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'Dolphin Tale' star Winter, whose story inspired millions, dies at 16

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, who lost her tail flukes as a calf, was a beacon of hope for people with disabilities.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced Thursday night the heartbreaking news that Winter the Dolphin has died after days of fighting a gastrointestinal infection.

Caretakers of the 16-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, made famous by the "Dolphin Tale" movie franchise, say they first noticed she wasn't acting like herself and had lost her appetite on Nov. 1. They immediately began working to determine what was wrong.

But, despite treatments, her condition deteriorated.

She passed away around 8 p.m. She was surrounded by animal care experts from across the United States. They'd been working to treat her gastrointestinal issues.

"The CMA family is devastated," the aquarium wrote in a statement.

A spokesperson said the marine animal hospital's care team noticed her behavior and vital signs were declining while she was being prepped for a procedure. Winter's caretakers tried "several life-saving efforts," but she died in their arms.

“While we are heartbroken by Winter’s death, we are comforted knowing that our team did everything possible to give her the best chance at survival. We worked with specialists and marine mammal experts from around the country to provide her with the best care available. Our staff worked around the clock during this challenging time,” wrote Veterinarian Dr. Shelly Marquardt, DVM, CVA. 

“I’m honored to work alongside such dedicated and talented professionals who gave their all for Winter," Marquardt added.

Staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium expressed their "deepest gratitude" to everyone around the world who sent caring messages for Winter.

"She truly inspired hope and was loved by millions of people worldwide," CMA said. "Winter, we love you."

The aquarium will be closed Friday, so its staff can grieve. A grief counselor is being made available.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium President Dr. James “Buddy” Powell announced Friday that a memorial will be held for Winter on Nov. 20. Details will be announced at a later date.

The team is now working to do a thorough necropsy to determine her cause of death and learn more about how this "medical marvel" thrived at CMA for so many years, Powell added.

"We are absolutely committed to her legacy," Powell said.

According to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter had intestinal abnormalities before, just not this serious. Her intestines and organs were out of place from losing her tail flukes, which may have been a contributing factor to the recent health issues that ultimately claimed her life.

Veterinary staff provided around-the-clock care to Winter once she fell ill, but her condition did not improve no matter what they tried. CMA would later label her condition to be “critical” on Nov. 10 after her intestinal issues “intensified.”

The nation’s top veterinary specialists were consulted in her final days, as CMA explored all possible options to save her life.

"On behalf of the CMA staff and Winter’s care team, we thank everyone for the incredible outpour of love and support you have shown Winter since her rescue in 2005 and especially these last few days. Many are inspired by her resiliency and this amazing response reminds us of how deeply she has affected millions, including so many on their own health journey," CMA wrote in a previous statement.

Winter's story has inspired those near and far after she was rescued on Dec. 10, 2005, in a place called Mosquito Lagoon. It's on Florida's east coast, not that far from Cape Canaveral.

A fisherman named Jim Savage was out on his boat when he spotted a crab trap buoy that was bobbing against the current. When he went to investigate, he found Winter, at the time a dolphin calf, wrapped up in the rope of that crab trap.

Following her rescue, Winter was taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium where caretakers came to a heartbreaking realization. The rope of that crab trap had been so firmly wound around her peduncle that it had cut off all the blood supply to her tail flukes.

But the difficult situation didn't keep Winter down.

Together, the staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium watched as Winter healed without her tail flukes and figured out a new way to swim on her own. Unlike the up-and-down tail motion she'd done before, she figured out how to wiggle side to side – swimming more like a shark traditionally would.

As her survival story made national headlines, it was noticed by a man named Kevin Carroll, who is vice president of lower extremity prosthetics at the Hanger Clinic. He teamed up with Dan Strzempka, the area clinic manager, to develop a prosthetic tail that Winter could use for some of her day.

In using it, she could work her muscles in the up-and-down motion, helping minimize the negative physical effects of her side-to-side swimming pattern.

Ever since, she inspired aquarium visitors with her resiliency.

Winter gave hope to people with prosthetics. She wore her prosthetic tail during physical therapy sessions with her care team.

Winter was the star of "Dolphin Tale," which hit the big screen in 2011. The Hollywood film attracted major film actors, including Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Connick Jr. Three years later, "Dolphin Tale 2" was released as a sequel.