Finally, Winter the dolphin gets a tail

She isn't sure what it is, but she's learning to use it.

By EILEEN SCHULTE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 31, 2007

CLEARWATER --- It's so small, so cute, like a pair of aquatic training wheels.

But the artificial appendagecould help Winter, Tampa Bay's famous young Atlantic bottlenose dolphin amputee, swim and jump like her neighbors at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium who, unlike her, actually have tail fins.

On Thursday morning, head trainer Abby Stone gingerly slid 10 pounds of prosthesis onto Winter's stump.

First, some lotion. Second, Stone rolled on a $1,000 soft gel sleeve as gently as a woman rolls silk hose onto her legs.

Finally, a more rigid shell with a small tail attached.

The 1-1/2-year-old dolphin turned her head and looked back at the trainer with her left eye to see what she was doing.

Oh, this again. She's been testing the device for short periods during the past two weeks.

But Thursday marked the first time Winter wore her new tail in front of the public. As TV cameras rolled, the public got a glimpse of the first dolphin in the world with such an extensive injury -- she lost her tail and three vertebrae to an accident -- to swim with prosthetic flukes.

The plucky dolphin is the golden retriever of the Aquarium, happy for anything involving attention, toys, snacks or just plain fun.

"It's a milestone for Winter today," said Aquarium CEO David Yates.

Winter was just an infant when she was found more than two years ago off Cape Canaveral, deserted by her mother and tangled in a rope attached to a crab trap. Veterinarians did not believe she would survive.

The ordeal damaged not only her flukes but also part of her peduncle, or tail shaft. Without flukes, she lacks her main propulsion. She compensates by swimming side to side like an alligator.

"It's never been seen in captivity," Yates said. "She did that on her own. No one taught her to do that."

Without a prosthetic tail, problems could develop with her spinal cord and put her in a permanent "bend" position.

Designed by Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. of Bethesda, Md., the prosthesis stays on by suction technology, using an airtight seal.

Carroll's company is donating the staff time, materials, labor, imagination and creativity to create the device, which aquarium administrators estimate could cost more than $100,000.

Yates said one of the best things about Winter's story is that the technology invented to help her can also help human amputees, especially those returning from the war in Iraq.

This is just the latest prototype. It will evolve as Winter, who now weighs 180 pounds, grows and develops her swimming skills. Adult dolphins can weigh 500 pounds.

Future versions will include a joint that will allow for more natural movement.

"From a training perspective, this has never been done before," Stone said. "We are retraining the up and down motion dolphins use to swim."

In test trials during the past two weeks, Winter has worn the device for five to 20 minutes at a time.

She is so curious about the strange thing attached to the end of her body she has been doing underwater somersaults to try and look at it, trainers said.

Even with her prosthesis, Winter still did the pectoral paddle on Thursday and didn't use her new tail much. Trainers are holding her back from swimming too much with the device to give her a chance to get used to it.

Director of Animal Care Diane Young was happy with Winter's performance on Thursday. But like most youngsters, she did lose her concentration at one point.

"She (went off) and played with the herring," Young said. "It's like, 'I have a big candy bar in my mouth and I'm not interested (in training) right now, but I'll come back when I'm ready."'

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.