When a movie hits the big screen it represents the sweat—and often tears—of a lot of people, from the stars on the marquee all the way to the people who cook the food eaten on set. Dolphin Tale, opening Friday, is no exception.

Produced by the same people who made The Blind Side, this family-friendly flick is based on the true story of Winter, a dolphin in Florida. Winter doesn't have a tail but does have a knack for inspiring people from all walks of life facing their own challenges.

David Yates

David Yates

David Yates, CEO of the non-profit Clearwater Marine Aquarium where Winter lives, first pitched Winter's story to the media. As man of faith, he sees God's hand on the production of a Dolphin Tale from day one. CT visited the set during filming in 2010, where we talked to Yates about Winter and the work of the aquarium. 

What attracted you to the job with the aquarium?

We raised our kids in the Clearwater area and had taken them to the aquarium many times. But the CMA fell on hard times and when I was asked by the board of directors to do a turnaround, I thought it would be a nice thing to do for the community. I also liked the idea of working directly with marine life. One of our boys was a huge Steve Irwin and Crocodile Hunter fan growing up, so our house was always abuzz about animals.

How did Winter's story spread and eventually result in this movie?

When I started work here in February 2006, I had to move quickly to keep the aquarium above water. Around that time, Winter was rescued and came to live here. She was caught in a crab trap rope off the Florida coast and her tail was so badly damaged that she eventually lost it altogether.

As we worked to rehabilitate Winter, it became clear that her fight to survive was an inspiration to a lot of people. It was amazing to see the way she connected to visitors who were dealing with their own challenges, from special needs schoolchildren to servicemen and women dealing with the loss of limbs in war. When they would visit the aquarium, the relationship was palpable. I began to realize that Winter's story could both inspire the world and give me a tool to drive awareness of our work, and thus allow us to expand our financial support base to continue doing this work. We're a non-profit facility that aims to rehab and then release wildlife back into their native habitats. We rely on a lot of volunteer support and donations from visitors and the community at large.

How did the media get wind of this story?

I pitched Winter's story to national and global media. Our first major coverage came from a piece with NBC's Today show and an AP wire story in September 2006. You never know how well a story will do, but in this case, it was a home run. The story brought immediate global interest that mushroomed. Richard Ingber, president of global marketing with Alcon Entertainment, the movie studio that developed The Blind Side, saw a piece on the Today show pieces and gave me a call.

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As a Christian, I have great confidence in God's providence. Very few movie concepts make it to production and most people were skeptical this one would get a green light.  We had many hurdles to get over, but they just kept dropping one at a time. I had confidence from day one that the movie would make it. I knew God would not bring this about for naught, and here we are.

Winter with her prosthetic tail

Winter with her prosthetic tail

What does a typical day look like for Winter?

Dolphins need a lot of variety, so we actually work hard to make sure they don't have "typical" days.  For Winter, the best part of her day is getting to interact with people.  Due to her near-death experience and being raised by people, she is the most social dolphin anyone has ever seen. She loves being around people, especially kids. Much of her day is interacting with guests and her trainers.

Why do you think a tailless dolphin is an inspiration to so many?

Kids get Winter's message very quickly. They just look at her, and they realize that she lost her tail, nearly died, but is swimming and happy. It's as though they realize she's okay with her problems, so I'll be okay too. Winter's ability to inspire kids is a gift from God.

We are also researching how Winter can help autistic children enrich their emotional lives. We are working with a nine-year old boy with autism and his doctor. One of the most difficult things for parents of autistic children is the lack of emotion the child shows to the parents. After a few in-water encounters with Winter, the mom, with tears streaming down her face, described how her son had hugged her for the first time in months. We're able to tell see Winter's impact on visitors just about every day.

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A documentary called The Cove created a lot of buzz a couple of years ago when it exposed the practice in Japan of slaughtering many dolphins in order to capture a few that can be exported to tourist destinations where people can swim with them. Ric O'Barry, who trained Flipper, decried the exploitation of these animals. Do you have any concerns that this film will further feed the public's desire to interact with these animals, exacerbating their exploitation?

As Christians, we believe and understand that everything is God's creation. This should innately cause us to respect wildlife. The Bible says that the cattle on a thousand hills are his, not ours. And that goes for dolphins too!

Our mission at Clearwater Marine Aquarium—part of which is to promote protection of the marine environment—is in keeping with this Christian understanding of the world. Our goal is to rescue and release wildlife back into their native habitats. But Winter will not survive back in the wild, which is why she remains with us. And by telling Winter's story, it puts a "face" on our relationship to wildlife and allows us to inspire people to better protect these great animals in the wild. I call this "inspirational education." We hope that attention from the movie will allow us to expand our facilities and care for more animals, while also allowing us to create global awareness of marine life and environmental issues. I think this movie will actually do more to cause people to fall in love with—and respect and protect—dolphins than anything before.

What do you hope people take away from this movie?  

Winter's message is simple but profound: If Winter can, I can. I don't have to guess how the movie will affect people's lives; I see it at work every day. We have children who were embarrassed about some physical problem they had, but after engaging with Winter and seeing her thrive in life with all her difficulties, they realize they can succeed too. Schools have used Winter to inspire their students to improve their grades. Wounded soldiers have been inspired to not give up. If viewers get the message that they can survive and even thrive in the face of difficult circumstances, I'm happy.

The gospel is very clear that we need to trust God with our lives and believe he will do great things. God is a big God. We can have small faith or great faith. I think Winter inspires people to have great faith.