The death of Winter the dolphin has affected people the world over. Winter’s inspirational story, of beating overwhelming odds and surviving, and then thriving, will doubtless continue to resonate.
The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin died Nov. 11 of complications from a twisted intestine.
Winter spent all but the first two months of her 16 years in the care of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a former sewage treatment plant on Clearwater Bay. After two successful movies were made about her, attendance at the aquarium – which had been in deep financial straits – skyrocketed. An $80 million renovation was unveiled last summer, including significant upgrades to the pools where Winter and the other dolphin residents were kept. The facility’s research and medical facilities were enlarged exponentially.
The aquarium opened an emergency medical center, to treat manatees in distress, in Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park. There will soon be a new manatee treatment and rehab area at the main aquarium.
Dr. James “Buddy” Powell was named VP of Research and Conservation in 2019, when his conservation nonprofit, Sea to Shore Alliance, merged with the CMA. A Crystal River native, Powell has been researching manatees, and working tirelessly for their survival, since the early 1970s when he was hired by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Powell received a BSc. in Wildlife Biology from the University of Florida, a Masters in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington, and a PhD in Zoology from the University of Cambridge in England.
He was named Interim CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, effective Nov. 5, when longtime leader Frank Dame announced his resignation for health reasons in September.
We spoke with Powell Nov. 13, just two days after he’d stepped in front of media microphones to tell the world that Winter, the most famous and internationally beloved resident of Pinellas County, was gone.
St. Pete Catalyst: Looking back, did you see this coming? Is there a sort of inevitability when this kind of illness is diagnosed in a marine animal?
James “Buddy” Powell: In terms of Winter passing away, no. Our staff are so attuned to these animals, because they’re there with them all the time. They really are very focused on them, and any kind of ‘well, that’s a little strange,’ they pick right up on it. When we first began seeing indications that she was not feeling so well, she was off eating and so forth, they began monitoring how much food she was eating each day and those sorts of things.
Winter has had gastrointestinal issues in the past, multiple times, so we already knew how to treat it. And so we began the course of treatment, right off the bat, expecting her to respond well and to get back to normal pretty quickly. But she didn’t seem to be responding.
Dr. Shelly Marquardt (CMA veterinarian) is really, really good at reaching out to others, and collaborating with others, so she began sending out X-rays and ultrasounds, and results of blood tests, et cetera, to her various colleagues in the veterinary community.
As you can imagine, Winter’s anatomy is different from a wild dolphin, or one that has a tail. The ultrasound specialist we brought in noticed there were some increasingly serious issues going on, but they couldn’t really pinpoint what those were.
It was decided to bring in this A-team of experts, from all over the country, and together we would decide what the next steps were. They decided the next course of action should be exploratory surgery; they knew about where the issue was, but that was going to be the only way they could definitively figure out what was going on. And be able to do something about it.
We were not going to waste any time at all. As soon as the specialists were arranged, we were going to make arrangements for that surgery to begin. Literally, one of the doctors was getting off the plane – he was coming over to us and we were going to begin the surgery that night – but sadly, she passed away before we even had an opportunity to do that.
Because of her physical condition and the difficulties it presented, was it always hanging over your head that Winter might not live as long as a “healthy” dolphin would in captivity?
Of course that sort of question would cross your mind, but the other part of it is, this is the first time we’ve even had an individual like this. And so everything was new. But the one thing that we do know, which is what has inspired so many others, is that she’s extremely resilient, and such a fighter. You talk to any of her animal care people, who’ve cared for her for these 16 years, they’ll all tell you that she rules the roost there. And she has been able to recover many times in the past.
Look at the injuries of our Wounded Warriors, what they have gone through and live a complete lifespan. So we just don’t know. We may never know the answer to that question.
Is there any indication as to why this happened – what caused it?
As you know, I’m not a veterinary doctor, but my understanding is that this is something that happens to people, and dogs, and cats, and is known from marine mammals, including wild marine mammals. Very often when they strand, when they go in and do the necropsy, they find the very same thing. My understanding is it doesn’t seem to be any one thing. It’s caused by a variety of different things, potentially. So there’s nothing that really points to why this happened.
The surgeon who was actually going to do the surgery said that because this twisting of the intestine had occurred so far back, it would have been virtually impossible for him to have done something about it. And I was told by other vets – because they have much better tools if you bring your dog in, for example – that surgery is the only solution to this particular problem.
How would you describe the impact Winter’s presence at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium had on business – both financially and public relations-wise? How important of an ambassador, and frankly, a cash cow, was she?
I can very honestly tell you that if it hadn’t been for Winter, we wouldn’t have this incredible marine hospital that we have now. Which is certainly going to be her legacy going into the future, that’s going to allow us to be able to rescue, treat, rehab and release marine animals into the future. We’re working so hard to build that facility in Tarpon Springs to treat the current issue with manatees – if it wasn’t for Winter, we wouldn’t be able to do that. None of it.
She’s been pivotal in terms of the CMA to be able to further our mission, and expand our mission, and that’s certainly what we’re going to be doing into the future. Not to mention how many lives have been touched by Winter. This “inspiration” part of her, when I merged my company with CMA, I didn’t even know about. I knew about Winter, of course, but I didn’t know how many lives she had touched in the 16 years that she was with us. It’s truly amazing.
You’re interim CEO now, and your hat’s in the ring for when the next permanent CEO is chosen. Most scientists I know aren’t crazy about working in administration. Wouldn’t you rather be in the field somewhere?
That’s a very good question, and one that’s kind of circled around in my own head. With Sea to Shore Alliance, we were 10 years into it, and doing a lot of work in the field and so forth. And then this opportunity to merge with the CMA came up. Part of what I was happy about at the time was ‘oh, great – I can spend more time doing science, and less administration. This is going to be more wonderful at this point in my career.’
But what I found, as we merged with Clearwater, is the impact that CMA has had, and can have, and will have, in the future when it comes to saving the lives of animals, and inspiring people, particularly kids, and the pulpit that we have to be able to make a difference in terms of the environment and marine conservation and so forth.
And that’s been my entire life. That’s been, since I was a teenager, what it’s all about. We can go do the science and collect that information, but if you don’t use that information in a way to make change, impact policy, change lives, change behavior … when I got to CMA, I began seeing that when people come through here, their lives are going to be changed. And they’re going to want to make a difference.
We are doing much, much more than just providing a place to come in and see Winter, or see the other animals. That’s all very important because it does pay the bills, but it also provides a source of support for the other things we do, that people never see, out in the field.