16 January 2012

Dolphin Tale - enlightened by a disabled dolphin

Upon watching Dolphin Tale, I never would have expected it to be a story about disability.

Dolphin Tale, a dramatisation of a true story, is a film about the rehabilitation of a cheeky amputee dolphin. It stars Harry Connick Junior, Ashley Judd and young Nathan Gamble. Winter, named by the staff at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, was found washed up on a Florida beach, tangled in a crab net. Winter's injuries were so severe on her tail that it had to be amputated. She underwent rehabilitation in a large pool at the marine hospital, with staff watching her around the clock.

Sawyer, the shy 11 year old who was one of the first to attend to Winter, cutting her free from the rope with his Swiss army knife, found assisting with Winter's recovery more educating and fulfilling than summer school. He visited the hospital each day, doing jobs around the place and keeping Winter afloat and fed. He also sparked up a close friendship with Hazel, the vet's daughter. She responded the best to Sawyer – the marine aquarium staff referred to Sawyer was Winter's mother.


The amputation of Winter's tail meant she was moving it from side to side – her way of adapting her body to swim. However, this placed pressure on her spine, and would have led to the deterioration of her condition.Winter was given an artificial tail, created by prosthetic surgeon Dr Cameron McCarthy (played by Morgan Freeman). Many prototypes were created, and Winter didn't adapt to them because of the discomfort. Finally Dr MCCarthy created an artificla tail with a silicone sleeve that enabled Winter to move her tail up and down.

There was a strong (and unexpected) likeness between the dolphin and Sawyer's cousin Kyle, the young soldier returned from war with a disability. Kyle was a college swimming champion, with hopes to compete in the Olympics. The service in the army would give him a wage enough to pay for his swimming training, he'd hoped. Instead, it left him with temporary paralysis in his right leg and the need to walk with a brace. (It was Kyle's prosthetic surgeon who developed Winter's artificial talil) When Kyle saw Winter's recovery, and how she inspired others with a disability, his outlook became more positive.

Although very simplified, Dolphin Tale showed the similarities in the difficult adjustment to acquired disabilities faced by humans and animals. Just as Kyle struggled with his pride and physical capabilities after become disabled at war, Winter struggled with the loss of her tail, and then the initial prosthetic attachments.

It also explored the value placed on disability. Initially the lack of value - the vet and board members lamenting that no zoo wants a dolphin with a disability, and the dent Kyle's disability made on his self worth. And then, with a visit from a little girl who was an amputee, eager to see the dolphin that was just like her, Winter's value was realised. She could teach and inspire humans about disability. Winter has inspired so many people with disability – people visit and swim with her.

Similarly to We Bought a Zoo, Dolphin Tale also touched on the themes of the financial struggles to keep the marine hospital open, and the way impending animal death brings back memories of human death and the desire to keep someone who is suffering alive for as long as possible.

Dolphin Tale was inspiring and moving. I think it's a great movie to teach children about disability.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has a website where you can find out more about Winter and the movie, as well as watch a web-cam of her swimming. Visit http://seewinter.com/

Dolphin Tale is showing in Australian cinemas now.


  1. Aw, that sounds adorable. It's going on to my to watch list! I recently went and saw Hugo and was very touched by the disability sub-plot, which was also a surprise! xx

  2. Wow, I hadn't heard of this movie but your review has painted an enjoyable story, I'll keep an eye out for this one! :)

  3. Oh, great! My girls and I will see it. Beautifully reviewed, thank you. I am reading a teen novel called 'Peeling the Onion' about a girl who has an acquired spinal injury. It's good so far. It's by Wendy Orr, who wrote Nim's Island, which features a sea lion, so two things in your post reminded me of Wendy's books.

  4. ohmygosh, i totally want to see this. i also want to see the new movie "miracle" about the whales!

  5. Wow, this is an amazing story. I hope you don't mind me linking to your post here!



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