It’s the stuff of movies – literally. A baby dolphin lost her tail after it became entangled in a crab trap in 2005. Two prosthetic experts stepped in to create the first prosthetic tail for a dolphin.
The real life survival story of that little dolphin named Winter and her innovative prosthetic team, Sarasota-based prosthetist Dan Strzempka and Orlando-based Kevin Carroll, comes alive on the silver screen nationwide on September 23, 2011, in a feature film titled, Dolphin Tale starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristopherson, and Harry Connick, Jr.
In December 2005, a three-month-old bottlenose dolphin found herself tangled in the ropes of a crab trap near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Fortunately, fisherman Jim Savage heard her cry and was able to free the little dolphin from the rope that was wrapped tightly around her tail and mouth. After making some calls, a rescue team came to help and she was taken to the Florida Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). The team at CMA worked night and day to help Winter recover from the injuries and she began to make steady improvement. However, her tail was badly damaged and as the team feared, she lost her tail.
In 2006, Kevin Carroll, an expert prosthetist and vice president of prosthetics at Hanger Clinic heard her story and offered to fit her with an artificial tail. “My heart went out to her, and I thought I could probably put a tail on her.”
It took about 18 months for Carroll and Hanger Clinic’s Sarasota, Florida Clinic Manager, Dan Strzempka to develop the new tail for Winter. It was a more difficult task than Carroll originally anticipated. "When we fit a socket on a person, we have one long, solid bone and the socket isn’t moving in every direction. With a dolphin, it needs to move along with her full spine." One of the biggest challenges they faced was figuring out how to keep the tail on and how to propel a 400-pound dolphin 10 feet into the air. Carroll and Strzempka have since volunteered their nights and weekends to the CMA fabricating a series of tails and worked with ALPS to create special liners, and develop new materials for her very delicate skin.
The unique levels of R&D necessary to fit a prosthetic tail on a dolphin have resulted in the development of a new gel material, WintersGel Prosthetic Liners, which is benefiting human patients. Winter's new tail sticks to her body using suction, just like a surgical glove grips to a human hand. The gel sleeve created by Hanger Clinic and ALPS to help cling to Winter's tail without irritating her delicate skin has also proven beneficial to humans with limb loss. Carroll is currently researching new materials that will hold up in saltwater.Winter’s story has been featured on many national television and news programs where she has touched the hearts of many. Her story of determination, encouragement and perseverance has been captured in the Scholastic book, Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again and a Nintendo DS video game, also called Winter's Tail. Her movie debut in DolphinTale premiered on September 23, 2011. For more information on Winter, visit, www.seewinter.com.