The non-profit public aquarium was ready to go belly-up at the end of 2005 when the baby bottlenose dolphin was brought there after getting her tail entangled in a crab-trap line.
She lived, but her tail fluke withered away, forcing the young animal to learn how to swim with just a stump.
Then in 2006, Irish emigrant Kevin Carroll, 53, heard a radio report about the injured dolphin. A trained prosthetist with a lifelong passion for dolphins, Carroll set about developing a revolutionary prosthetic tail for the stricken mammal.
Winter’s story of perseverance made her a global media star, quadrupled attendance at the aquarium and spawned a lucrative line of toys, books and other merchandise. Now Winter is a movie star.
The charismatic animal plays herself in Dolphin Tale, a family-friendly 3D movie starring Harry Connick Jr, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson, opening in the US on Friday.
“When she arrived here we didn’t think she would make it through the night,” says trainer Abby Stone. “She was stressed, she was not physically doing well, she had been through a major ordeal.”
Winter learned how to swim without her tail. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving.
The prosthetic tail — made of rubberised plastic and carbon fibre — is a wonder of modern science, with the developers, Hanger Orthopedic Group’s Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll, having to design the intricate tail fluke and figuring out a way to keep the whole thing on her body.
The solution was a sleeve created from a sticky gel composite that slips down onto her stump and creates suction when the prosthetic appendage is applied.
Winter wears the new tail only 30 minutes at a time, three or four times during the day, as her handlers continue to get her used to it and give her spine a break from the strain of the side-to-side swimming.