In February Fuji, a dolphin at the Okinawa Churami Aquarium in Japan, was fitted for an artificial fin. The fin was developed by Bridgestone after the dolphin lost most of its tail fin to an unknown disease. Volunteers tapped the full range of Bridgestone’s rubber technology and the team delivered its third prototype in March 2004. Fuji was able to regain her swimming ability and returned to public view at the aquarium in July. Since August, she has been delighting her keepers, visitors, and the Bridgestone engineers with jumps that carry her completely out of the water.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, undertook a similar task in August for Winter, a Atlanta bottlenose dolphin who was rescued two years ago when she was found off Cape Canaveral, abandoned by her mother, and tangled up in a rope attached to a crab trap. She was not expected to survive. While Fuji’s prosthesis is attached to the remaining part of his tail, Winter's tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin tail to move up and down, were lost. Without flukes, she lacked her main propulsion. She can compensate, swimming side to side like a shark, but over time veterinarians expected problems to develop with her spinal cord.
Recreating one of the most powerful swimming mechanisms in nature turned out to be a lot tougher than expected. "I thought I could go down, cast her (tail stump) and put the tail on her," Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics of Bethesda, Md, said. "I didn't understand the training that had to go with each fitting of the tail. Working with Winter, we're on her time, not my time. If she's ready to do something, we move forward. It's the same way working with a child. It takes a lot of time."
The prosthetic is made of a silicone sleeve, a titanium joint and a hard rubber flipper. It is an immense science project. And those involved believe the results could benefit other marine mammals and animals as well as humans. The gel sleeve used to cling to Winter's tail without irritating her sensitive skin also soothed a painful prothesis for an Air Force airman who had lost both legs and his right hand in a 2004 mortar attack in Iraq. The sleeve sticks to Winter's tail with suction the same way a rubber surgical glove grips a human hand. When the airman tried to walk with typical prosthetics, it was very painful. The technology used for Winter helped him and is expected to help others.