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

  • Bethc

    Although this is a nice story on the surface, I do think we should consider the long-term life of this wild marine mammal. If you look at footage of her now, she lives in a very small pool and performs all day for humans in a loud, unnatural setting. Although this may seem like a “rescue” I think that many feel that it would have been more thoughtful for the animal to have euthanized it. No wild marine mammal should live in the conditions that this poor dolphin now lives in.

  • roshni hariharan

    its really good article showing kindeness towards a poor dolphine i appreciate the whole group who rescued the ‘WINTER’ GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

  • olivia

    Dear Winter
    I hope you are having fun with your new friends.:) I just saw your movie and I loved it. I hope your tail is good.

  • olivia

    Dear Winter,
    My name is Keaton, I am 6 years old. I went to the theater last night to see your movie. I loved it because he is the best dolphin. I hope your having fun with your new friends. I hope your tail is good.
    Love Keaton
    p.s i hope your pool is good

  • keaton

    Dear Winter,
    My name is Keaton, I am 6 years old. I went to the theater last night and saw you movie. I loved it. And I thought it was great. I hope your having a good time with your new friends. I hope your pool is good. I wish I could see you. Did you take your medican? I hope you keep doing good and there are no more hurricanes.
    Love Keaton

  • Darius Aaron

    Dolphin Tale is one of the most awesome movie ever.

  • lora anne bowdoin

    i was so intrieged by the video clip,and i just cant wait to see the movie. i am so glad to hear about these kind people.keep up the good work.i lived in florida once and loved it !

  • Leo

    In Response to Beth, Animals that are rescued are in need of serious help and are mainly ensnarled in fishing line or some type human made objects. If we did’nt have people dedicated to saving Marine Mammals and the conservation acts that we do we would’nt have any Marine Mammals left in the ocean. The facility’s that take care of our Marine Mammals are highly trained and the animals come first. Most animals that are in need of assistance are taken care of and released back into the wild. Ive had the pleasure of working with these people and they are really good people

  • […] there is a great interview we found at National Geographic, sharing the story on the real life rescue of Winter – Be […]

  • Sasha Tittle

    I love Winter all i can think about is her that’s so sad what had happened to her so i really want to see her in person but i can’t because whats happening to my family and it costs like alot to get in plus we live in Ottawa IL so I LOVE U WINTER VERY MUCH HOPE NOTHING BAD HAPPENS TO U AND STUFF AND HOPE U STAY ALIVE FOREVER 🙂 🙂

  • daphne doucette

    dolphin tale is a good movie its a love stroy about a dolphin loes hes tale and a dolphin get a now tale i love the dolphin tale movie its make me happey by daphne doucette

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  • An

    marine mammals need to live in the wild, but in a case like winter being so young and her handicap is a good thing she is living in a safe surrounding. Aldo I don’t like acts for public by any kind of animal…this is one who serves a purpose for animals , sea, environment and humans. keep up the good work. I’m glad they saved winter and all others….to Bethc: you don’t euthanize anything when he fights to live…you don’t go off euthanising warvetarnes/handicaped kids?? but give them a reason to live

  • Carina

    The movie was a great story but, winter needs a bigger poool than what I’ve seen i do feel sorry for winter and i hope i can go see how she is and see the dolphin that actually was hurt.

  • Dolphinsrcool

    Bethc, you can just shut your fat mouth and do some research about Winter. Firstly, she lives in a very nice pool with 3 other dolphins and a lovely staff that cares for them in the best way their finances allow. Second, I know that the pools are a bit cramped, I visited the center earlier today, but that is why they are currently holding a fundraiser to expand and refurbish the premises. Last, I agree with An when he/she makes a point on euthanizing animals and if dolphins were humans would we euthanize the handicapped?

  • Emmy sari sinaga

    This movie make me sad,cry and proud!!i wish i can meet you oneday WinterYou are amazing animal i ever know,strong and fabolous.I love you winter.i wish you and all cru who survive you can visit indonesia oneday

  • Kristina

    Beth C. – Speaking from much older experience, that it’s never ones choice who lives or dies. Everything is in GOD’S HANDS ! ! !

  • bichonfrise

    i was so intrieged by the video clip,and i just cant wait to see the movie. i am so glad to hear about these kind people.keep up the good work

  • Maddie Nichols

    I want to be a trainer for disabled dolphins too I LOVE WINTER

  • chrystal mcervale

    hello i loved your movie id love to know how winter is going

  • Rehan Hyder

    All life is sacred specially animals. We as humans have responsibility for all as we are on top of the chian. It was an inspiring movie. I would consider it a real sucess IF SOMEONE INSPIRED BY IT EVEN HELPS A SINGLE ANIMAL. Love & respect for all persons in the world who work for the benefit of wildlife. Hope our actions are such that we can face our grandchildren

  • winterlove

    I seen Winter last year but they should let her rest of loud music and people 5 feet away and yelling and kids getting in with her and getting forced to perform

  • Victoria Bloom

    I loved this movie I mean it was just a great movie ! Cause of u guys Winter’s not hurt anymore I’m proud of u guys u saved Winter!Also the ending of Dolphin Tale made me just about cry in tears of joy cause u guys saved her:-) And when I grow up I’m gonna be a dolphin trainer just like u guys! THANK U!!!!!!!!!!

  • mandy

    I love the story too and winter seems fine to me shes a rock star to all of her fans even me and how much space does a dolphin need she has enough space and if not that problem can be solved and she is happy with all of her permanent family and they know what they are doing they are pros at it and to say to them keep up the good work and love the new movie just saw it thanks

  • heather n schmidt

    I love the movies and the dolphins I have read so much about the and know alot I wish they can out cams all over the place to see what they all have and sounds to hear the dolphins.

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