The Tale of a Dolphin’s Tail

D. H. Lawrence, the early 20th century English novelist, storywriter, critic, poet and painter wrote, “I have never seen a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A little bird will fall dead, frozen from a bough, without ever having felt sorry for itself.” How the hell did he know?

In December 2005, a 3 month old female dolphin was found wrapped in the rope line of a crab trap near Cape Canaveral Florida. She was taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, which is a marine rescue center. The dolphin, named Winter, struggled to survive. The rope had cut off blood circulation to her tail which resulted in, not only the loss of her tail, but several spinal vertebrae too. Few experts believed the dolphin could survive major trauma like this. Winter not only survived, she developed a new method of propulsion. The new movement she used to move herself through the water while amazing, however, was detrimental to her spinal cord.


A well-known prosthetic specialist heard about Winter and offered his services. The challenges looked to be overwhelming: artificially reproduce one of the most powerful propulsion systems in the world, finding a way to attach it to a dolphin, and then train a wild animal to use it. Mike Walsh, Winter’s lead veterinarian, said:

“We put together a team who doesn’t know what ‘no’ means.
As long as you’re willing to try, you can make a big difference.”

After a lot of trial and error, a successful apparatus was finally developed. This story is responsible for the movie, “Dolphin’s Tale”, which is a touching movie for the entire family. In the movie, Winter plays herself. If you see it, be sure to watch after the end of the movie for some very special scenes.

There are lessons here for all of us in the disabled community, not only from the behavior of the humans but also in Winter’s behavior: their collective refusal to give up or accept failure as an answer, their ability to find alternative ways of attacking a challenge, their love and enjoyment of life itself, and Winter’ attitude of accepting what happened and to move on. The team’s persistence led not only to the dolphin’s prosthesis, but help for human amputees as well. Winter’s early rejection of the prosthesis was not due to the device itself, as originally thought, but rather to the material that was being used to attach it to her body. After realizing this, the team developed a new gel sleeve which adhered to her body with suction. This gel material is now being used with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Additional new materials are also being developed to stand up better to salt water.

Once again, we see that positive attitude, thinking out of the box and relentless perseverance reap rewards and success.

Winter's Prosthesis and Gel Sleeve

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