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Film Set Visit: An Inspirational Dolphin Tale

Film Set Visit: An Inspirational <i>Dolphin Tale</i>

Who would have thought that a dolphin with a prosthetic tail could become a hero for those who are deemed “different” in today’s society? And a reminder that all life is precious and worth saving?

Thanks to Dolphin Tale, this amazing, true story is now a big-screen reality.

It was just short of six years ago that a three-month-old dolphin was discovered while caught in a crab trap in Mosquito Lagoon in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. A passing fisherman quickly alerted a dolphin rescue organization which then transported the critically injured dolphin to the care of Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, to begin life-saving recovery and rehabilitation.

Named Winter for the time of year when she was discovered, the dolphin wasn’t expected to survive the traumatic ordeal as many dolphins die in monofilament and crab trap lines. Her tail had been severely damaged by deep rope abrasions and was quickly disintegrating. Eventually it detached and was lost, along with two vertebrae due to her serious injuries.

But how would Winter swim without a tail? And what kind of life would this mean for her? At first, animal experts were doubtful of her quality of life going forward, but then were amazed when she adapted so quickly to her new physical form.

“There were people that were potentially calling for Winter to be euthanized because what can a dolphin do without her tail,” remembers Dr. Mike Walsh, a leading marine mammal veterinarian who helped develop Winter’s rehabilitation program. “And it’s the same thing as why would we not give people a chance and try and figure out what we can do.”

Thankfully, Dr. Walsh and Clearwater Marine Aquarium did give Winter a chance, and today she is an inspiration to those born with physical limitations or those who have been injured and have lost limbs to “never give up” as they are adjusting to a new way of living.

Developing a unique swim pattern under the guidance of her marine mammal trainers, Winter defied the odds as she learned to eat fish on her own and grew quickly to her current weight of approximately 230 pounds. Along the way, though, her supervising trainers and veterinarians saw that her adapted swim pattern of swimming side to side (like a shark), as opposed to up and down as dolphins with tails naturally do, would lead to a curvature of her spine.

That’s when a leading human prosthetics company stepped in. Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc. was contacted to see how they could help Winter, and soon the first of many variations of a tail to fit over Winter’s peduncle was designed and tested on the courageous, young dolphin. Using physical data from scans and molds, the team at Hangar generated a replica of her peduncle and then created a special gel sleeve made of a sticky type of material that gave the suction necessary for the tail to stay in place while not damaging her sensitive skin. Today, the same technology developed for Winter—including what is known as “Winter’s gel”—is being used to help human patients with their prosthetic needs.

News spread of this “dolphin that could,” and soon major network news programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and NBC’s morning news program The Today Show, caught wind of the uplifting story and ran coverage during their broadcasts. It was during the aforementioned broadcast of The Today Show that Producer Richard Ingber of Alcon Entertainment (The Blind Side, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) first heard of Winter. He knew immediately that this was a story worth telling on the big screen, and so the process of making Dolphin Tale quickly began. 

During the film’s shoot last fall at the very place were Winter’s story unfolded (Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida), I had the opportunity to visit the set as production was nearing completion and get a feel for what the September 23, 2011 release will be like.

While I’ve not yet seen the family-friendly 3D film, as it is still in post-production, I will share with you what I observed and heard that day while visiting the set and hopefully give you an idea of why this life-affirming tale will surely be worth your time this coming fall.


Since Dolphin Tale is “based on true events,” a surrounding story needed to be developed in order to adapt Winter's tale to film, fill screen time and help moviegoers of all ages connect with this unlikely hero. 

In the film, directed by Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud), Winter is indeed a young dolphin who is discovered while caught in a crab trap and then eventually loses her tail. When Winter begins her rehabilitation at Clearwater Marine Hospital (the name is changed from “aquarium” to “hospital” in the film), one of her most devoted friends is an introverted, 11-year-old boy named Sawyer Nelson. He soon rallies his friends and family—including his initially skeptical mother Lorraine Nelson—to help save Winter, and he convinces a pioneering doctor named Dr. McCarthy to create a unique prosthetic attachment to enable the dolphin to swim properly.

While Dr. McCarthy has developed prosthetics for war veterans and is good at what he does, he’s never done as much for an animal. Can he really help a wounded dolphin? And where in the world does he begin? It’s the challenge of his career. Joined with him in his efforts to help Winter is Clay Haskett, a dedicated marine biologist and single father who is the one who has brought her to Clearwater Marine Hospital. Clay tirelessly runs this understaffed facility and lives nearby in his houseboat with his father Reed and daughter Hazel, who he also homeschools.

No one knows the depth of impact that Winter will soon have in her new home and how everyone she meets—children, war veterans and all those who are helping her—will be inspired by an injured dolphin who never gave up.


Winter … Yes, Winter plays herself in role of “Winter” in Dolphin Tale. But how did an untrained animal become an on-screen “star”?

“We sat down with Alcon from day one and said we’ve got to make sure if we’re going to film Winter it has to be at her pace,” explains David Yates, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “And we’ve done so whether she’s wearing the tail or doing a scene. It’s been at her pace.

“Dolphins have to be stimulated otherwise they’ll regress,” he continues. “So the movie for her has been a great benefit. We brought all the actors in a little bit early and got Winter used to seeing them or a double that looked like them. She’s conformed. She’s the star of the show, and she knows it.”

“She’s done remarkably well,” adds Austin Highsmith who plays Winter’s trainer “Phoebe” in the film. “They had to train the ‘eyes closed behavior’ with [Winter] because dolphins that are in captivity are trained to keep their eyes open, so they can do medical procedures on them. So training her to shut her eyes and clench them up in the movie when she’s like the ‘sick dolphin’ was a really hard behavior to do. So they had me hold her, and they would try to train that. … She’s so cute. And she’s really smart, too.”

Harry Connick Jr. … As Clay Haskett, the marine biologist who’s trying to help Winter and hold his family together, Harry Connick Jr. indicates that it was a no-brainer to work on a film like Dolphin Tale.    

“You can’t get a better filmmaking experience than this,” he shares. “The story is a wonderful, sweet story. It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.”

During his research for his role, Connick Jr. reveals how his appreciation grew for what Clearwater Marine Aquarium does and stands for.

“I remember when I was talking to this veterinarian. I was doing research on this guy I was playing and [he said] ‘Well, I would have euthanized that animal.’ It really kind of threw me for a loop. And it was something I never would have thought about. When you see what [Clearwater Marine Aquarium] has done, this whole facility is miraculous. It’s incredible.”

The actor also affirms the direction of Charles Martin Smith and his usage of 3D in the filmmaking process.

“It couldn’t have been done in a less subtle way—even the way they’re doing the 3D stuff. When you see the technology, you would be tempted to have something come out at the audience in every single scene. But Charles is so subtle about it. And he’s so judicious about the way he approaches that—the way he approaches the characters. Everything is kind of toned down. And Winter speaks for herself. It’s nice, and it’s not stupid. They’re doing it very intelligently, I think.”

Ashley Judd … Already an animal lover and advocate, Ashley Judd says she cried the first time she read the script for Dolphin Tale and then some more when she found out it was based on a true story.

As someone who was raised in single-parent situations, Judd also related to her character as Lorraine Nelson, a nurse and single mother of Sawyer.

“At times I lived with my dad and at times I lived with my mom, and I saw both of them fall back on some pretty dysfunctional coping strategies, just lacking information and trying to fill in a void and do the best they could which at times wasn’t very good.

“I think what we know now that we didn’t know then, and what is also a strong theme in [Dolphin Tale], is family of choice and that we can supplement our family of origin or that family of chance that God happens to give us with really appropriate, surrogate, healthy, functionally-loving relationships that sustain us in those leaner times when the family of chance isn’t necessarily there.”

Judd, who reveals in her recent memoir, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, that she experienced sexual abuse and neglect as a child and has since done the hard work of recovery and is now working to help others as a humanitarian and advocate, identifies greatly with designating Winter as a “wounded healer.”

“Unhealed trauma, unaddressed trauma, becomes a tremendous handicap generally in a person’s life. And it creates all of these coping mechanisms that may have been essential survivor skills at one stage, but just really become defects of character and shortcomings in the personality eventually. And being able to master those then creates tremendous freedom and authority as a survivor—not just someone who’s trying to get by every day. It really empowers. As a survivor, you can carry that message. So I like [identifying] Winter as a ‘wounded healer.’”

Nathan Gamble … Moviegoers may recognize Nathan Gamble from his role as part of a family that learns about love from their adorable and naughty dog in 2008’s tear-jerker, Marley & Me. The now 13-year-old actor plays perhaps the most pivotal role in Dolphin Tale as Winter’s closest advocate and friend. It’s a character he was excited to portray and one he can’t believe he’s had the opportunity to do.

“It’s truly an experience like none other. Just to feel [Winter’s] skin, you know, and just to feel her. It’s just amazing. If you would’ve said four months ago that I would be swimming with a dolphin, I would say you’re crazy. It’s beyond cool. It’s awesome.”

In order to prepare for scenes when he would swim alongside Winter and interact with her in the rehab pools at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the actor spent some one-on-one time getting to know his new aquatic friend before the cameras started rolling.

“Actually before we started shooting, I came here three weeks earlier and just started to practice with Winter and do all of this kind of cool stuff. Like I would hold on to her peduncle. And she pulls me along and then she pushes me on her rostrum, and it’s just all this really cool stuff.”

While on set, Nathan was also able to see the impact that Winter has in real life with those who come to visit her at the aquarium.

“I saw a little kid who had an amputated leg go up to Winter. And I could just see it in his eyes that ‘since Winter didn’t give up, I won’t give up.’ Kind of gives them more hope. It was really great and awesome.” 

Cozi Zuehlsdorff … A newcomer to film, Cozi (a nickname for “Cozette”) is no stranger to acting as the young star has already appeared in several television commercials as well as performed in musical theater. Her first major motion picture role, however, required her to dig deep and bring on the waterworks in one pivotal scene when working with director Charles Martin Smith.

“He’s the best director. He’s the only director I’ve ever had. He’s really respectful. There was a scene where I had to cry, and I got like 20 minutes to get ready. I went on set and there were three people with a camera. I just sat down, and I cried and then I was all done. It was amazing how [Charles] didn’t make me keep doing it. He didn’t bring everybody in to just stare into my face.”

Like her character in the film (Clay's daughter Hazel), as well as her costar Nathan Gamble, Cozi is also homeschooled in real life.

“Well, it sure gives me a lot of free time … I don’t have as strict of a school schedule, so I can audition for things in L.A. And it’s helped me get closer to God and closer to my mom, who’s my best friend. I love homeschooling.”

Besides studying while homeschooling on set, Cozi also learned some wonderful life lessons from what she observed while working on Dolphin Tale.

“In my way, I see it like people with prosthetic legs and stuff are just like us, and I don’t think we should put them in a low place or have pride over them or anything because they’re just like you and me. They’re just sitting down. [Filming this movie] has taught me and everybody else not to feel different or anything, ‘cause it’s just like Winter. We don’t think of her as different.

“I see a lot of little kids with prosthetic legs and stuff and they walk up and they look at Winter and their eyes just go [wide-eyed], and it’s just a whole new world for them. It’s so touching to see that, and I’m so blessed to be here every day with her.”

Austin Highsmith … As Phoebe, Winter’s trainer in the movie, Austin Highsmith spent a lot of time working and learning alongside Winter’s real-life trainer, Abby Stone.

“Just to try and portray Abby, because she’s such an amazing individual, just her whole journey is phenomenal. She’s only 30 years old, and she’s been [at Clearwater Marine Aquarium] since she was 16. And just the work that she does, and that they all do here at CMA, I think is really important for us to portray as accurately as we possibly can.”

To prepare for her extensive interaction with Winter in the film, Austin spent a lot of time in the pool with Winter.

“Right away they had me in the water with [Winter], her coming up and me holding her. And they’ve done a lot of practice with me swimming her from place to place, ‘cause in the film I do that. And it’s the coolest thing. You’ve got this 300-pound animal and you’re kind of hugging it and swimming along. Because I have a swim background, I’m very comfortable in the water. They had me practicing a lot of the behaviors that Sawyer does in the movie. I sort of got to do the flips with her in the water and kinds of stuff like that.”

When asked what she hopes people will take away from Dolphin Tale, Austin points to a message of hope that is what the story of Winter is all about.

“I really hope that people walk away from this realizing that giving up is not the way to go. And I mean I experienced that so much in my own life with people that are around me—even my own parents—and I believe that everything happens for a reason and that God’s hand is just guiding us. And I always just go, ‘Okay. You’re bigger than me. Wherever you want to take me, I’ll go.’ It’s really cool to sit back and just go, ‘I know where this came from’ and to be able to recognize it and say thank you. And I really hope that people walk away from [Dolphin Tale] with that. … I think that if we can look at a little dolphin who doesn’t even know what they’re doing and has inspired and saved, I mean literally saved lives, that we can’t complain about anything.”

Austin Stowell … As Sawyer’s cousin Kyle, a war veteran who returns from service wounded and now has to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, Austin Stowell knew right away that he wanted to portray a member of the military in an honorable way.

“When I got approached about this character, I was reading the script and I was really happy that they were showing these guys in a different light and showing the stages of return back to society.

“I have very good friends of mine who serve overseas and one in particular who I don’t get to talk to too much, and he was one of my best friends. He’s in Special Forces and serving our country, and so I’m honored and blessed to be able to represent him and his brothers and sisters in arms in [Dolphin Tale] and hopefully, God willing, do them justice which I really hope I am.”

In one emotional scene, Austin, who is perhaps best known for a recurring role on ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, was called upon by director Charles Martin Smith to really relate and find the connection for his character.

“[Charles] has this uncanny ability to pose a statement or a question to get to the essence of a scene, and it’s really amazing how he’s able to do that. We were at the VA hospital and you know it’s this emotional scene where I’m seeing Sawyer for the first time and then trying to explain to him why I am not who I was before [losing my leg] and what this has done to me and why I can’t live up to the expectations I was hoping to.

"And you know, I’m connecting to people around me, the amputees. It starts off with Kyle asking a question [to Sawyer], ‘Did my mom ask you to come?’ And at the core of that is his relationship with his mother. And then to have these guys all around me—these amputees and veterans. And Charles just goes, ‘They all have moms, too.’”

Morgan Freeman … From Easy Reader on PBS' The Electric Company to the voice of VISA in television commericals to the Academy Award-winning actor he is today, Morgan Freeman brings a wealth of experience to his role as Dr. McCarthy in Dolphin Tale. But when he first read the script, he wondered who or what would play Winter.

“I wondered how they were going to do the dolphin. Where are you going to find a dolphin without a tail? I didn’t know about Winter at all.”

Once on set, Morgan got to know more about Winter’s tale while portraying an eccentric doctor who creates prosthetics for war veterans at a VA hospital.

“Sometimes outside influences are wonderful life savers, and I think [Dolphin Tale] is one of those stories. You have the story of a boy and a dolphin overcoming doubt—the dolphin’s doubt and the boy’s lack of focus. …The idea of focusing is inherent in this story about Sawyer whose focus is drawn to this situation with this dolphin. And his mother, bless her, sees that and makes it work for him and her. It’s great.”

Outside of acting, the avid blue water sailor and jet pilot says that being outdoors and “amongst what we will call God’s works” is what is truly inspirational to him. And he also believes moviegoers will take away inspiration as well from Dolphin Tale.

“There are three stories involved here of people who were in need of inspiration, hope.  Kyle, Sawyer and Winter. I think that if you see that it can be done, you’re inspired to keep going for at least another day. So I think that’s what, if people come out of [Dolphin Tale] with anything, that’s what they’ll come out with.”


David Yates … As the leading voice and public persona for Clearwater Marine Aquarium, CEO David Yates has seen firsthand the impact Winter has had on people of all ages who have come to visit since she first made the facility her home.

“One guy came back from Iraq. He was in a Humvee, and an IED hit. All four guys but him were gone. The compression hit him on the right side, tore up part of his right arm and the left side was okay, but paralyzed somewhat. So he was very damaged. And we brought him to see Winter, and he cried for two hours. It’s the best two hours he ever had.”

Yates says connecting with people is what Winter does best, and it just made sense that she would play herself in the big screen version of her tale.

“It lends a lot of authenticity,” Yates admits. “The movie has a lot of realism in it. We have a lot of our volunteers and our staff in it. A lot of how we rehabbed Winter is shown in the film itself—all the way to how we held her to how she was fed. It would be hard to make a film about Winter the dolphin and not have her be in the film itself. [Clearwater Marine Aquarium] is actually where she survived and where she was rehabbed. It adds a lot of realism to the movie itself, and we’re excited about that.

“After [Dolphin Tale] comes out, it will allow us to show the world our work. We’re a nonprofit. And even more than tourists, we’re excited about showing off our work and how we do it.”

Abby Stone … As Winter’s real-life head trainer, Abby Stone has been involved with preparing Winter for filming Dolphin Tale and working with the actors as they interact with Winter, particularly Austin Highsmith who portrays Abby as “Phoebe” on-screen.

Arguably no one knows the dolphin better than Stone, who has been with Winter since she first came to Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005 and has been involved in every aspect of the dolphin’s rehabilitation and training her in using her special prosthetic tail.

“ What is making the tail work so well for Winter is ‘Winter’s gel,’” she explains. “This is now being applied to human beings and has made a remarkable difference in the lives of many people who weren’t able to use prosthetics very comfortably or at all. And this allowed them to do that. It’s a silicone gel-based material and what it does is not only provide protection, but it provides that suction as well.

“Of course, we continue to make advancements as [Winter] learns to use these prototypes. We take that information—and she’ll give us plenty of information about how she’s using it and how comfortable she is and if she’s ready to move on—and we’ll continue to advance these prototypes here to meet her needs because essentially what [her prosthetic tail] is is a physical therapy device. And we allow her to use it every day so that we can target muscles that would normally be used for propulsion, and we allow her to exercise them. Of course, it’s enriching for her as well. So we’ve gotten really positive results by using this in conjunction with regular physical therapy which she does throughout the day.”

Perhaps another quality about Winter that endears her to so many is her natural relational quality which Stone says is inherent when it comes to this animal species.

“Dolphins are like people in a sense that they are very emotional, very intelligent and social. And we can read people very well. Somebody doesn’t have to speak and you know what kind of mood they’re in by their facial expression, their body language. There are so many subtle behaviors that these animals emit that we can pick up on that we know are associated with being elated and excited or being kind of down and out. So [dolphins] experience a wide range of emotions. Once you get to know an animal and you’ve spent many years with them, you pick it up.” 

Richard Ingber … If anyone deserves the grand prize for determination and perseverance in bringing Winter’s story to the big screen, it has to be Richard Ingber, producer with Alcon Entertainment. Ingber first learned of Winter and her amazing impact while watching television one day.

“I was watching The Today Show one morning, and I saw a piece that they were doing on Winter,” he remembers. “Before it was over, I said to myself ‘What a lovely family movie this would be.’ A friend of mine and I sat down and we developed a story, because we didn’t want it to just be a documentary about Winter, but we wanted to create a family story that was true to Winter’s story herself.

“So the movie follows Winter’s true story. … There are no captured dolphins. Only the dolphins that are in the [Clearwater Marine Aquarium] or wild dolphins or CGI dolphins or mechanical dolphins.”

Ingber points to the usage of 3D as not only in keeping with current trends in using 3D in family films, but also in enhancing the charm of Winter.

“You see that bottlenose in 3D, and it’s just funny,” he says of how Winter will look in some scenes in Dolphin Tale. “When you see Winter on her platform and all that’s sticking out is the bottlenose in 3D, you just smile because the bottlenose of a dolphin just brings out a smile because they look like they’re smiling.”

As to continuing in the vein of inspirational movie fare such as Alcon’s previous hit with 2009’s The Blind Side, Ingber agrees that Dolphin Tale is right in line with the film company's mission.

“We’re kind of a company that likes inspiring movies that move people and tell a nice kind of story. …We certainly learned that on The Blind Side. When we made The Blind Side, we felt that was a real personal, inspirational story. We have to be honest and say we had no idea how much it would be embraced, and our experience with The Blind Side just made us want to do more of those type of inspirational stories where people can get away from some of the other things they see in movies these days and just find an inspirational, happy family story that everybody can enjoy.”

Beyond entertainment value, though, Ingber also points to the underlying support of those with physical limitations, war veterans and animal rescue and rehabilitation that Alcon wants to champion through Dolphin Tale.

“When we heard that Winter inspires special needs children and military, what more did we need? And the fact that we want to support animal rescue and animal survival … so when you have the combinations of animal rescue and survival and the military with handicapped soldiers returning [from service] who have a connection with Winter and these special needs children … there’s plenty of reason to want to bring this story to the screen.”

Lest moviegoers think that Dolphin Tale is just for kids, Ingber assures that it is made with the entire movie-going family set in mind.

“I have two kids and four grandkids, and I [did] think of them when I actually started putting this family story together connected with Winter. You think about what would inspire them and what would they respond to. But we want this to be a movie that the whole family can see at one time—not just young kids. How many times do you go to movies that you do it for your kids’ sake and the adults are bored and can’t wait to get out of there? We want [Dolphin Tale] to be a movie that adults and families can see as a family unit.”


While just under five months out from its release date of September 23, 2011, Dolphin Tale is already beginning to build momentum, starting with the official launch of the film’s trailer in theaters earlier last month, when it ran as a preview ahead of another based-on-a-true-story and inspirational film that was released—Soul Surfer.

The similarities in story and message are surely not lost on viewers. Losing an arm in a shark attack didn’t stop teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton in Soul Surferwhich was adapted from her autobiographical book for the big screen. And losing a tail didn’t stop another young aquatic hero named Winter either.

It’s evidence that everyone has a story to tell and that inspirational tales can be very powerful reminders of this: While life is sometimes challenging and unexpected, it is always worth fighting for and living to the fullest.  

Starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Alcon Entertainment’s and Warner Bros. Pictures' Dolphin Tale releases wide in theaters on September 23, 2011. For more information about Dolphin Tale, please visit

Photos © Jon Farmer/Alcon Entertainment

Watch the official Dolphin Tale movie trailer below …