A ‘Dolphin Tale’: By helping others we help ourselves

In December 2005, a three-month-old dolphin was discovered by a fisherman, Jim Savage,  in Mosquito Lagoon in Florida. Savage noticed that one pot buoy was tilted toward the wind instead of away. She had caught her tail in a crab trap. Veterinarians were forced to remove her fluke and caudal peduncle and she was not expected to live. But she did survive and became an attraction at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The movie, ” Dolphin Tale,” takes many liberties with the story, but the star is Winter and the lesson learned is that by helping another animal, even going beyond conventional wisdom brought joy to many people and unexpected financial returns and medical progress. This was true in real life, but the film adaption compresses this all.

First, in the movie, we have a lonely boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who had a strong connection with his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). Sawyer’s dad left without a word and as a result Kyle has retreated into a his own world of RC helicopters in a garage workshop. Kyle, a former state champion who hopes to train for the Olympics, is going off to Iraq–he needs Uncle Sam to pay the bill for his potential Olympic career. Kyle gives Sawyer a pocket knife.

One day, riding his bicycle, Sawyer is flagged down by a man who has discovered a small baby dolphin beached. With his cellphone, Sawyer summons help and stays by the dolphin while the man retrieves his fishing gear. Using his pocket knife, Sawyer frees the dolphin from the crab trap and helps loosen some of the rope. A connection is formed. A team shows up including the spunky Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who is the same age as Sawyer, and her father, Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.).

Clay’s team takes the dolphin away in a special stretcher, but Sawyer isn’t quite ready to forget about the dolphin and sneaks into the marine rescue center with the help (unintentional and intentional) of Hazel. He soon becomes part of the rehab team for the newly named Winter.

When Kyle returns, wounded (not maimed) and sullen, it is Sawyer and Winter who draw him out and instead of an orthopedic vet (as in real life) and Kyle’s doctor, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), develops the orthopedic tail that allows Winter to swim like a dolphin should.

As with most rescue operations, money is an issue and there’s debate about selling the aquarium and putting down Winter who can’t be placed in other facilities because of her disability. As you can guess this will be resolved.

Although Sawyer’s mother, Lorraine, is played by Ashley Judd and there’s some on-screen chemistry between Clay and Lorraine and you can see that Clay’s father (Kris Kristofferson) is hopeful, the screenplay leaves this as an open question.

Perhaps the only subplot that could have been dispensed with was the bad guy school teacher who wants to insist that Sawyer actually show up for his summer school class. He’s only doing his job. Anyone who’s been a teacher has been there.

I really hate the line that Morgan Freeman utters, “Swim you stupid fish.” At some point, someone would have pointed out dolphins are not fish and after looking at the anatomy, that would have been clear.

Otherwise, the acting is high quality and the movie sidesteps being overly sappy. The use of CGI is also well-done. If you love dolphins, if you love animals, if you love a feel-good story about beating the odds, this film is for you.

At the end of the movie, clips of the real rescue of Winter are shown. As Winter stars as herself, the audience is left with little doubt that the expense was worthwhile. Winter has inspired many children and adults with physical disabilities and we view some of these meetings. There was a highly publicized meeting between Winter and Michigan Wolverines player Eliott Mealer’s brother Brock.

By doing something exceptional, we all get exceptional returns. Winter’s story should inspire everyone, even in this fictional version.

Recently, Clearwater rescued another dolphin calf, right after the movie filming had wrapped.

Here’s part one of the true account of Winter’s rescue.

While a man made the initial discovery, it was two women (first Teresa Mazza of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and Claire Surrey) and then it was trainer Abby Stone of Clearwater with a vet tech and two high school volunteers who cradled Winter overnight and a female veterinarian, Janine Cianciolo, who saw Winter through. David Yates was the CEO who knew a good PR story and got Winter’s tale out into the public and caught the attention of Kevin Carroll, the VP of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics. Winter’s real emotional bond with with her trainer Abby Stone.  It’s unfortunate that with so many women central to the story, “Dolphin Tale” focuses on a boy and the doctors are both men.

Visiting Winter

To see Winter, visit the aquarium at 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater.

Admission $11; children ages 3-12, $7.50; seniors $9.

The aquarium also offers free tours for groups of children with disabilities through its Winter Team Program. Contact Jeni Hatter, 727-441-1790, ext. 228.

To celebrate Winter’s rescue, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has produced a video, Winter, The Dolphin that Could! It’s available for purchase on SeeWinter.com.

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