Have you heard of Winter? She is the amazing dolphin who got caught in a fishing net and lost her tail, but not her spirit. She now swims with the help of a prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Her best friend is Hope. Like Winter, Hope was found stranded at two months old on the eastern coast of Florida and brought to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to get better. We love their inspiring stories and their movies, Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. We were super excited when we had the chance to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see them and meet with the CEO, David Yates. Here is our awesome interview:
David Yates: What brought you here today?
Nolan: Our mom has a blog, and she interviews Paralympians. We do the interviews for kids that will be future Paralympians. We think Winter is like a Paralympian because she swims fast with her prosthetic tail.
David: You’re right. I used to be the CEO of the Iron Man organization and worked with a lot of challenged athletes. I also helped to start the Challenged Athlete Foundation, and now I work with a challenged dolphin. So how did you get involved with this as a family?
Caitlin: Our cousin, Nick Springer, is a Paralympian. He plays wheelchair rugby. At 14 he got sick and he became a quad-amputee. Now, he can even can use chop sticks.
Nolan: Yeah. And, he won a gold in Beijing.
David: That is an inspiring story. It is kind of like a story we have about a little dolphin around here. So how do you want to start?
Caitlin sits up tall with her prepared questions and asks the first question.
Caitlin: How long have you been working with Winter and have you worked with Hope?
David: I have been here for almost 10 years, and Winter arrived almost when I did-just within a couple of weeks. We raised our kids coming to the aquarium here. Now, they are grown. But back in the 90’s, we came here quite a lot and got to know the aquarium really well. Then, about 10-12 years ago the aquarium got in a bit of trouble, and they were running out of money. So I was asked to help it get better again. Because I knew the aquarium so well, I thought it would be neat to get involved. I have been working with Winter now for about ten years. And for Hope, I have amazing story about her coming here. Do you want to hear a crazy story?
Caitlin and Nolan: Yes!
David: You watched Dolphin Tale, right? Well, on Saturday December 11, 2010, we had finally wrapped up filming the movie after four years. It was finally done on that day. At 4 o’clock, I went home to change clothes because we were having a going away party for all of the cast and crew. It was going to be at the restaurant down the street. At 5 o’clock, we finally wrap up everything with the movie and we’re cheering.
Then, 10 minutes later I get a phone call from my dolphin rescue team that there is a baby dolphin on the eastern side of Florida stranded. If it survives, they want to bring it to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for rehabilitation. So within a couple of hours of finishing the filming of Dolphin Tale, Hope arrives during our party. It was a very providential act. So all of the cast that played us in the movie actually got to watch us bring Hope in and see what we do in real life. Hope arrived here 5 years and 1 day after Winter arrived. So the short answer to your question is that I have been with Winter for 10 years and Hope for 5 years now.
Caitlin: Have you ever worked with them together?
David: Yes, here is what happens with Winter and Hope. They are like sisters. They spend lots of time together, but sometimes they split up and have their own rooms. You know how it is sometimes you want to be together, and sometimes you want to be by yourself. When we work with them, you will see sometimes they will be together and sometimes they will be separated depending on the time of the day. They are good friends and they love each other. Hope is like the little sister who is always asking “Can we play?” Winter is 10, and like “Well, maybe later.”
Caitlin: Nolan is 10, and he is like that.
Nolan: Does Winter have different types of tails?
David: She has one tail at a time, but we have made many tails over the years. Here is her current tail, and we make a new tail about every four to five months. Can you guess why we make a tail every four to five months?
Caitlin: Because she gets bigger.
David: Right. Can you guess the other reason?
Nolan: Because they wear out.
David: Almost. We are always trying to make it better. See her flukes, these are made in Japan by a separate group. It has to have the right buoyancy and the right kind of rubber. The rest is made by Hanger Clinics who make artificial arms and legs for people. Then, they put it all together. Now, here is Winter’s Gel. I have a neat story about Winter’s Gel. Dolphins have very sensitive skin, and anytime you wear an artificial limb you need a liner because it can cause chaffing.
Caitlin: Yeah, we know because our friend, Rio.
David: Wait, you know Rio! He came and sat right here, too. Well since you know Rio and about liners, we had to create one for Winter. At first, we would wrap her tail to get her gradually used to it. If we just took the tail and put it on her and said, “Okay, Winter you have to wear this tail,” that would scare her. You have to do that gradually, one step at a time. We eventually developed Winter’s Gel. Now, there are thousands of people including kids using Winter’s Gel to solve their pain when wearing prosthetics.
Caitlin: Is it hard to get her tail on and off?
David: No, it’s very easy. We had to make sure it was a positive experience for her from the beginning. We have developed a very trusting relationship with Winter, and she trusts us now to take it on and off. It just takes two to three minutes to get on or off.
David shows Nolan and Caitlin all of the steps for getting the prosthetic tail on Winter. He explains that there are no pins or anything that would cause harm to her holding the tail on her body, just one velcro strap and suction.
David: The tail needs to be the right flexibility and the right buoyancy. If it is too heavy, she sinks. If it is too light, she can’t swim with it. It also needs to be the right flexibility to help her swim naturally. The whole idea of the tail is really to give her physical therapy for her back. She can’t wear it all day because it would hurt. So she wears it on and off all day giving her a chance to swim in a more natural way and protect her back from getting any worse.
Caitlin: How does it feel? How much does it weigh?
David: Well, why don’t you hold it and feel it. It is about 12 to 15 pounds. It is actually lighter than if her actual tail was there.
Nolan: Yeah, it would have bones.
David: That’s right. It would be heavier because of the bones and muscle mass.
Nolan: What kind of training does Winter do and how long?
David: Well, we don’t call it “training” as much. We call it “enrichment and husbandry.” Those are big words, so I’ll start by explaining “enrichment.” The only dolphins we have here are ones who have been rescued and can’t be released back into the wild. Dolphins are very intelligent animals, and if they aren’t taken care of the right way, they can get sick and eventually die.
So here you will see us doing enrichment like “Face-toFace” time with dolphins. You will see toys in the water. It may seem cute, but they are out there for a reason. We give them lots of variety in activities throughout the day because it’s not good if they get bored or “satiated.” Our job is to always make sure we are doing new things with them throughout the day. You may see them jumping, but we don’t do activities for entertainment. They are to keep them mentally healthy.
Nolan: What techniques do you use?
David: We use “positive reinforcement.” If we want the dolphins to do something that would be good for them, we sometimes use a target stick to teach them. Once the dolphins have done the new action right, we give them positive reinforcement with food. Sometimes, we also use a bridge. It is a whistle that you sometimes can’t hear, but the dolphins can. We also use the whistle to tell them they did the right thing. It is a process and it takes time. It could take a number of months. A trainer may work with a dolphin for an hour or so, and then give her some rest or play time. The whole day is very scheduled. It may look informal from the outside, but it is very well planned- 24 hours a day.
Nolan: How do they sleep?
David: The best way to describe it is to think about your dad falling asleep in front of the T.V. Dolphins are mammals so they need to breathe even when they are sleeping. They float at the top of the water and shut off half of their brain. They are not unconscious, but are resting.
Nolan: What kind of diet is Winter on?
David: They are on a fish diet. There are three types of fish that they eat. Everything they eat is very carefully managed by our veterinary team. They manage how much they eat, what they eat, when they eat, and how many calories. Typically, the dolphins eat between 13-18 pounds of fish a day depending on their size. Winter eats about 13-14 and Nicholas, our bigger dolphin, eats about 18 pounds of fish a day. Do you know how the dolphins get their water to stay hydrated?
Caitlin: From the fish they eat.
David: That’s right. Even though they live in water, they don’t drink it. Very good.
Nolan: When did you start letting people with exceptionalities visit Winter?
David: Winter came here in December 2005. When you have an animal who is being cared for and is rehabilitating, you don’t show the animal until it is well enough. So it wasn’t until June 2006, when Winter first appeared to the public.
But for special visits, that happened after I shared Winter’s story with media and it went all around the world. This was long before the movie, Dolphin Tale. People love a good news story, and this was special because it was about a dolphin that refused to give up. Then, we got all these letters from kids, wounded soldiers, and others who connected with Winter’s story about overcoming a challenge. They saw Winter and thought, “If this little dolphin can lose her tail and still live a dolphin life, then I can handle my problem.” We started getting emails and phone calls asking to visit Winter. Once the Dolphin Tale movie came out, in the first weekend we got over 10,000 emails. Now, we’ve gotten over 100,000 emails. And most of those emails are from moms and dads explaining how Winter has inspired their child who might be going through chemotherapy, has a cleft palate, has a limb difference, has autism, or some other special need that has connected them to Winter’s story. I bet if we walked out the door of this office right now, we could find many families here for that reason. Once we realized how much Winter was inspiring people, in 2007 we started bringing in kids with special needs and wounded soldiers to meet her.
Thank you Clearwater Marine Aquarium and David Yates for your time. Thank you Winter and Hope for inspiring all of us to believe in the possible. Go Team Possible!