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Jan. 19, 2022

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Winter and her tail had impact

Injured dolphin fueled fund drive to help more animals

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FILE - Winter the dolphin swims Aug. 3, 2011, at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla. Winter starred in the "Dolphin Tale" movies has died at a Florida aquarium despite life-saving efforts by animal care experts. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium said the 16-year-old female bottlenose dolphin died Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, while being treated for a gastrointestinal abnormality.
FILE - Winter the dolphin swims Aug. 3, 2011, at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla. Winter starred in the "Dolphin Tale" movies has died at a Florida aquarium despite life-saving efforts by animal care experts. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium said the 16-year-old female bottlenose dolphin died Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, while being treated for a gastrointestinal abnormality. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File) (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

Winter is gone, but her impact at Clearwater Marine Aquarium is forever. Just look around.

When staff rescued the baby bottlenose dolphin from a crab trap in Cape Canaveral in late 2005, revenues at the former sewage plant-turned-aquarium on Island Estates were little over $1 million. The roof was caving in, and the prospect of bankruptcy was real.

Then two Hollywood movies about Winter’s prosthetic tail and recovery shot the aquarium to international fame. Sixteen years later, the aquarium had built the muscle to raise $80 million for an expansion of the facility and its mission, providing more space and resources to treat more species at a time when marine animals are facing dire threats.

“The biggest legacy that she is leaving behind is that we do have this $80 million facility and that’s going to allow us to be able to rescue and treat thousands of animals going into the future,” said interim CEO James “Buddy” Powell. “If it hadn’t been for Winter, that never would have happened.”

Following Winter’s death last Thursday amid a gastrointestinal infection, fans around the world are remembering the animal who survived with a prosthetic tail for the inspiration she gave to countless children and adults living with disabilities of their own.

But her legacy also remains in the impact on her adopted home of Tampa Bay.

The aquarium remains one of the notable tourism draws in Clearwater and Pinellas County. And with Winter’s death, aquarium staff are working to inspire just as many followers with its mission of rescue, rehabilitation and education for a variety of species.

The facility expansion completed this year tripled the space for dolphins and created a new medical pool, where Winter was treated in her final days. Staff has room to treat about 45 rehabilitation cases at once, double what it could do before. Larger pools mean space for nine more dolphins and 25 more sea turtles that can’t be released into the wild.

There is also five times the guest space as the pre-renovated facility.

In 2019, the aquarium opened an emergency medical center in Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park to provide critical care to marine mammals that become beached or stranded in the Gulf of Mexico’s shallow waters. Powell said the facility is working to build an additional 40-foot pool, and two 20-foot isolation pools, at Fred Howard Park to treat sick and injured manatees, a new species for the aquarium.

The aquarium is also in the beginning stages of building a manatee treatment area at the facility on Island Estates, where staff will be able to treat sick and injured manatees and release them with satellite trackers, Powell said.

This focus comes at a critical time. More Florida manatees have died in the first half of 2021 than in any other recorded year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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