The little injured dolphin they called Winter couldn't have come along at a better time for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a rustic sea life rescue center occupying the city's old sewage treatment plant.
The nonprofit public aquarium was about ready to go belly-up at the end of 2005 when the baby bottlenose dolphin was brought there after getting her tail tightly entangled in a crab-trap line. She lived, but her tail fluke withered away, forcing the young animal to learn how to swim with just a stump and then adapt to a revolutionary prosthetic. Winter's inspirational story of perseverance made her a global media star, quadrupled attendance at the aquarium and spawned a lucrative line of toys, books and other merchandise.
Now Winter is a movie star.
The charismatic animal plays herself in "Dolphin Tale," a family-friendly 3-D movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson, opening Sept. 23. The production is based on Winter's unlikely story of surviving the loss of her tail, then thriving and inspiring human visitors — including war veterans — who have lost limbs and are adapting to their own prosthetics.
The story got some fictional tweaks — a troubled boy (Nathan Gamble) who bonds with Winter was created as a central character who finds the gravely injured animal — but the movie sticks close to the real events surrounding the loss of Winter's tail and her recovery at the aquarium. And in another twist on art imitating life, in the movie Winter's presence helps save the modest marine rescue center from financial ruin. A big chunk of the film was shot at the facility last fall.
"Largely what you see with her rescue, her rehabilitation, the (prosthetic) tail being made, the fact it was filmed here and Winter stars as herself, it's pretty much real life," aquarium CEO David Yates says.
Connick, who plays a veterinarian and director of the marine rescue hospital, says he didn't find out the script was based on a true story until after he had read it.
"I thought it was somebody's creative imagination at work," he says. "I was just blown away. I couldn't get over it, really, not only because of her survival and consequently thriving, but the advancements they made in human prosthetics because of it. I was just blown away that the whole thing was true."
Winter wasn't expected to survive when brought to the aquarium in December 2005 and was left with a rounded stump after losing her tail. A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent more than four months nursing her back to health around the clock.
"When she arrived here we didn't think she would make it through the night," says trainer Abby Stone. "She was stressed, she was not physically doing well, she had been through a major ordeal. Most animals in that situation would not have made it."
Winter learned how to swim without her tail — amazing her handlers with a unique combination of moves that resemble an alligator's undulating swimming style and a shark's side-to-side tail swipes. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving.
The prosthetic tail — made of rubberized plastic and carbon fiber — is a wonder of modern science, with the developers, Hanger Orthopedic Group's Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll, having to design the intricate tail fluke as well as figure out a way to keep the whole thing on her body. The solution was a sleeve created from a sticky gel composite that slips down onto her stump and creates suction when the prosthetic appendage is applied.
Since Hanger got involved, Strzempka has taken new amputees to see Winter at the aquarium. Interaction with her has been especially effective in coaxing children to wear their new prosthetics, which can feel strange and uncomfortable at first.
"It's amazing to see the impact she has on people," Strzempka said. "When we first got into this, we thought we could help this dolphin. She's helped us 20 times more than we could ever help her."
Winter wears the new tail only a half hour at a time, three or four times during the day, as her handlers continue to get her used to it and give her spine a break from the strain of the side-to-side swimming. She is trained to follow commands and patiently allows the prosthetic to be put on and taken off in front of adoring crowds.
Director Charles Martin Smith says Winter was so social and animated that capturing her engaging behaviors on film was relatively easy. She enjoys human contact, which he says opened up a lot of possibilities for filming people in the water with her.
"I spent those first three days just walking around and learning about her," Smith says. "She likes to carry toys around on her (nose), so I wrote that into the movie. She has a blue mattress that she likes to jump up on and float around on like a little kid, so I put that in the movie. She has this signature sound that she makes that they call a 'tweety bird' — like a little high-pitched bird trill — so I wrote that into the movie."
Winter captivated everyone, including Freeman. The veteran actor plays the specialist who takes on the challenge of designing the new appendage for the tailless animal. Freeman had never even been near a dolphin before.
"Playing the doctor who was going to create the prosthesis for her, I had a lot of hands-on time with her," Freeman said. "I remember one day early on when I felt we needed to get to know each other a little bit, so I coaxed her up to get some fish and keep her nearby where I could pet her and talk to her a little bit."
The aquarium got a significant expansion thanks to the movie, after Smith decided he needed a nicer pool to film some of the water scenes. The other concrete tanks were left over from the aquarium's previous life treating the city's sewage. Yates says a second aquarium building is opening in downtown Clearwater that will display the movie props.
"It was like a dream come true getting her story out there, because she has such an amazing story," says Stone, the trainer. "It was like the best thing that could ever happen to this facility."