A Dolphin Tale: The Real-Life Rescue Behind the Movie

The popular new movie Dolphin Tale tells the touching story of a young dolphin named Winter who loses her tail and survives with a prosthetic one. It’s based on a true story—Winter plays herself—but some parts were fictionalized to make it more appealing to young viewers. Which parts? To find out, we contacted one of Winter’s real-life rescuers.

Teresa Mazza from the Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute in Melbourne Beach, Florida, spoke with National Geographic magazine intern Erin Durkin.

In the movie, Winter is found by a little boy washed up on the beach. How was she actually found?

She was found in Mosquito Lagoon on December 10, 2005. A fisherman noticed that a crab pot [a type of trap] was moving erratically in the water about 100 yards offshore, and when he pulled it up he found her. He contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, who asked me to respond. When I got there, she was “hog tied” by the ropes. She was actually in deep water and the way she was trapped would have made it impossible for her to be washed up on the beach. It also made it very hard for her to breathe.

Winter, star of the movie Dolphin Tale, during her 2005 rescue. Photo courtesy Teresa Mazza/Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.

How badly was Winter hurt?

As soon as we got her detangled she began resting, showing that she was really exhausted. She might have been struggling for a long time, maybe overnight. She had rope burns all around her body.

At first we didn’t realize how bad the damage to her tail was. Then I got a phone call from my team asking me to tell them what it looked like and how she was doing. I started crying; it was the worse I’ve seen. She wasn’t moving her tail and it looked postmortem, like something on a dead animal. The film did not show as much damage, but I can understand why they changed it for young kids.

The movie shows the rescue being rather quick.  How long did it take for you to rescue Winter?

It took the whole day for us to recover her. It was very challenging because my team didn’t have a transport—and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute’s team, who did have a transport, got a flat tire on the way to rescuing her. We also did not want to send her organs into shock, so we kept her in the water for a while. Another woman and I switched off holding her in the water between 10 a.m and 5 p.m..

Were you surprised that she survived?

Yeah, actually. She was exhausted and had sustained a lot of damage. For the first couple of hours it was really a minute-to-minute thing. When we put her the stretcher she reacted, showing she still had a little bit of a fight left in her. She was vocalizing everything and she was moving a little bit.

Do you think the film portrayed Winter’s story well?

I think they did a good job blending in the issues that Winter was facing, like how she needed a new tail because the way she was swimming was deteriorating her spine. Unfortunately there is no way kids could really swim or interact with her as much as the film suggests. The rules are strict about that. However, kids can visit her at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she is doing very well.

—Erin Durkin