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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Swimming in Winter

There is still a lot of swim in Winter, though she may not know it yet, and if the staff of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida has anything to say about it, the tiny dolphin that lost her tail will soon be swimming with the best of them.

Animal care director Diane Mitchell and associate swim with Winter prior to measuring the young dolphin for new prosthetic. Photo, H Weikle Winter, a bottlenose dolphin, that became entangled in a crabber’s buoy line when just two months old was rescued near Cape Canaveral in December 2005. Abandoned by her pod and severely injured, she would eventually lose her tail fluke; Winter’s prognosis was dire as she was transported to the sea mammal rehabilitation facility in Clearwater, FL. There, veterinarians, therapists, volunteers and well wishers began with Winter the longest swim she would ever make, her journey back to health and a new life with humans.

On Friday a team, which includes scientists Stephen McCulloch director of dolphin and whale research at Florida's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Juli Goldstein, also of Harbor Branch, Michael Walsh of the University of Florida Marine Mammal Program and Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc. in Bethesda, MD held a news conference to announce their plan to fit Winter with the world’s first complete prosthetic tail fluke.

Currently a 34-year old female bottlenose named Fuji at the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan wears a partial prosthetic device following the loss of 75 % of her fluke.

The process to develop a prosthetic tail for Winter began Friday after the press conference as aquarium staff carefully lifted the dolphin onto a pad beside her swim tank. Using a hand held laser scanner, technicians generated a 3-dimensional image of Winter’s tail stub. The image will be used to cast a snug fitting socket for Winter’s backside, which in turn will anchor an artificial ball joint and fluke assembly made of titanium steel and a special, light weight rubber. With this tail like apparatus Winter will be able to swim using a normal up and down fluke motion rather than the alligator-like side to side motion she has adopted since losing her tail.

Kevin Carroll of Hanger Prosthetics demonstrates new artificial dolphin tail during Friday's press conference in Florida. Photo, H Weikle“Our goal,” said Dr. Walsh, “Is to provide a sense of realism for Winter. She is going to have to relearn how to swim.”

Although Winter will be able to use the new tail just a few hours a day it will, the scientists believe, counter spinal damage her current swim motion is causing. “Winter just has the will to survive”, said McCulloch, “She’s an amazing personality.”

As Winter grows she will have to be refitted with 2 or 3 new tails but the team sees a benefit in that as well; the continued research project will most likely result in unseen benefits for other stricken animals as well as human patients.

Hanger Prosthetics is paying the cost of research and development of Winter’s new tail. Hanger spokesperson Jennifer Bittner said, “We are confident in the chances for Winter’s success.”

By Harlan Weikle
Greener Magazine


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