September 11th, 2009 10:30 EST
A Winters Tale
About four years ago I visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) and observed a young dolphin named Winter who had lost her tail due to being caught up in crab trap. She was a 75lb, Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin and was not expected to live. However, the wonderful trainers and staff at CMA worked with Winter to help her live with her handicap and to also learn to wear a prosthetic tail. Yes, a prosthetic tail. Winter has learned to use this tail in order to develop her back muscles into a normal dolphin swimming rhythm. Without the tail, she will eventually cause stress to her spine and back muscles as she adapts to life in the water.
At the same time I first saw Winter I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I then became embroiled in monitoring, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy which ended a few months ago. Through sixteen long months of chemotherapy I watched the CMA website and kept an eye on Winter`s progress. I found her story of recovery a great inspiration and looked forward to the time when I would be well enough to visit the aquarium again and see Miss Winter in her full glory.
A short time before the end of my treatment I contacted Jeni Hatter, Director of Media Relations, at the CMA. I explained to her how Winter had helped my morale through my illness and Jeni invited me to pay a visit. It was with some trepidation that I met Jeni in the CMA lobby and she escorted me to Winter`s tank where her trainer was introducing Winter to a four year old girl with Spina Bifida. I watched in amazement as Winter rolled her body for the little girl to touch and caress. The interaction between Winter and the young lady was mesmerizing in the way that Winter obviously sensed the girl`s illness and adapted her behavior accordingly. Then suddenly it was time for the young child to depart and she did so with a glow on her face having touched and been near the most incredible dolphin without a tail.
Feeling flushed with the privilege of having seen Miss Winter in action I was happy to sit poolside and watch the performance. What I did not realize was that it was my turn to go poolside. Elaina, Winter`s trainer, approached and escorted me to sit with her and be close to the dolphin. As I made my unsteady way to poolside, Winter popped her head out of the water and gave me a very unnerving stare. I had no doubt in my mind I was being checked out " in some subtle dolphin manner and I could feel my heart warming even more toward this remarkable mammal. Elaina had arranged a towel for my ample bottom at the pools edge and Winter made a whistling sound. When she did this, some dolphins in the adjacent tank raced down the pool and bobbed around almost within touching distance. The impression that I got from this whole situation was that Winter had indicated to the other dolphins that this particular human was worth a visit in that there was something not quite right about him but come and watch the show anyway.
So with three dolphins in the tank behind me and the fabulous Winter right next to me I was then treated to the most amazing ten minutes of my life as Winter loosed her spirit into my soul. She did some basic routines that she had been taught by her trainers. But she kept a constant eye contact with me as she cavorted and flipped. I could almost feel her winking " at me as if this was just something she was required to do per CMA standard procedure. She then came poolside and began to show me all of the places she has been injured as a young dolphin. Elaina talked me through the nasty scar in Winter`s mouth where one of the crab pot ropes had caught. We then went down Winter`s torso, stopping at certain points to view closely the vicious scars and nicks that the dolphin bears. The grand finale ended as Winter stuck her head underwater and thrust her stump " of a tail virtually into my face. The sad amalgam of scarring and healed flesh reminded me of the reason for Winter`s presence at the CMA. She is so badly injured that she can never return to the wild and here in front of me was the evidence. Inside I wanted to cry as I touched the tail and felt the awful lumps and ragged tissue. But then with a flick the tail was gone and so was Winter. She headed down and down and down. I looked at Elaina who just shrugged. We waited for a minute and it was clear to me that this was not part of the normal routine.
We waited and waited as the dolphin became a small dot at the bottom of the deep tank that serves as her pool. There was some sashaying around at the bottom of the pool and then Winter began a slow ascent, weaving her body from side to side. Again, Elaina looked bemused. This was most definitely not part of the routine. Finally, Winter bobbed to the surface with a piece of three foot piece of white hose wrapped around her head. She glided over to Elaina and engaged in some silent mammal/trainer communication that I would not dare to interpret. Elaina smiled and nodded and Winter swam to me and proffered her head and neck out of the water to me.
She wants to give you one of her toys " said Elaina. I was bursting with pride and emotion as I took the white hose from Winter. I cannot truly find the words to express what went on for those few seconds as I held my precious gift and Winter realized that I had accepted it and that it meant so much to me. In a daze, Elaina escorted me from poolside but I so much wanted to stay and be near Winter. She had bonded with me in such a close, personal way that my shabby writing can never explain. I was so moved by my contact with Winter that I went home and wrote the following poem which I will leave you:
A WINTER`S TALE
Your subtle love is not for all,
but a gift of magic treasure.
You play a flattering scale of graceful charm,
so rare in this odd world.
Delight surrounds your very being,
bursting through the confines of your life.
You are our special gift,
we are blessed to know you.