The nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, has been doing marine mammal, bird, and turtle rescue work since the mid-1980’s, after the city of Clearwater donated an old water treatment plant to the Aquarium, which was modified into holding tanks for rescued animals. More a working marine hospital than an exhibit aquarium, the center rehabilitates and releases injured and distressed marine wildlife, and keeps those animals which cannot be released on exhibit (currently including dolphins, sea turtles, river otters and pelicans) for use in educational shows and as a way to raise funds through admission tickets for the hospital operations. For years, the center was barely making ends meet. Then in December 2006, the aquarium took in a young rescued female dolphin who had become entangled in a crab trap and had lost her tail. Because it was December, the staff named her “Winter”.
Without her tail, Winter could not swim properly–not only could she not be released back to the wild, but it was doubtful she would survive at all. But on her own, Winter learned to swim again, by moving her tail stump side to side like a fish, instead of up and down like a dolphin. Unfortunately, this produced bad effects on the spinal column, and it was decided to try to fit Winter with a prosthetic tail. After much research and trial and error, a workable prosthetic was made, which is now fitted on Winter several hours a day to allow her to swim properly and exercise, and ease the strain on her spine and muscles. Winter became a well-known local attraction.
Then in 2010, Hollywood came calling. A division of Warner Brothers approached the aquarium with an offer to make a movie about Winter. In exchange, Warner Brothers agreed to finance a full remodeling and expansion of the aquarium building, adding new exhibits like the Stingray Touch Tank, a new tank for dolphin shows, and several new rescue tanks. “Dolphin Tale”, starring Morgan Freedman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr, and Kris Kristofferson, opened in 2011. Nearly the entire movie was shot on location at the Aquarium. With the publicity from the movie and increased attendance, the Aquarium was able to continue its rescue, rehabilitation, and education work. In 2012, the aquarium was able to open a second building in downtown Clearwater devoted to the movie, with behind the scenes exhibits and props used in the filming.