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Winter's Tale: A Life-Saving Prosthetic

Module by: Jennifer Drozd. E-mail the author

Summary: A case study referring to a dolphin's survival in regards to a costly prosthetic.

Winter’s Tale:

The “Bionic” Dolphin


Jennifer Drozd

SCE 4863

University of South Florida

Not far off the coast of Cape Canaveral, a three month old dolphin was rescued. It was a rough day at sea in December of 2005. A fisherman had heard her cries of distress.

He recalls, “Kind of a nasty day, I didn’t have much expectations of catching much.” He noticed one of the crab traps seemed quite askew. Nearing the trap, he could hear the cries of a dolphin below. Jim Savage freed the entangled dolphin and figured it would simply swim away when he noticed the dolphin was injured. He called for help quickly. The dolphin was brought to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a long 5 hour drive from the east coast; however, this institute was the only willing to accept this injured dolphin. She acquired the name Winter for this was when she was rescued. She was considered a “winter’s miracle.”

Winter’s health was quickly declining at the aquarium. Diane Young, one of Winter’s caretakers, describes Winter’s tail as “completely white and very thin, almost like paper.” She saw that as Winter swam, pieces of her tail were falling off in chunks. While caught in the crab trap, the rope inhibited blood circulation to the tail. The tail became dead tissue starved of the nutrients it needs.

Young recollected, “She’s swimming with this tail. It’s pretty much dead. It’s pretty much falling off. And I remember thinking that there’s no way this animal can survive an injury like that.”

The trainers at the aquarium quickly doubted the survival of Winter when her tail completely fell off. Nowhere in history has an animal survived such an injury. But this spirited, young dolphin proved to the trainers that the loss of a tail would not stop her. Winter began interacting with both the trainers and the other dolphins as if nothing was wrong.

Winter even adapted to a new swimming style. Dolphins typically flap their tail in an up-down motion. Since Winter could no longer do that, she would flap her stump from side-to-side, similar to that of a swimming alligator. Although the trainers were amazing with her new acquired skill, they feared she would damage her spine continuing such an unnatural motion.

As soon as Winter fought off one problem, a new one arose. From Winter’s abnormal swimming style, scoliosis formed in her spine. This problem puts Winter’s life at risk once again. David Yates, CEO of the aquarium, saw a different vision for Winter. Yates had many connections to the media. He contacted newspapers, radio stations, television stations. He was on a mission: “The point was to show the carnage. Let people see the price of human carelessness.” The media ate up this story: a poor, orphaned dolphin rescued from death now swimming without a tail. Winter’s audience rose to a 270-million featured in Europe as well as all over America. Winter became a celebrity overnight. It was this new found fame that gave Winter her last chance at life.

Kevin Carroll overheard this miraculous story. He called Yates and “introduced himself as vice president of a national company that makes artificial limbs — Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.” He told Yates, “I can put a tail on your dolphin.”

Carroll notified yet another expert of prosthetics and formed the team that would create the one-of-a-kind prosthetic dolphin tail. The team didn’t realize the problems at stake at first. Their first challenge was to create a liner appropriate for Winter. Dolphin’s have very delicate skin and cannot withstand the plastic used for prosthetics. Their solutions came when they “worked with a chemical engineer, who concocted a stew of "silicone elastomer." Out of the goo emerged a gel, soft like a baby-bottle nipple, but thick and strong and sticky.” They resolved issue after issue and eventually succeeded. It took two years and $200,000 to create a successful prosthetic for Winter. Was this investment in time and money worth it? Would Winter survive without a real tail?

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