Free Foster Therapy with a Dolphin Named Winter

By Jill Rippy

Update: Clearwater Marine Aquarium now offers FREE admission for children in foster care. Just bring your placement letter.

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Recently, I embarked on a “girl trip” with three little girls.  For two little girls in foster care, the trip involved a first airplane experience, a mouse in a magical place, and a dolphin named Winter. Though the entire experience was incredible, this tail-less, wonder of a dolphin, no doubt touched three little hearts (and one big one.)

We spent the better part of a day visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  We fell in love with Winter when she hit the big screen in A Dolphin Tale and doubly fell in love with sweet baby Hope in Dolphin Tale 2.  Though the movies are wonderful, nothing beats the actual experience of being up close and personal with them.

I want to add that I struggle greatly with the captivity of wildlife and part of my curiosity was to check out this facility to ensure it’s a legitimate rehab and release program.  It definitely didn’t disappoint.

We were greeted by such a friendly, welcoming staff.  There are so many staff all around who were available to answer all our questions.  We are especially fond of Bill Roscop who is a 6 year volunteer at the aquarium.  Bill too found his way to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium after falling in love with the movie.  Bill is a former police officer and now spends his days volunteering and educating the public about this amazing place that is home to these magnificent creatures.

When visiting, do not expect a glitzy, show type experience.  You won’t see animal shows or routines.  Though the resident dolphins, Winter, Hope and Nicholas can do some tricks, that is purely for health and compliance purposes. For example, we saw Winter obey a command which was only used to obtain a urine sample for the medical staff.  However, that trickster Nicholas did catch us off guard when he jumped out of the water and screeched at us.  We thought maybe it was because Mr. Bill told us a movie secret…Nicholas played Mandy in Dolphin Tale 2.

This charming facility brings marine life in, rehabilitates and releases.  Winter, Hope and Nicholas are three dolphins who can never be returned to the ocean.  Their conditions would make them easy prey and they could not survive.  Though it’s not the preferred home for a dolphin, these dolphins provide something greater. These dolphins could have been euthanized.  Because of them, this facility draws a huge crowd of visitors.  These dolphins help fund a facility that in turn, releases a high volume of rehabilitated marine life back to their natural habitats.

There are many layers to this amazing facility.  Because the films were shot on location, you can see much of what is seen in the movies.  You won’t find Hazel or Sawyer, but you will see many children represented by those two on your visit.  You may see a Make-a-Wish child whose one wish is to meet Winter.  You will see a huge volunteer staff, interns and a lot of teaching action.  Because you witness interns and volunteers in training, you learn as well.  The new medical facility and kitchen are beautiful as are the various enclosures for the large variety of wildlife they are currently rehabilitating.  From sea turtles to nurse sharks to otters, this facility aims to help where they can.  It’s obvious they do not shy away from a challenge or seemingly impossible situation.  After all, they do house a tail-less dolphin.

There are several levels to visit and your ticket allows you to move at your own pace and spend as much time as you like in each area.  Volunteers are readily available to answer any questions and to give you some insider secrets about the filming of the movies.

Though the facility serves this great purpose, it’s the passion of those who serve these creatures that draws you closer to the stories of these beautiful dolphins who can never be released. Yes, these dolphins are being well cared for, but their sacrifices provide yet another purpose.  Their stories of survival and determination during a bleak time inspire many.  These marvelous creatures are thriving and their stories give hope to many who visit.  I entered that facility with two little girls who needed to see hope for their own lives.  To see this dolphin with no tail and an arched back swim and interact so curiously with humans brought tears to my eyes.

These little girls saw something in Winter, who beat the odds and is still thriving.  She never gave up and she leads a happy life dedicated to bringing joy to millions of people.

As a foster mother, this experience touched me in such a way that’s hard to put into words.  We sat in awe for a long time just watching this beautiful creature.  There is no greater therapy than sitting and watching that dolphin. My daughter, who knows no life other than her family fostering, aspires to intern at this facility one day.  My foster daughters saw that it is possible to thrive and have great purpose even after immeasurable pain and loss.

My heart will forever be with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  We serve similar purposes.  We bring in the wounded, rehabilitate the best we can and send them back out into the world.  Sometimes, we keep them.  Our hope with all of them is to see them thrive.  Hopefully, we give them a fighting chance at a wonderful life.    When the wounds are far too great, we hope to help them see their potential and find a way to use the pain for a larger purpose…to help others.

Sweet Winter, this foster mama is grateful.

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