released as a sequel.