The True Story Behind ‘Dolphin Tale’

Movie Talk

The movie "Dolphin Tale" is based on a true story about a dolphin that survives a horrific accident thanks to the help of a small band of dedicated scientists. Though the poster for the film includes the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, and Morgan Freeman, the true star of the flick is Winter the dolphin, who is playing herself in the movie.

Back in the winter of 2005 when Winter was a mere three months old, she became entangled in a crab trap. A rope from the trap became wrapped around her tail and all of her efforts to escape just made the injuries worse. Normally, this would have been the end of Winter -- thousands of dolphins die every year in the same way — but she was lucky. Winter was discovered by a fisherman and eventually transported to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. There marine biologists were forced to remove the mangled tail. They also named her Winter for the season when she was discovered.

The odds of survival for a dolphin with a missing tail are very low. The rear fins are like legs for a human; they get the marine mammals from point A to point B. If Winter were to survive, even in an aquarium, she needed a prosthetic. Many of the challenges of making an artificial leg and making an artificial tail are similar: The design and geometry of the prosthetic has to work for the amputee and it need to attach comfortably and snugly. The only difference is that no one had ever tried to make an artificial limb for a dolphin.

After months of redesigns and rehabilitation, the staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium managed to make a tail that worked. In the process they invented a soft, rubbery material -- which they dubbed "Winter's Gel" -- to be worn with the artificial limb, which greatly reduces the chafing and pain associated with a prosthetic. It's an invention that had significant applications outside of the aquarium, helping thousands of veterans and amputees.

Fortunately, in spite of the pain and physical therapy, Winter took to the tail and soon began thriving. It was the sort of inspiring story that the media can't resist. News articles and local segments were soon followed by interest from Hollywood.

Though Winter soon became used to the occasional news camera, shooting a feature film is whole different beast. As producer Richard Ingber stated in the press notes, "One thing we knew going in was that Winter is not an actor. She is not a captive animal that is trained to perform. She's been through so much in her life already, so we had to be respectful of that and of her."

In the weeks leading up to the production of "Dolphin Tale," the staff of CMA set up lights, boom mics, and a fake camera around Winter's aquarium to get her used to life on-set. Like the tail, Winter soon took to being in front of the camera. With the exception of a couple of shots that used an animatronic dolphin, the dolphin you're seeing in the movie is Winter.

Over the course of making the movie, many of the crew and cast members found themselves inspired by Winter's very strong personality. Director Charles Martin Smith, who met Winter multiple times prior to production, developed a particularly strong connection to her.

"The one thing that you do see about her is that she has absolutely no quit in her," he said in an interview with Collider. "She is an optimistic, very intelligent, very mischievous, wonderful, bright, juvenile animal who has a lot of lessons to teach about perseverance. The fact that she can barely swim is something that you'd never get the feeling has gotten her down or that she's ever been depressed about it. To see how inspiring she is for people around her meant a lot to me. I just thought, "This is one of the wonderful things about film. When on Earth would I ever form such a close bond with a dolphin?"

"Dolphin Tale" is now playing in 2D and 3D.

Watch Winter in a behind-the-scenes look at "Dolphin Tale":

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