True story of Florida dolphin inspired Hollywood film

The injured dolphin washed up on the Florida shoreline in 2005, barely alive and given slim chances of surviving.

Its flesh had been torn open by a fishing net, inflicting injuries so severe that the animal had to have its tail amputated.

The story of the animal's eventual survival provided the inspiration for a new movie out this weekend, the kid flick "Dolphin Tale," which critics have praised as sterling family entertainment and one of the year's best feel-good movies.

The film is based on the story of a dolphin named Winter who lives at an aquarium here, and its convalescence at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium after after its near-fatal encounter with a crabbing net.

The movie's script closely follows the same plot line. In "Dolphin Tale" the animal, just a few months old, is rescued by a young boy named Sawyer and an altruistic doctor who saves its life.

After her tail was amputated, Winter's caregivers come up with the ingenious idea of outfitting the animal with a cutting-edge prosthetic tail that allows her to swim normally.

Sawyer gets the idea for Winter's prosthetic tale after an encounter with his wounded soldier-cousin who recently has returned home from combat and has to be fitted with an artificial limb.

Winter's real life caregivers in Florida said part of the challenge was to create a tail that was durable yet also supple and pliant, because the injured bottlenose dolphin did not tolerate rigid materials against its sensitive body.

"We applied to Winter existing technology, prostheses and medical knowledge for humans," said David Yates, director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who said the materials used in developing the fake tail have also been useful in the development of prosthetics for humans.

"She also gave us with her rehabilitation process a great invention for those who must live with prostheses," he said of the appendage fashioned from rubberized plastic and carbon fiber.

Another challenge was creating a tail which mimics the dolphin's own undulating swimming movements, but which would remain attached in the water.

The experts after trial and error created a sleeve from a sticky gel composite that slips down onto Winter's stump and creates suction when the prosthetic appendage is applied.

"When we saw the success of this sleeve on Winter, it began testing with people and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, they no longer have those pains," said Yates.

And as in the movie, Winter's recovery has been nothing short of astonishing.

"She is a real diva now, everybody loves her, many people come to the aquarium just for her," said Abby Stone, a mammal trainer at the Clearwater aquarium.

"Dolphin's Tale" is the latest in a long line of animal movies that invariably do well at the box office.

These include the collie in the "Lassie" movies, the porcine hero of the hit movie "Babe," "Flipper" - another dolphin protagonist who reaped box office gold - and the orca whale of the film "Free Willy."

"Dolphin Tale," the heir to those movies, has its release this weekend across the United States, and early reviews have been glowing.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, for one, wrote that "the cast is delightful, the story corny without being cloyingly high-fructose, the direction first-rate," saying it was charmed by the movie's "sunny sincerity."

There a slightly darker sub-themes in the movie however, including the troubled emotional life of Sawyer, a misfit at school who finds purpose in caring for the injured bottlenose, and the financial struggles of the aquarium.

The A-list cast includes Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Connick Jr and Morgan Freeman, who said he gravitated to the part because the movie represented good old fashioned entertainment.

"I thought it was a good story - real good family fare. No crashes, no chases, no sex. Just a cracking good story, very kid-friendly" the veteran actor said.

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