What Dolphin Tale doesn’t tell you about Winter

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Dolphin Tale tells us the story of Winter, a baby dolphin who was found in a lagoon in southern Florida, hopelessly entangled in crab trap line. She was transported immediately to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for treatment of her tail, which had lost circulation during the hours that she was trapped. Despite the best efforts of the veterinarians at Clearwater, Winter’s tail was amputated.

After a long and difficult surgery, Winter was in a situation totally foreign to her—she had to learn to swim, eat, and survive, all without her tail. The tail fluke and joint are the powerhouse of a dolphin’s body—movement is virtually impossible without it.

But against the odds, Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics and Dr. Mike Walsh, Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s veterinarian, created a prosthetic tail for Winter. This was remarkable achievement, not only for Winter but for the scientific community as a whole.


This is the story of Winter as told from Clearwater’s perspective.

While Winter’s case is certainly extraordinary and the passion that the volunteers and professionals have for her well-being is evident, Dolphin Tale is doing more harm than good. With a cast of prestigious actors such as Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, and Morgan Freeman, the film performed well and spread throughout the globe. The movie was marketed to show the altruism of humans in nurturing and taking care of Winter, as well as reinforce the idea that dolphinariums are wonderful places for the dolphins to be. This is a publicity stunt.

The film emphasizes the role of a young boy in Winter’s rescue. Captivated by the dolphin, he and his mother, a veterinarian, set out to mobilize the public to rally for a prosthetic tail instead of euthanization. Once the tail is on and Winter is “cured,” the resemblance to Flipper is eerie—nothing more than a dolphin, good looking and forever happy in her little blue pool.

Without a doubt, this film has torn into the hearts of families and encouraged swarms of visitors to the Clearwater Aquarium, where teary-eyed visitors can watch Winter and her co-detainees perform pirouettes with her plastic fin. Parents and children will wipe their eyes and blush as the show ends, saying “My God! What a wonderful place this dolphinarium is! Look at these trainers with their little protégés! We’ll have to go see this at SeaWorld too!”

What the film doesn’t tell you:

The near-death experience of Winter is not surprising–many animals have been seriously injured or mutilated by the furious boat traffic in the Gulf of Mexico, where full-speed travel is not out of the ordinary. Less surprising is the fact that this two-month old baby dolphin, condemned to certain death, was nurtured back to health at Clearwater, a former sewage tank turned dolphinarium.


This commercial gimmick, which poses as a “center dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick or injured marine animals,” only recently managed to pull its PR game together. Before the release of Dolphin Tale and the increased popularity that came with it, the home page of the website was meager at best—making it’s argument and mission pretty unconvincing.

The problem is that Clearwater isn’t freeing the dolphins.

This is understandable in Winter’s case, who would not be able to survive in the open ocean. But what about Sunset Sam, kept captive for 17 years and dying from a classic “liver infection”. What about his only companion, Panama, or Indy, Nicholas Sybil, Halona, and countless other dolphins inadvertently stranded? Why, after having received the necessary care from Clearwater or other Florida branches, weren’t they released back into the open ocean? These dolphins are literally feet away from the sea, but instead they are condemned to a life of chlorinated bathwater.


Because acquiring a “fresh” dolphin is too expensive.

We know that capture is banned in the US since the terrible red tide that massively decimated the population of bottlenose dolphins. From July of 1987 to March of 1988, 750 dolphins perished on the East Coast, all of them with livers containing brevetoxin—a buildup from eating contaminated fish.

The ability to “rehabilitate” dolphins has been used as a way of acquiring new dolphins without breaking the law—new genetic makeup means less cost, risk, and time spent trying to fabricate a “breeding program.”

Dolphin Tale does not tell you what you’re really doing when you visit a dolphinarium—fostering perpetual hunger and boredom for these dolphins. A meal of dead fish is fed to them in the morning, but the only way they can obtain the rest of their daily quota is by performing shows. These “performances,” are marketed as a fun time for humans and animals alike, but it’s far from that for the dolphins. It’s just something to distract from the awful monotony of existence in a pool that is entirely too small and lacking even the slightest environmental enrichment.

In terms of marketing, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is very good—it forces its detainees to paint shimmering canvases of the false ideal that dolphinariums market, and sells this “artwork” to visitors at astronomical prices. When it comes to fraud, there is hardly anything better than this. Although dolphins have excellent vision, it’s monochromatic. In other words, they don’t see colors and do not know what they paint. It’s the trainer who chooses their brushes, and the trainer who ultimately “paints.”

But not to worry, all of the other usual distractions are there too—touch the dolphin, trainer for a day, take a picture with Winter…everything is about the money.

Dolphin Tale doesn’t explain the physical, let alone the psychological, suffering that captive dolphin are subjected to, nor the fact that many were captured violently off of Cuba. It also neglects to mention the massive slaughters that occur in Japan, with butchers creating shipments off to China, Canada, and the USA!

Boycott this film now.

Watch The Cove instead, which stars Ric O’Barry and raises awareness for the atrocities in Taiji, Japan.

By | 2017-05-19T05:58:49+02:00 6 September 2015|Categories: Dolphinariums and Captive Dolphins|8 Comments

About the Author:

Sabrina is a 2nd year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, USA majoring in Biology and Foreign Affairs. She has volunteered for La Dolphin Connection for more than a year, spending most of her time translating articles from French to English and writing originals in English. Additionally, she was the co-founder and co-president of the Protect Our Dolphins (POD) club at her high school, working to donate money to the Oceanic Preservation Society.


  1. Roscoe presswood 25 May 2018 at 1 h 59 min - Reply

    The film does bring awareness to marine animals plight and the danger they face from human negligence (the fish hook and trash on the ocean floor, the danger on crab nets and other nets. The danger boats present and other things.

    • hailey kaine 8 January 2019 at 1 h 50 min - Reply

      So we damage the animals and then use it as an excuse to take over there lives and make profits ! Yes all those things are dangerous and should be regulated . So to decrease the amount of “rescuing” . A 2 month old dolphin lost her family and almost her life . No different than a human losing their child .

      • Kaylee 31 March 2019 at 4 h 46 min

        Dolphins are my favorite animal I would do anything to save them I love them so much so please save them

      • Tiffany Kosasih 24 April 2019 at 15 h 21 min

        Humans have different types of people, one action of one human does not determine the rest of the human race. True, there are humans who just don’t care and dump the ocean, creating a harmful environment for the animals, Winter as an example. But there are other humans who are trying to help as well, Clearwater as an example, which from this article i know that they took the wrong thing to do in the end, but from the perspective of someone who “runs” a sanctuary like that, they do indeed need money, even though the seem to just use the animal, and maybe not taking care of the animal well, but at least they try to help the animals instead of neglecting it, there are maybe some sanctuary that doesn’t took care of their animals well, but there ARE some who does their job right, thus the animals in it live a full and happy life.

  2. Jess 6 January 2019 at 2 h 28 min - Reply

    Did you even bother to research some of those other dolphins (Panama, Nicholas)? Panama was deaf and couldn’t use echolocation to hunt. Nicholas was still dependent on his mother when they were found and she died shortly after being rescued. He didn’t learn the necessary skills to survive in the wild. You can watch these animals all day if your heart desires and you have the time. Transparency is there.

  3. hailey kaine 8 January 2019 at 1 h 52 min - Reply

    So we damage the animals and then use it as an excuse to take over there lives and make profits ! Yes all those things are dangerous and should be regulated . So to decrease the amount of “rescuing” . A 2 month old dolphin lost her family and almost her life . No different than a human losing their child .

  4. L.M. 19 March 2019 at 23 h 06 min - Reply

    We were just at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium this morning. I have never seen the Dolphin Tail movie.
    At the aquarium they mentioned repeatedly that 1) it is the Us government that decides if dolphins can be released, not the aquarium; 2) the tricks are voluntary and are ways to mentally engage and exercise the animals; 3) Most rescued animals are returned to the wild and that is the goal.
    I did not find the demonstrations to be exploitive. I’ve seen shows at other places that did feel exploitive, like at Hersheypark.
    I don’t think you should equate the movie (“based on a true story”) with the reality of the education and rescue of the aquarium.
    I was wondering but didn’t get a chance to ask about socialization of the dolphins. I hope they get to be with each other,
    The facilities are being expanded and I also hope the dolphins ge a lager area to swim I;.

  5. John Hofmeyr 8 July 2019 at 22 h 14 min - Reply

    It’s a pity to wreck a well-reasoned article with an ‘ARGUMENTUM AD MISERICORDIAM’ towards the end. Violent dolphin-captures off Cuba and massive slaughters in Japan are entirely unrelated to the message of Dolphin Tale or to the activities at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Right-thinking people will agree that violent capture and slaughter are awful and must be condemned. So, when you mention those occurrences as if they should be part of the movie, that serves only to dilute and weaken your argument in the understanding of discerning readers.
    Further, what alternatives would you recommend? Euthanasia was seriously considered for Winter. Would you prefer that Clearwater Marine Aquarium should close down? If yes, then the consequences must lie on your shoulders. In utter honesty you may write “KILL WINTER” instead of “boycott this movie.”
    Another matter: Mentioning dolphins which were retained in captivity and not mentioning those which were released, further suggests that your intention is to shock your readers and not to invite rational debate. One has to wonder why this selective reporting occurred? Was it simply to increase your readership, whether or not your readers wish to engage in serious debate? If there are serious reasons for these deficiencies in your writing, please let me know.
    Please consider editing and re-uploading the serious and coherent parts of your otherwise sobering article.

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