Our Dolphin Tale @ Clearwater Marine Aquarium

We all can use something cute and inspiring—what better than a spunky dolphin with a heartwarming story?

dolphin tale, winter, clearwater aquarium


Last week we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. You know the place I’m talking about: it’s the home of Winter, the plucky, persevering dolphin who’s survival story enchanted millions when she starred in the movie Dolphin Tale.

If you’ve seen the movie (which I highly reccomend as one of the best family movies of the decade) you are familiar with Winter’s Hollywood story.  The real tale is slightly different, but just as remarkable.

At just three months old, Winter became entangled in a crab trap line in the Mosquito Lagoon (East coast of Florida near Kennedy Space Center). A team of marine rescue experts transported her to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  Winter made it, but her tail did not.

Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman did not swoop in to rescue her (as in the movie) but Dr. Mike Walsh and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc. did.  They created a prosthetic tale (several, actually) for the growing Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, while the team of marine mammal trainers at CMA trained her how to swim. (For the complete story check out the CMA’s website.)

winter the dolphin, winter's tail, how winter's tale works
Visitors to the aquarium can view one of Winter’s physical therapy sessions. Trainers attach her tail, work with her in the main tank, and remove the tail.

Trainers put on a “sock,” a soft rubbery material called “Winter’s Gel” to reduce friction and help the tail stay put. (This material is now used to reduce pain/friction on human amputees as well.) It also looks like a giant condom.

Then comes the “cup” placed at the base of her peduncle, a suspension strap, a sleeve, and a rubber band.  Sounds like something my kiddo would make at home, right?

With her tale in place, the trainers run Winter through her therapy session, encouraging her to swim in a normal up-and-down manner instead of the side-to-side motion she adapted.

Then they take it all off and the other dolphins at the aquarium, Panama and Hope, come out to play.

Though Winter is the main draw today, the CMA  has grown as a marine education, rehabilitation, and research center over the decades. Over 250 volunteers care for the animals and the 100,000 guest per year who pass through the center. They provide experiences from dolphin interactions in the main facility to four-day adventures including shark tagging (I totally need to find out about this!).


Most families who visit the aquarium can plan on spending about a half-day exploring the facility. Besides Winter and the other dolphins, you can pet stingrays, check out rescued sea turtles, fondle sea urchins,  watch otters frolic, and gaze into the eyes of a nurse shark.  The focus is on education, and all exhibits have detailed information boards listing fun facts about the species and the particular animal’s rescue stories. I found the info much more interesting than my kiddo, and I would have loved to spend more time reading about the animals and fish.

If you want more Winter, there is a second facility, Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, included with your admission. You can enjoy a complimentary trolley ride or a boat trip across the bay (take the boat!) to the Historic Downtown Clearwater’s Harborview Center. There you get a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie.

I’d say this area is more for older kids or adults — those familiar with the movie or intrigued by the story.  Displays feature many of the movie sets with movie trivia vs. facts.  This movie museum involves a lot of reading, so if your kids are young, expect to practice your oral skills. It also has a totally cool Hurricane Experience exhibit. The whipping rains, wild winds, and cracks of thunder freaked my kiddo out a bit (in a good, boy-thrill way). Or maybe it was the chair flying at him?

Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $14.95 kids. Discounts are available if you search online, but if you can afford full price, pay it. Your admission fee is not going line some corporate billionaire’s or stockholder’s pockets. It’s going to help save the lives of injured marine animals.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not fancy,  not a theme park attraction —  it’s a simple, working marine rescue facility run by amazing people dedicated to preserving wildlife and our delicate ecosystem. And it’s worth an afternoon if you’re ever in the Tampa area. Check it out.

*All opinions and photos in this article are my own and I was not compensated in any way for this post.

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