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Winter’s legacy: Respect for the bottlenose dolphin

Bill DeYoung



Marineland of Florida. Postcard image.

In another time, Winter the dolphin would have been forced to toss beachballs, play a toy piano with her snout and leap over limbo poles suspended in the air, all for the gawking amusement of tourists.

But Winter, who died this week after 16 years in captivity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, arrived in a more enlightened age, when public indignation at the exploitation of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins was beginning to percolate.

Discovered stranded on a Cape Canaveral beach in 2005, Winter was near death, the circulation to her tail flukes all but cut off by the twisted nylon ropes of a crab trap.

At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the remains of the young dolphin’s tail were amputated. She was fitted with a prosthetic tail, which she learned to use, and although she was nursed back to health – “rehabbed,” in the parlance of the veterinary universe – she would never be able to feed or fend for herself in the wild.

And so she remained at the facility, visited daily by throngs of adults and children inspired by her resilience, as depicted in a somewhat fictionized Hollywood movie and its sequel, both shot partially on location in Clearwater.

Winter was living proof that dolphins did not have to be made to do unnatural things to be appreciated and loved.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium marketing.

Established in 1978, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was always to be a place for rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine creatures – dolphins, turtles, manatees and even small toothed whales – and research.

The first bottlenose dolphin known to survive a beaching – which inevitably means something is seriously wrong – Sunset Sam was rehabbed at the aquarium in 1984, deemed medically unsuitable for release, and lived there for 17 years. Sunset Sam was taught to “paint,” and the sale of his “paintings” put much-needed money into aquarium coffers. He became a tourist favorite.

But Sam, like Winter, never had to sing (or dance, or leap, or toot a horn) for his supper. As with the 61-year-old Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, the focus at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was on science. What, researchers wondered, could mankind learn from these hyper-intelligent mammals?

In the beginning

Marine Studios.

They look like they’re smiling.

But they’re not smiling.

The first “aquarium” attraction in the world was Marineland, near St. Augustine. It opened in 1938 as Marine Studios, ostensibly as an underwater location for movie shoots (key scenes from Creature From the Black Lagoon were lensed there). To keep tourists interested, a locally-caught bottlenose dolphin was kept in the circular tank, for scheduled feedings.

In the 1940s, Marine Studios hired a former sea lion trainer from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to “teach” the animals to leap on command for fish, and to perform “tricks” for rewards. In 1949 came Spray, the first dolphin successfully born in captivity.

Marineland became the most popular tourist attraction in Florida during the 1950s, and spawned imitators not only in Florida, but across American and around the world.

In St. Petersburg, tour boat captain Wilson Hubbard captured three bottlenose dolphins in 1953 and penned them inside a crude underwater fence on the shore of remote Shell Key. Every day, Hubbard would bring his boat to the island and toss fish over the fence to “Patty,” “Mike” and “Frank,” to the delight of his customers.

After a storm destroyed part of his chain-link creation, allowing Mike and Frank to escape, Hubbard sold Patty to John’s Pass resident Jack Hurlbut, who had built a small concrete tank across the gravel street from his bait shop. He called it the Marine Arena.

Jack Hurlbut and Paddy.

Hurlbut had already lost his first four captive dolphins (one was shot to death, in the tank, by a Madeira Beach policeman) and he had a bounty on the John’s Pass docks for “porpoises,” $100 per animal.

When he took delivery of “Patty,” Hurlbut discovered the dolphin was male, and its name was hastily amended to “Paddy.”

This animal lived inside Hurlbut’s sunless concrete tank for nine years, performing three shows daily.

RELATED STORY: VINTAGE ST. PETE: Paddy the Porpoise and the Marine Arena

Hurlbut changed the name of his attraction to the John’s Pass Aquarium, but by 1964 he was outgunned by the Aquatarium, a $3.5 million marine park built on 17 acres, right on the sand, in St. Petersburg Beach.

South Florida businessman L.G. Ball, who owned the Miami Seaquarium, was inspired by the runaway success of the TV series Flipper, itself a spinoff of several family films. The Seaquarium provided and trained the animals for Flipper, and Ball was rolling in dough. He put his money into the Aquatarium.

(It would be 1970 before Seaquarium head trainer Ric O’Barry, who’d come around to believing that making such intelligent and well-mannered animals “perform” was cruel, and inhumane, would leave the oceanarium business to become an outspoken opponent of keeping them in captivity.)

For nearly a decade, the Aquatarium, with trained dolphins leaping and tooting in two enormous tanks, was Pinellas County’s top tourist draw.

Jonah and friend. Postcard image.

History tends to forget, however, that the Aquatarium’s “star attraction,” when it opened, was a short-finned pilot whale called Jonah. A 16-foot female, Jonah was kept with the resident dolphins in the larger of the two tanks, which reached a depth of 26 feet.

Pilot whales are deepwater mammals.

In the spring of 1966, Jonah stopped eating and died. Next, Jack Hurlbut sold the contents of his shuttered John’s Pass Aquarium, including Paddy, to the Aquatarium.

But Paddy, after being kept alone in a 10-foot-deep concrete cage for nearly a decade, had no socialization skills. He fought his tankmates and had to be housed separately, and within a year he, too, rolled over and died.

Long before it became the raucous biker bar known as Screwie Louie’s, the Porpoise Pub, on Seminole Boulevard, had a resident bottlenose dolphin. Owner James Clenendon kept “Dolly” in a shallow artificial pool behind the pub between 1965 and ’69. In his first year, he dug an 800-foot canal from the edge of his property to (freshwater) Lake Seminole. He advertised “boat rides” with his dolphin; after 1969, the ads were suddenly changed to “boat rides” from his captive sea lions.

So what happened to Dolly? And what, for that matter, happened to Jonah? And Paddy?


Changing times

In 1971, Walt Disney World swept over Florida like a tidal wave and killed every tourist attraction within a hundred-mile radius, although it took some businesses years of hard times to finally succumb. The Aquatarium was shuttered for good in 1977. It was bulldozed, and the site paved over for condominiums.

Dolphin “attractions” continued to exist across the state – Busch Gardens Tampa didn’t discontinue its dolphin shows until 2002 – and over time gave way to dolphin “encounters,” educational visits, and “swim with dolphins” experiences, which biologists say is also unnatural and potentially dangerous.

Even Sea World, under fire for its treatment of orcas (killer whales), has toned down the “show” aspect of its dolphin show:

Explore their natural behaviors and the traits they’ve evolved to help them survive and thrive. Hear what’s behind their playfulness and how it helps us make discoveries. Learn the role they play in our planet’s oceans, as well as the threats they face.

Humanity, it seems, has finally caught up with the idea that bottlenose dolphins can be appreciated without being degraded, studied without being made to suffer. Loved without being loved to death. This, in no small part, is thanks to Spray, and Paddy, and Dolly, and Sunset Sam … and Winter.

The two stories referenced in this article appear in the book VINTAGE ST. PETE: The Golden Age of Tourism – and More











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1 Comment

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    Anne McNally

    November 21, 2021at1:15 pm

    We have so much to learn from Winter and her predecessors. May she and they relax and swim freely. Very interesting article..thank you for posting it.

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