CLEARWATER, Fla. – The news from Indian River Lagoon was too familiar: another dolphin gravely injured because of human action.
But marine scientist Steve McCulloch immediately saw this rescue was unique. The baby bottlenose dolphin lost her tail, but perhaps her life could be saved.
McCulloch, director of dolphin and whale research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, decided to channel his anger into a solution.
The solution for the dolphin – dubbed Winter – may be a prosthetic tail. If the logistics can be worked out, Winter’s prosthesis would be the first for a dolphin who lost its tail and the key joint that allows it to move in powerful up-and-down strokes.
“There’s never been a dolphin like her,” said Dana Zucker, chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is now Winter’s home.
A dolphin in Japan has a prosthesis, the first in the world, to replace a missing part of its tail.
Winter was a frail, dehydrated 3-month-old when she came to the animal rescue center in December after getting her tail tangled in the buoy line of a crab trap. Winter was left with a rounded stump instead of a tail.
A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent months nursing Winter back to health.
Winter learned how to swim without her tail, amazing her handlers with a combination of moves that resemble an alligator’s undulations and a shark’s side-to-side tail swipes. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving.
Winter can’t keep up with wild dolphins that can swim up to 25 mph with strokes of their tail flukes. She will be a permanent resident at the aquarium, even if she gets a prosthetic tail.
Zucker has formed a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter. It has been consulting with a diving gear manufacturer, a tire company and the Navy, which has experience attaching items to dolphins for military research.
It’s uncharted territory. Fuji, an elderly dolphin who lives at an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, had part of his tail remaining on which to attach a prosthesis.
Winter doesn’t. Both her tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin’s tail to move up and down, were lost. It is not clear how the prosthetic tail would be attached to her stump, but it would need to be tough.
“The dolphin’s tail fin is the most powerful swimming mechanism Mother Nature ever designed,” McCulloch said. “When you see how much pressure they put on their flukes, the prosthesis is going to take a marvel of modern engineering.”