The Warner Bros. movie Dolphin Tale hits theaters on September 23, 2011. Sure to be the feel good movie of the year, it’s based on the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter. The movie was filmed on location at her home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) in Clearwater Beach, Florida. I have had the pleasure of visiting this aquarium several times.
Winter was caught in a crab net when she was three months old. She was found stranded on the beach in Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral, by a fisherman (the movie version features a troubled boy named Sawyer Nelson as her rescuer … gotta have a good story-line for a movie).
Marine rescue experts from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were called in. Winter was taken to the CMA where she eventually lost her entire tail fin and two vertebrae. Without a tail fin, it is virtually impossible for a regular dolphin to swim. Winter, however, is not a regular dolphin.
With the hope, hard work and determination of marine biologists, volunteers and trainers at CMA, Winter was given a prosthetic tail fin and re-learned to swim. Hanger Prosthetics, which makes prosthetic limbs for human amputees, made Winter’s tail. Winter has also learned to swim beautifully without the prosthesis, by swaying her body from side to side rather than up and down.
The CMA is a working aquarium and specializes in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of stranded and injured animals. Dolphins, sea turtles, otters, sharks and manatees are nursed back to health and released back into the wild. If any are considered unable to return to the wild (like Winter), they become permanent residents of the aquarium. Several dolphins reside with Winter at CMA, including Panama, Nicholas and Hope.
Winter and her aquatic friends, which includes the ever-adorable river otters, give daily shows to educate visitors about marine animals and explain how the aquarium works to rehabilitate and return injured animals to the wild.
It’s really interesting to visit the aquarium and watch how the prosthetic fluke is put on. A “sock-like” piece is first put on. This reduces friction on her skin and makes the prosthesis fit better. Next, on goes a stretchy plastic sleeve, which is attached to the artificial tail fin.
Winter’s story doesn’t end with her miraculous accomplishments. She has given hope and inspiration to the many disabled children, adults and wounded Army soldiers that have visited her at the aquarium. She has been visited by Scott Rigsby, the first double amputee to complete the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, and numerous school groups.
Dolphin Tale was filmed on location at the CMA in Clearwater, Florida. Several new tanks were built just for the movie and are now used by the aquarium.
From the producers of The Blind Side, Dolphin Tale stars Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson. Nathan Gamble portrays Sawyer Nelson, the fictional boy who rescued Winter.