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Clearwater Marine Aquarium did everything it could to save Winter the Dolphin

Winter the Dolphin has sadly passed away.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — UPDATE: Winter the Dolphin, whose story inspired millions, died Thursday at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Learn more here.

Previous story below:

Winter the Dolphin, made famous by the Dolphin Tale movie franchise, is getting around-the-clock care after falling ill one week ago.

Last Monday, her caretakers at Clearwater Marine Aquarium noticed she wasn't acting like herself and had lost her appetite. They immediately began working to determine what was wrong.

Veterinary staff believes winter has a gastrointestinal issue. She has had them before, just not usually this serious. Her intestines and organs are a bit out of place from losing her tail flukes, which could be a contributing factor to the health issues. 

The 16-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is being kept away from observers, mostly to reduce stress. She's been placed in a center pool without large observation windows.

She’s now under 24-hour observation with top veterinarians from all over the country lending their expertise. Experts at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine are among those being consulted.

RELATED: Winter the dolphin is sick, showing disinterest in food, Clearwater Marine Aquarium says

The good news, experts say, is that based on test results over the past couple of days, things are trending in the right direction.

"What I want people to know is that we adore this very very special dolphin," CMA Interim President and CEO Dr. James “Buddy” Powell told 10 Tampa Bay. "And that she is getting the utmost, best care that she can possibly get. There’s nothing we won’t do for Winter."

Vietnam Veteran Tom McGuffie, who lost a leg to agent orange, was scheduled to meet Winter Monday. But, plans shifted due to Winter's condition. Like so many people around the world, he was inspired by Winter's story and is hoping she makes a speedy recovery.

How did Winter lose her tail?

While Hollywood stuck fairly close to Winter's true story, there were a few places where the filmmakers took creative license.

Her story begins 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 that chilly day when he noticed something odd. He spotted a crab trap buoy that was bobbing against the current. 

Confused by this buoy that was seemingly defying the laws of physics, he went over to investigate. What he found was a dolphin calf wrapped up in the rope of that crab trap.

That baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was Winter, who rescuers named after the wintery day on which she was found. She was estimated to be only 2-3 months old at the time.

Luckily, Winter was close enough to the surface that she could still use her blowhole to breathe. If she'd been further underwater, she might have drowned.

While the rope was tangled around her mouth and pectoral fins, it was wrapped especially tightly around her peduncle. Now, that's not a made-up word. It's the muscular powerhouse of a dolphin, found behind the dorsal fin and leading toward where the tail flukes would be.

Mr. Savage grabbed a knife and cut baby Winter free from the rope. But, she didn't swim anywhere. It was clear she was exhausted after being tangled up for an unknown amount of time. Worried about her, Savage called for help.

Two organizations responded to that emergency dispatch. They were Hubbs-Sea World and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. First responders quickly realized Winter needed somewhere to recover.

At the time, Clearwater Marine Aquarium had the space to take in a dolphin. So, rescuers from the two aforementioned facilities loaded her into a stranding van and made the four-hour trek to Clearwater.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not your typical aquarium. In fact, it's probably best not described as an aquarium at all. CMA is perhaps most accurately characterized as a marine animal hospital that is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured animals.

When Winter arrived, caretakers began tending to her 24/7, initially carrying her around the pool because she was too weak to swim on her own.

As the hours passed, they 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.

We'll spare you all the details. But, essentially, her tail flukes became necrotic – or died – and began coming off on their own.

It was a frightening situation. Staff members did everything they could to provide her the best medical treatment while also keeping her as calm as possible.

It's important to note, Winter wasn't just losing her tail flukes, she was also without a mother. Her mom was nowhere to be seen when Winter was located at that crab trap.

Dolphin calves usually stay with their moms for years to learn essential survival skills. Even without the loss of her tail flukes, Winter would've been deemed non-releasable by the federal government because she was an orphan that lacked basic survival skills. Now, here Winter was, in pain and in an unfamiliar space, without her mother by her side.

What Winter did have, however, was determination – a raw will to survive.

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.

That worked for Winter, but it also led to some overdevelopment of her lateral muscles.

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.

Researchers had to be careful, though. Dolphin skin is far more sensitive than human skin. So, they needed something soft – like a sock – that could sit underneath the prosthetic to protect Winter's skin.

They came up with "Winter's Gel," which is a lot easier to say than the formal "thermoplastic elastomer." The specialized gel was developed specifically for Winter.

What's inspiring is that it's now being used on humans, as well, including with military service members who are injured overseas.

The prosthetic itself that goes over the gel is made primarily from a material called North Vane. It has a carbon fiber joint to help make it easier for Winter to use.

She doesn't wear the tail all the time, just at regular intervals when she's doing physical therapy with her caretakers.

Winter is now 16 years old. Her diet primarily consists of capelin, silversides and mullet.

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

Winter's story continues to inspire visitors every day.

RELATED: See Winter the dolphin 'twerk' to 'Fancy Like' in TikTok dance

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