The true story behind Dolphin Tale

Winter without her prosthetic tail

It was a cold December morning in 2005 when Florida fisherman Jim Savage launched his flat skiff and wound up saving a baby’s life. He was on his way to his favorite trout fishing hole when he noticed a distant buoy bobbing against the wind in Mosquito Lagoon. What caught his attention was the fact that it was bobbing in direct opposition to the waves, which was unusual. He decided to check it out.

As he approached, he heard gasps as if someone were drowning. That’s when he witnessed a horrifying sight. A three-month-old baby dolphin was caught in a crab trap, struggling to get free. Although she wasn’t even old enough to be weaned, she’d been abandoned. Her struggle only managed to get her more and more trapped within the net. Jim immediately got out a knife and cut the rope in several places. “She must have spun and fought it but just kept getting more twisted,” Jim told the Orlando Sentinel. Though he managed to free her enough to swim, she didn’t go far because a piece of rope was still embedded in her mouth and she couldn’t swim normally — the net had cut off the blood supply to her tail, which was turning white, and she had scars all over her body. He spoke to her in a soft voice to calm her, telling her, “You’ll be okay.”

Jim called the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which responds to dolphin and whale emergencies. A research assistant named Teresa Mazza told him she was on her way, but would need to be picked up onshore. That was a problem, because he couldn’t leave the little dolphin.

As luck would have it, a group of people out for a boat ride in the near vicinity spotted Jim and made their way over. When he told them about the research assistant who needed a lift, they left Jim to keep an eye on the dolphin while they went back to pick her up.

With Teresa onboard, they returned to the site. She slipped into the water to try to get hold of the dolphin so they could bring her back to shore. Not having any luck with the terrified baby, they decided to guide her with their boats and slowly steer her to land. Once there, Jim was able to catch the frightened dolphin in his arms. Teresa took over and held the baby, who looked up at her, eyes wide and panicked, her heart beating rapidly. They waited hours while a team tried to find them. “She was just exhausted, so when she finally calmed down, she began sleeping,” Teresa recalled. The original marine ambulance that had been sent had a flat tire en route, so a SeaWorld team was then dispatched. When they finally arrived, she was put on a stretcher for a five-hour trip to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which was to be her new home. They named her Winter.

Winter was left with only a stump for a tail and though it was hoped she’d learn to swim without it, veterinarians didn’t think she could survive. She was given mats to rest on in the water.

Eighteen months later, Winter was finally fitted with a prosthetic tail made of silicone and plastic. The little dolphin became the most popular attraction at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as well as an inspiration to hundreds of people with disabilities, including  amputee Katrina Simpkins, 9; 10-year-old double amputee Cody McCasland; Andrew Hall, 20, who lost a leg when he was hit by a drunk driver; retired United States Marine Corps Rudy Salas, 61, who lost his leg to a land mine and synchronized swimmer Mija Kazazic, 32, who lost a leg during a mortar attack at 15 in the Yugoslavian civil war. In Winter’s honor, money is raised for several charitable foundations each year, including the Challenged Athletes Foundation of Florida and Eckerd Community Alternatives to raise awareness of the need for children in foster care to be adopted.

Winter’s story was made into a film called Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Winter herself. It is scheduled to be released on September 23, 2011. Click here to watch the trailer. ~Alexandra Heilbron

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Comments & Discussion

  1. Red • April 14, 2011 @ 5:33 PM

    Tragic but amazing. I hope I have the stomach to see it!

  2. Joanne • April 15, 2011 @ 4:58 AM

    I loooovveee dolphins, theyre my favourite animals! Im def going to see this one!

  3. daphne • April 15, 2011 @ 6:44 AM

    I’m looking forward to this movie – fascinating story and good article!

  4. L1feless • April 15, 2011 @ 9:05 AM

    That’s kinda cool. What I don’t understand is the nets and things which these animals get caught in. Surely there is a better way to build the mesh so that Dolphins and other fish do not get caught in them…

  5. Pictas • April 15, 2011 @ 1:53 PM

    This is a sad story but I’m glad thos Americans cared enough to help her. Unlike Canada, where baby seals are brutally clubbed to death and no one gives a damn.

  6. Maxine • April 16, 2011 @ 6:51 AM

    I love this, very well written! Kudos Tribute!

  7. Andrea • April 21, 2011 @ 12:24 AM

    Yes, it’s nice to read a story with a happy ending. It’s heartwarming to know there are truly good people out there.

  8. sarah legg • June 26, 2011 @ 2:25 PM

    This isn’t fair, the thought may have been great but what life does winter have in captivity? tircks and starvation untill she dies slowly in a tank full of chlorine.

  9. laura jimenez • August 26, 2011 @ 1:52 PM

    @Sarah legg! So true! This story seems like an amazing story but keeping her in captivity will only harm her! Dolphins aren’t meant to be captive! They need to be set free! Everyone needs to watch the cove! And sign a petition to stop this!!!

  10. Amburawr • August 29, 2011 @ 10:40 AM

    @ Sarah Legg and Laura Jimenez.

    She would have been left for dead if they had not rescued. So tell me this, is it better to actually have a life to live vs not being a live at all. Besides without her photostatic fin she would not be able to swim properly.

    And you cannot release certain animals back into the wild once they have been captive. Especially if they were born in captivity. It takes years of rehabilitation to release them back into the wild.

    Like Killer whales, for example, in the wild the spend most of their life with their mother, where they than learn howto hunt for their food. If you just sent them back in the wild, they would die or try find humans since that is all they know.

    As sad as it, some just cannot be sent out into the will once they have been in captivity for so long.

    So you say keeping her in captivity will only harm her, but actually it is saving her. She might be dead right now if it wasn’t for them. No it is not right to keep animals in captive, but she would not be able to survive properly.

    So they are providing a life for her that the wild would not be able to provide for her. Since she was found so young, she wouldn’t know how to hunt for her own food. Plus having a prosthetic fin would also make life in wild hard.

  11. lproxsme • August 30, 2011 @ 11:38 PM

    THANK YOU!!! Amburawr i couldn’t agree more! the dolphin would have died if left by itself and could never be released back into the wild. Its true that wild animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity but there was no other way to save her. Its also a well know fact that dolphins are highly social and even have had interactions with human in the wild by their own choice. And what tricks that are taught are things that they do naturally in the wild. its behaviors they would do wither or not they were awarded with treats and i highly doubt that any of those animals are starving in fact i had heard that some zoo animals needed to go on diets because they were over eating… they don’t have guaranteed meals in the wild. An example would be a lion.

  12. sue • August 31, 2011 @ 9:55 PM

    Thank you Amburawr. I can’t believe what sarah and laura are talking about. Captivity will kill her? No, the ocean will kill her. She doesn’t have a tail! what chance does this dolphin have living the ocean with a prosthetic tail.. Please think before you talk girls. This dolphin has been given a second chance .

  13. Helena • September 2, 2011 @ 10:12 PM

    i love the outdoor life, with that feeling of freedom and space. Sadly i am not trained to live life outdoors and a couple of days in the wilderness is my limit. That’s when i go home to my small house and hectic family life including kids, dogs, snakes and fish. But i wouldn’t swap it for the world because it is surrounded by those who i love and cherish and also love me back. I am sure if winter could speak she would be saying exacly the same, she’s not equipped to survive the big ocean but she settles for the tank surrounded by those who love her and she can spend her days loving them back!! All animals have feelings.

  14. Ashli • September 3, 2011 @ 5:44 PM

    I’m crying right now reading the story. Not sure I’ll be able to handle the movie but what an amazing story and thank god for people that care enough to take care of these wonderful and amazing animals. I hope she will have a wonderful long life in her new home… She’s beautiful and now she’s a movie star!!! ; )

  15. Savie • September 5, 2011 @ 3:15 PM

    i love dolphins and it is so sad to see such beautiful creatures go through this.

  16. savannah lynne • September 5, 2011 @ 3:16 PM

    i agree ps im savie hahahaha up there ^

  17. Dean Wilson • September 5, 2011 @ 3:21 PM

    If Winter was a poor child of colour in inner city America would that child receive the same medical attention? While Winter’s story is uplifting and I wish there was enough money to solve both problems presented I think we need to set our priorities so that all people get the medical attention they need.

  18. debora • September 5, 2011 @ 9:02 PM

    I seen this dolphin in Florida when I was there. So cool that they made a movie about her

  19. Meg • September 5, 2011 @ 9:25 PM

    @ Dean Wilson,
    Have you personally done anything to take care of the medical needs of underprivileged people? Actually, if you pay taxes, then yes, you have. In Winter’s case, a group of caring people saw a creature in need. They didn’t do this at the expense of giving medical care to children. A lot of good has come out of this situation and some of it has been to the benefit of humans.

  20. Dean Wilson • September 5, 2011 @ 9:51 PM

    By the way Meg that’s all I do with my life. The point I was trying to make is that we have a broken medical system that tilts towards the wealthy and the poor very rarely receive special treatment that they may need in times of crisis, like the treatment Winter received.

  21. Meg • September 5, 2011 @ 10:11 PM

    Dean that’s wonderful! You’re doing something that is obviously very important to you. I’m sure that’s the same way this group feels about what they’ve done for Winter. Again, their cause has also benefited people who needed prosthetics who may not have been able to get them otherwise. Seems to me that your concern was addressed afterall. And I agree, our medical system is very broken.

  22. Meg • September 5, 2011 @ 10:38 PM

    One last comment I left out, then I gotta get some sleep…you mentioned “a poor inner city person of colour” specifically as your point of concern. So are you saying that a poor caucasian person should be of no concern? Not all white people are rich & privileged, you know.

  23. Teresa • September 9, 2011 @ 10:36 PM

    I cant wait to see this movie!!!!!

  24. dan • September 10, 2011 @ 6:28 PM

    are the two kids part of the true story or were they added in for effect and touchingness

  25. Takeshi • September 10, 2011 @ 6:57 PM

    Yes, me like dolphins very much, like all japanese! dolphin with soy sauce, maybe mushrooms, or yakatinaki. that is special dolphin soup. Me am most glad to hear non-japan peoples also like dolphin. bad greenpeace man make look like japanese are evil because we like dolphin! Now, everyone enjoy dolphin.
    next week me post good reciepie for dolphin burgers, very american, yes?
    bon appetit!

  26. Donna • September 10, 2011 @ 8:12 PM

    I just saw the movie. I cried at some part of the movie. It’ s such a fascinating, inspiring movie.
    People needs to realize how much impact we have in the environment, and to other living creatures.
    I work in the aquarium and I understand the concern of some people who thinks that keeping animals captive is absolute evil. It is not true!!!! Most aquarium solely purpose is to educate. Out of sight out of mind

  27. Niecy • September 11, 2011 @ 6:23 PM

    This is an extremely touching story, although I would probably cry too much to watch the movie. Winter was caught in a MANMADE trap. This would not naturally happen in the wild. She deserves a life, even if it must now be in captivity. I’m sure she feels happiness with all the love she receives. God bless those who helped her!

  28. Amy • September 13, 2011 @ 12:03 AM

    It is sad when animals are kept in daptivity to perform tricks. However, in this case this little dolphin was lucky that a humane human had enough heart to save her life. Dolphins are very social creatures and I am sure that she is not lacking food or attention. She serves as an inspiration to all who see her. It is rare when humans think about another species well being. Jim, the man who found her could have left her for shark bait or to drown. God bless those who care for God’s creatures human or animal.

  29. Katrina Simpkins • September 14, 2011 @ 3:08 PM

    Winter and the other marine animals are very well taken care of. They have many volunteers and staff that attend to their needs. When they are ready they are returned to the life they came from. This is the goal of the aquarium; rescue, rehab, and release.

    As for the taking care of the community, Clearwater Marine Aquarium has a wonderful outreach system. They have helped many people to understand that an illness can stop you only if you let it. They have helped children from Shriner’s Hospital, Big Brother Big Sister, Adoption,Disabled Veterans and many more. They have a great education program that travels to schools and so much more. They have won awards for their work with humans as well as with animals.

    This story has changed the lives of many people. The only person that could say anything different is one who has never been to the aquarium to meet the people and the animals.

    Purchase the documentry “The Dolphin Who Could” for more information and to see the real stars of the story.

  30. tina • September 17, 2011 @ 11:44 AM

    Wonderful story and thank God for the all the efforts and to the people that saved Winter. I wonder why Hollywood changed the storyline so much, with Winter being found/saved by the young teen on the beach. Wish they would have kept closer to the real story as outlined in this article. BUT am very excited to see this movie:) I will check out “The Dolphin Who Could” Thank you for mentioning it.

  31. Stacey • September 18, 2011 @ 1:59 PM

    I love whales and Dolphins. As a member of many wildlife groups, it’s brings a warm feeling to my heart that Winter was saved. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie.

  32. Rachael • September 18, 2011 @ 9:28 PM

    This story is such an amazing, heroic story. It makes you realize how wonderful some people are out in the world. I love dolphins so much!

  33. jade • September 19, 2011 @ 10:11 PM

    that is so sad i just love is sad because dolphins are such an amazing animal and they are so beautiful.i hate when dolphins lose their tails because it is a most likely chance they will not make it.i don’t want that to happen to any of our dolphin:)

  34. John • September 19, 2011 @ 11:12 PM

    Mortality and Welfare of Captive-Bred Dolphins
    As noted above, captive-bred dolphins are not domesticated and have the same inherent needs as wild-born animals. Mortality rates bear out the fact that life in captivity cannot be assumed to be preferable or better for those born into it. Research shows that dolphins in captivity, both wild-caught as well as captive-bred, at best tend to live only about as long as their wild counterparts. Considering the claim of the captive display industry that their dolphins are protected from the inherent dangers they would face in their natural environment (but for which they are specifically adapted), as well as human-caused hazards, it is significant that captive dolphins do not show improved mortality rates even after 60 years of husbandry refinement. This suggests that dolphins suffer from stress associated with captivity, regardless of their origin. In addition, mortality rates for calves born in captivity are similar to those for calves born in the wild [3]. Since wild-born calves are subject to predation, illness, being separated from their mothers and a host of other natural and human-caused threats, captive-breeding programs should show a much higher survival rate, but this is not the case.
    All dolphins in captivity are prevented or impeded from learning and expressing natural behaviors. It is becoming increasingly clear that culture is exceedingly important to dolphins – mothers teach specific skills to offspring and juveniles are able to learn other behaviors via imitation of other pod mates [4]. For example, a 2005 study published by the US National Academy of Sciences documented cultural transmission of a behavior among dolphins in Australia, where certain mothers were observed teaching their young to cover their snouts with a sea sponge to avoid scratches when foraging for food in the sandy bottom[5]. Culture is lost in captivity or at best is replaced by an artificial culture with no evolutionary or ecological basis.

    Further, captive facilities routinely remove calves from mothers at an early age, before many essential life lessons can be taught. For instance, many calves are removed from their mothers before they learn how to properly nurse and thus are less able (or in some cases completely unable) to nurse their own offspring, leading to an increase in infant mortality. By breaking natural bonds prematurely, captive facilities deprive these dolphins of essential life skills.

    Genetically the same as free-roaming dolphins, captive-born animals are not pre-conditioned to adapt to confined spaces nor are they free of the stress associated with forced interactions.

    Dolphins are extremely social, travel great distances and dive deeply. Even in the largest captive facilities, a dolphin is restricted to less than one-ten thousandth of its natural range, yet another condition that compromises welfare and may result in a shorter life span than is natural. -World Society for the Protection of Animals

  35. Ariel • September 23, 2011 @ 5:45 AM

    Strong message to Takeshi….You are a mentally sick individual and if you’re not already physically sick, you will be if you continue to eat “Dolphin Meat”! You IDIOT, there is so much MERCURY in their bodies…I hope you do get so ILL that you change your “Attitude” and “GET A LIFE”!!! “Karma”….just remember that!

  36. emilee • September 24, 2011 @ 9:14 AM

    that is so dumb trying to put a tail on a baby dolphin

  37. dana Gale • September 24, 2011 @ 2:32 PM

    if you love dolphins, you should all watch the Cove. Because this dolphin was caught in Florida and rescued, there probably is no other way he could survive. However, in general, Dolphins in captivity supports a barbaric industry. Enjoying seeing dolphins at an aquarium often means hundreds of dolphins were slaughtered to make that possible. Please, watch the award winning movie The Cove. Dolphins are more than cute animals put here to entertain us. It should never be about what we as humans enjoy, but what is best for the dolphin. and captivity is not it.

  38. judy • September 24, 2011 @ 3:47 PM

    Dana, I had no idea that dophins were being slaughtered to bring some to aquariums. This sounds like the the early 20th century african hunters who killed adult elephants to put baby elephants in zoos and other animals also. I really need to see more documentation of what your saying. I’ll watch the Cove.

  39. MarkinFL • September 26, 2011 @ 3:04 PM

    Please note that there is a huge difference between aquariums that exist for entertainment and those like CMA that are primarily rescue and rehab. Their goal is to release back into the wild. But there will always be animals like Winter that could never survive in the wild due to the extent of their injuries. These animals are well cared for. If you think she is being exploited then keep in mind that the “exploitation” is paying hers’ and other animals bill for being cared for.

  40. cleanest atom 4 • September 26, 2011 @ 9:15 PM

    i loved the article i fell so sad i am cring really crying i love dolphins im printing it rigt now

  41. Valerie • October 3, 2011 @ 3:29 PM

    I’ve seen the movie. It’s truely an amazing story. I’d see it again, and again. I’m planning on going down to florida sometime soon to go see Winter in person.

  42. hayley guile • October 4, 2011 @ 9:15 PM

    so me and my friend kate lair we are wondering if where was the dophin born how did you write this movie . i like this movie it was so cute.

  43. Jackie Owen • October 11, 2011 @ 8:45 AM

    My husband and I volunteered at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for 6 months where we came in daily contact with Winter..such a sweet animal! Cannot wait to see the movie! J&D Owen .. Halifax NS, Canada

  44. Samson • October 17, 2011 @ 1:18 PM

    Well written article! I really enjoyed this.

  45. leon mansaray • November 2, 2011 @ 7:49 AM

    luv this fil soo much!!!!!!!

  46. nyasha edwards • November 2, 2011 @ 7:50 AM

    i went to see this film at the cinema its soo lovely the relationship between winter and sawyer is just amazing i would watch this fil again!!!!!

  47. lisa dolan • November 5, 2011 @ 10:08 AM

    i went 2 c this film 2 weeks ago. i thought it was a great film. that is my ambition 2 go c dolphins. ia v an amputee so it would great 2 go an c the dolphin. when the dvd comes im goin 2 buy it.

  48. Doug. Slaven • November 12, 2011 @ 5:24 PM

    If anyone hasnt seen this wonderful movie, I urge you to do so. It is so refreshing to see such an inspiring movie that you can also watch with your children.

  49. gabreal • December 7, 2011 @ 8:19 AM

    love this dolphin

  50. lani • December 10, 2011 @ 5:13 PM

    so i guess te part of Sawyer and Hazel and her dad, was just to add flavor to the plot. But altogether, the plot was terrific and an excellent movie to watch with the entire family especially with the christmas holidays coming up

  51. anita • December 12, 2011 @ 12:53 AM

    Just watched the movie & is very captivating! I admire the strength & courage that any person & animal can achieve. Just imagine it can be you to fight to have the abilities in such circumstances. I wish you a happy & blessed life Winter. You are truely an admiration to me.

  52. BenGhostblood • December 25, 2011 @ 11:58 PM

    I have seen the movie, and just a minute after the movie began… I just, fell in love, and I just can’t believe that even though Winter has so little of hope to survive, she lived. So I really would deeply donate money for Winter but, just don’t have the cards to do it so… I guess, when I get cards, I’ll get on and donate them!

  53. Ksf719 • December 26, 2011 @ 12:12 PM

    i have seen this movie and it so lovely and wonderful and im going to clearwater soon. And cma has helped her so much and in the movie it says she is happy and healthy sarah legg. and Winter’s amazing story has helped others and inspired so many. She is a very special dolphin. I am touched by her story and i hope all of you are too!

  54. Ksf719 • December 26, 2011 @ 12:16 PM

    and BenGhostBlood i totally agree with u!!

  55. Ksf719 • December 26, 2011 @ 12:22 PM

    MarkinFL, she is not being exploited. People know her because there has never been a dolphin “known to lose its entire tail and survive”. That quote was from Gloria in the movie Dolphin Tale.

  56. Jojo • December 28, 2011 @ 11:01 PM

    Just finished watching the movie. It really inspired me. I hate to see that humans are the only creatures that really hurts animals, like by ‘accident’ they forgot to pick up the crab cage. I really like animals and I would do anything for them to help, Dolphin Tale is a really good movie. 🙂

  57. Caitlyn and Courtney • December 31, 2011 @ 4:57 PM

    I feel bad for the dolphin.But it’s good because he is
    okay.I love dolphin’s, I wish I could help all of the
    animals in the sea.That dolphin is so brave.I hope that the dolphin’s tale is still okay.Good luck Winter!!!!!

  58. Ethan O'Brien • December 31, 2011 @ 5:02 PM

    awsome i saw the movie and itis kinda sad cuz kyle was hurt but i loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove winter:)

  59. Ethan O'Brien • December 31, 2011 @ 5:29 PM

    A tail to her is like a leg to you. Still think its dumb?

  60. Ethan O'Brien • December 31, 2011 @ 5:50 PM

    i love winter she is the most awsome dolphin i ever saw

  61. John Donovan • January 8, 2012 @ 11:04 PM

    Just finished watching Winter in a Dolphin Tale and it was a very good movie. A must see for everyone who enjoys these kind of movies. I give it 5 stars

  62. Tylr • April 30, 2012 @ 3:55 PM

    I LOVE THIS MOVIE its also very sad i feel bad for the little girl

  63. camie • May 7, 2012 @ 4:10 PM

    it is sad.

  64. Christina • May 16, 2012 @ 1:51 PM

    Dolphins are very unique mammals. They are ver samrt and intelligent! This movie inspired me to wright about them and that is what i did. When i first saw the movie i thought it was going to be dumb and stupid but at the end i was crying and lauphing throughtout the whlole movie! 🙂 LOVE IT

  65. madysen • November 21, 2012 @ 9:00 PM

    the dolphin was born with a trajic moment that had everyone feeling bad a me to

  66. Darioly • November 25, 2012 @ 5:24 PM

    Its a wonderful story.
    A couple of years ago I swimmed with dolphins in the Indien Ocean near Zanzibar. I was not near as touching them but I could see them swimming altogether. Tey were plenty.It was really like a ballet, they were dancing. They are so touching animals. I hope to be able to see the film some day.

  67. Alyssa Hoffman • February 8, 2013 @ 8:32 PM

    I loved dolphin tale

  68. Alyssa Hoffman • February 8, 2013 @ 8:34 PM

    The movie too

  69. rashe • April 7, 2013 @ 5:16 AM

    sssssssssssssoooooooooo sad mostly the real thing love winter love hazel love swayer love everyone and every thing and mostly winter

  70. Sky • October 3, 2013 @ 6:23 AM

    This is such an inspiring story. I wish more movies were like this.

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