It was a cold December morning in 2005 when Florida fisherman Jim Savage launched his flat skiff and wound up saving a baby's life. He was on his way to his favorite trout fishing hole when he noticed a distant buoy bobbing against the wind in Mosquito Lagoon. What caught his attention was the fact that it was bobbing in direct opposition to the waves, which was unusual. He decided to check it out.
As he approached, he heard gasps as if someone were drowning. That's when he witnessed a horrifying sight. A three-month-old baby dolphin was caught in a crab trap, struggling to get free. Although she wasn't even old enough to be weaned, she'd been abandoned. Her struggle only managed to get her more and more trapped within the net. Jim immediately got out a knife and cut the rope in several places.
"She must have spun and fought it but just kept getting more twisted," Jim told the Orlando Sentinel. Though he managed to free her enough to swim, she didn't go far because a piece of rope was still embedded in her mouth and she couldn't swim normallythe net had cut off the blood supply to her tail, which was turning white, and she had scars all over her body. He spoke to her in a soft voice to calm her, telling her, "You'll be okay."
Jim called the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which responds to dolphin and whale emergencies. A research assistant named Teresa Mazza told him she was on her way, but would need to be picked up onshore. That was a problem, because he couldn't leave the little dolphin.
As luck would have it, a group of people were also out for a boat ride in the near vicinity. They spotted Jim and made their way over. When he told them about the research assistant who needed a lift, they left Jim to keep an eye on the dolphin while they went back to pick her up.
With Teresa onboard, they returned to the site, where she slipped into the water to try to get hold of the dolphin so they could bring her back to shore. Not having any luck with the terrified baby, they decided to guide her with their boats and slowly steer her towards the shore. Once there, Jim was able to catch the frightened dolphin in his arms. Teresa took over and held the baby, who looked up at her, eyes wide and panicked, her heart beating rapidly. They waited hours while a team tried to find them.
"She was just exhausted, so when she finally calmed down, she began sleeping," Teresa recalled. The original marine ambulance that had been sent had a flat tire en route, so a SeaWorld team was then dispatched. When they finally arrived, she was put on a stretcher for a five-hour trip to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which was to be her new home. They named her Winter.
Winter was left with only a stump for a tail and though it was hoped she'd learn to swim without it, veterinarians didn't think she could survive. She was given mats to rest on so she didn't have to swim all the time. Eighteen months later, Winter was finally fitted with a prosthetic tail made of silicone and plastic. The little dolphin became the most popular attraction at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as well as an inspiration to hundreds of people with disabilities, including amputee Katrina Simpkins, 9; 10-year-old double amputee Cody McCasland; Andrew Hall, 20, who lost a leg when he was hit by a drunk driver; retired United States Marine Corps Rudy Salas, 61, who lost his leg to a land mine and synchronized swimmer Mija Kazazic, 32, who lost a leg during a mortar attack at 15 in the Yugoslavian civil war. In Winter's honor, money is raised for several charitable foundations each year, including the Challenged Athletes Foundation of Florida and Eckerd Community Alternatives to raise awareness of the need for children in foster care to be adopted.
Winter's story was made into a film called Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Winter herself. It was released to theatres September 23, 2011. ~Alexandra Heilbron