Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Delivering Inspiration and Overcoming Obstacles
By Lauren Tjaden
Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) and their rescue animals inspire and help folks with all kinds of challenges, including veterans, people with limb differences, and those on the autism spectrum. Discover some of their stories and learn how CMA can help you or someone you know.
In December of 2005, a fisherman in Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral found something that would change countless lives.
That something was a baby dolphin, only two months old, tangled in a crab trap line. The dolphin was severely injured, but luckily, close enough to the water’s surface that she managed to keep breathing.
The fisherman cut the line and called a rescue team, and the dolphin -- subsequently named Winter -- was transported to CMA for treatment.
The line had cut off circulation to Winter’s tail flukes when she was entangled. Despite intensive efforts to help her heal, her tail worsened. She lost her entire tail fluke and joint.
It’s hard to overstate this loss. Tail flukes are the powerhouse of the dolphin -- its engine -- and are vital to be able to swim naturally. Winter faced devastating odds against being able to survive at all.
But Winter had her own ideas about that.
She had energy, adaptability and a fighting spirit that blew away all expectations. She recovered completely, figured out how to use her new body to swim in a different way, and discovered she could eat fish on her own.
She got a new tail, too. Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, along with Dr. Mike Walsh and Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Animal Care Team, came up with an ingenious idea for a prosthetic tail for Winter.
And then she became a movie star.
"Dolphin Tale," produced by Warner Brothers and Alcon Entertainment and released nationwide in theaters in 2011, told Winter’s story of hope and perseverance. It’s inspired millions, helping all kinds of people with challenges to press on through life’s staunchest barriers.
Winter couldn’t have picked a better place to end up than CMA.
Open since 1972, the aquarium is anything but mainstream. It’s a working animal hospital and a marine life rescue center, dedicated to its enduring mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release. It strives to preserve our environment and, in its own words, “Inspire the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life; environmental education; research; and conservation.”
A mere 90 minutes from Orlando, CMA offers an enormous range of exhibits and experiences. You can see Winter and Hope anytime when CMA is open, or go downstairs for an underwater view of the beloved dolphins. You can discover a theater, a surgical suite, or visit Sea Cavern, complete with touch tanks where you can get close to sea urchins, sea stars and crabs. You can enjoy CMA activities like boat and kayak tours, photo opportunities, special presentations, kids camps and more.
You’ll also have opportunities to meet CMA animals that include otters, sea turtles, pelicans and stingrays.
“If Winter can, I can.”
Every day brings visitors to CMA who share a powerful connection with Winter, Hope or another of the aquarium’s rescued animals. These extraordinary people have their own inspiring stories. Here are a few of them.
21-year-old Stephanie Evans was born with a genetic disorder that causes a multitude of problems, including critical liver and kidney damage, landing her on the national organ transplant list. Her kidney problem meant she needed to drink a large amount of water, which she wouldn’t do. Stephanie also wasn’t very keen on eating.
Four years ago, while she was on vacation with her mother and sister, waiting for the transplant call, they stumbled onto CMA. That visit changed Stephanie’s life -- and literally saved it. Stephanie deeply related to Winter’s survival story, and saw how the dolphin lived a normal life in spite of being different and enduring an array of medical procedures. The "Dolphin Tale" actors helped too, encouraging Stephanie to eat and drink more – which she did. As a result, every few months Stephanie’s mom would bring her back to CMA because she ate and drank better after each visit with Winter. This was vital to help Stephanie survive while she waited for her transplant, which finally happened in fall 2016. Today, Stephanie is in recovery. She still stays in contact with CEO David Yates daily via text.
A dual, below-knee amputee who lost his legs due to a viral infection a short time after he was born, seven-year old Braedon Monthony identifies with Winter and her struggles, saying: “She’s just like me!” When he watched Dolphin Tale, he saw how Winter adapted and learned to swim in spite of losing her tail. And Braedon is a perfect reflection of Winter’s perseverance and strength. Despite being a double-amputee, the youngster is always on the move, swimming, riding his bike and playing. After he watched "Dolphin Tale," Braedon was determined to meet his hero. To help fund his trip from New York to Clearwater, he set up a lemonade stand. With some assistance from local media, gofundme.com, and People Magazine, he raised over $4,000, nearly twice his initial goal. Braedon’s dream became real in 2016, when the boy and his brother enjoyed some quality splashing time with Winter and Hopem another rescued dolphin. The meeting was deeply emotional for Braedon’s mother, Elaine. “Braedon was not a fan of his new prostheses in the beginning,” she said. “It took a lot of work, a lot of patience, and several adjustments.” You can imagine how she felt watching her son spend time with the dolphin who motivates him and keeps him trying, kindred spirits who've persevered against all odds.
As Braedon says, “If Winter can, so can I.”
Corbin and Brayden
It’s not only CMA’s resident movie stars, Winter and Hope, that inspire people and spark a connection.
Brothers Corbin and Brayden Delk have hardly enjoyed typical, carefree childhoods. Theirs have been brimming with medical challenges and procedures. 14-year-old Corbin, whose heart has one chamber instead of four smaller chambers, has endured six open heart surgeries; 16-year-old Brayden, whose heart has two chambers, has endured three. In addition, Corbin is profoundly deaf in one ear and has moderate hearing loss in the other. These medical conditions greatly affect the lives of the brothers, including rendering them unable to play competitive sports of any sort. Corbin, motivated by Winter and Hope’s stories, have led him to want to help sea animals, and he plans on becoming a Marine Biologist when he grows up. Of those sea animals, his favorites are sea turtles, which are plentiful at CMA. One of Corbin’s dreams was to watch a sea turtle release, and in 2017, that dream came true. On a trip to CMA, the brothers met rescued dolphins, Winter and Hope, and the next day, the family journeyed to Honeymoon Island to see the release of Zo and Freesia. Is anything more joyous than seeing wild animals, healthy and beautiful, returned to be free in their natural habitats? If there is, it has to be two young men chasing and fulfilling their dreams, no matter the challenges confronting them.
Watch this video about Levi Larochelle, a young boy with Asperger’s, to discover the amazing story about how Winter the Dolphin inspired him and completely changed his life.
Do you or someone you know have a special connection to Winter, Hope, or one of CMA’s other rescued animals? If you do, CMA invites you to Share Your Story to be considered for CMA’s Winter’s Circle. Please be patient for a reply; the aquarium gets a lot of requests.
Special Group Visits
CMA regularly hosts group visits, for educational groups like schools, scouts and camps, as well as non-educational group visits, like clubs, churches, and other organizations.
It also hosts special group visits for organizations that include the No Limits Foundation, a Maine based nonprofit for children with limb differences. The Foundation lets children connect with their peers, and provides support, education, mentorships, and the opportunity to “develop a healthy, happy and independent lifestyle” through empowering experiences. This group has traveled to CMA nine times to meet and be inspired by Winter.
If you have a special group that would benefit from a visit to CMA, please reach out to the aquarium here: www.seewinter.com/about/contact-us/