As a kid visiting his grandparents in Tampa, Fla., Tom Orr, a 1988 College of Arts and Sciences graduate, first caught dolphin fever. “There’s a popular tourist area called John’s Pass,” said Orr, national account rep with marketing firm Valpak. “I remember sitting there watching dolphins and thinking, ‘Someday when I grow up, I want to be out there with them.’”
Years later and following a 1996 career relocation from Toledo to the Sunshine State, that promise led to Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’d heard how they rescue, rehabilitate and release dolphins,” he said. Orr joined the volunteers who took tickets at the front door, acted as tour guides, and assisted the employees working with rescued dolphins and otters.
He upped the ante by joining the aquarium’s stranding team, the rescue group on call 24/7: “It could be at 3 a.m. or on Christmas Day, whenever a dolphin comes ashore.”
He mustered when Clearwater Marine Aquarium took an urgent call from Florida’s Atlantic Coast in December 2005. A local fisherman had found something out in the shallow mangrove waters.
“She was an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf, maybe three or four months old,” Orr remembered. “She’d been entangled in a crab trap line, in terrible condition. A couple different rescue crews on the East Coast of Florida got involved, including Sea World and Harbor Branch Marine.”
Even after she was freed, the calf was unable to swim away. As the rescuers examined the writhing animal, it became obvious that cuts and abrasions were the least of her injuries. Like a rough but effective tourniquet, the trap lines had so tightly wrapped the end of her body that the blood flow to her flukes had been cut off for hours.Tail flukes and the powerful muscles leading to them propel a dolphin through the water; an animal deprived of their use cannot swim. Faced with the extent of the calf’s trauma, the teams debated whether to euthanize her on the scene.
When apprized of the situation, Clearwater Marine Aquarium had other ideas.
“We told the rescuers that we were willing to take her under our care, so they transported her by truck across the state,” Orr said. “She arrived late at night and we unloaded her into a small, above-ground swimming pool.”
Little did they know, he added, that they were taking in an animal — christened Winter by her handlers at the aquarium — that would leave a mark on the world. “She would help war veterans who were learning to walk again, she would inspire amputees, adults and children all over the world, and she would become an internationally known symbol of hope and inspiration,” Orr said.
Winter’s story — how she ultimately lost her damaged tail, how scientists from a national prosthetics company (Hanger) became part of a growing army of fans and helpers — now seems a big-screen natural, but it was a boutique studio with a taste for inspirational stories that ended up making the call.
Alcon Entertainment, which had just come off a huge success with the film “The Blind Side,” noticed the media buzz about Winter and contacted the aquarium. Orr was involved during the development of the movie — eventually titled “Dolphin Tale” — and watched it come together every step of the way. Over the years, his participation in Clearwater Marine Aquarium had strengthened as he joined its board of directors, serving as vice chair, then chair.
In fact, it became apparent that the aquarium-director role, assayed by Harry Connick Jr., was based at least in part on Orr himself.
He takes his moment of stardom lightly: “There’s an ongoing joke between me and the aquarium’s CEO, David Yates. I say that Connick is playing me; he says Connick is playing him. The truth is that the character is a combination of us and our veterinarian.”
No such shared glory for Winter; she played herself, with two of her regular trainers hired by the studio to teach her dozens of new commands and behaviors. “Winter thrived on it,” Orr said.
Now a permanent Clearwater Marine Aquarium resident, Winter may be one among many success stories in the facility, but her indomitable will to thrive is what connects her so viscerally to visitors.
“No one — including the aquarium staff and the veterinarians — thought she would survive once her tail came off, because no dolphin ever had. But no one told Winter that,” Orr said.
Brock Mealer from Wauseon, Ohio, whose brother is on the University of Michigan football team, was one person touched by Winter. He’d been left paralyzed after a horrific car accident that killed his father and left Brock with a 1 percent chance of walking again.
Orr explained, “We became friends through Facebook, and I invited him down to meet Winter. I had him in the water with her.”
Mealer told a Florida reporter that he’d felt a connection with Winter as soon as he heard her story. “I thought at some time Winter must have wondered if she’d make it or if she was going to die,” he said, admitting that he knew the feeling.
“But now Brock walks,” Orr said. “He led the Wolverines out onto the field for the team’s opener last fall.”
As for Orr, he’ll keep following the calling he’s found at the aquarium. “It recharges the very spirit of my being,” he said.
He paused a long moment, then said, “I had an experience the night of 9/11. Like most of us, our world turned upside down that day. I was scheduled for one of my late-night shifts to help rehabilitate a juvenile sperm whale.
“I found myself alone in the water with a whale in a rainstorm that night. There was a connection between us, almost like being with a species from another planet. The average person who’s not so closely involved can see whales and dolphins do amazing tricks, realize they’re athletic and smart beyond a dog, but until you look into the eyes and the soul of a whale on the night of 9/11, or see the spirit in Winter’s eyes — well, you don’t really know.”
See a preview of “Dolphin Tale” here.