'Dolphin Tale' hero's new home tangled in aquarium politics

Sun Sep 14, 2014 7:58am EDT
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By Letitia Stein

CLEARWATER Fla. (Reuters) - The family-friendly hit "Dolphin Tale," whose sequel opened in theaters this weekend, tells the true story of a dolphin who learns to swim without a tail. The movie ends with Winter, the tail-less dolphin, helping save the struggling Florida aquarium that rescued her. In real-life, the story has not yet wrapped up so neatly.

Even Hollywood fame could not provide Winter a pass on aquarium politics at a time when live marine animal exhibitions are facing intense public scrutiny.

An ambitious proposal to build Winter a new waterfront home was scaled back recently amid concern about expenses and the potential for staged performances like those under fire at SeaWorld's theme parks.

"Winter can't do those kind of shows, even if we wanted to, which we don’t," said David Yates, chief executive officer at her home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. "We have never been about big shows. That was a misperception."

Winter's latest dilemma started when crowds of camera-toting tourists showed up to meet the chirping star of the 2011 hit, featuring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.

"Dolphin Tale" and its sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2," were filmed at the Clearwater aquarium, a sun-bleached former sewage treatment plant retrofitted as a marine animal hospital.

Attendance at the west central Florida attraction soared after the release of the movie, from about 100,000 visitors in typical years prior to 750,000 since.

"We are just wildly overcrowded," Yates said, adding that one-third of the visitors are children with disabilities, or families drawn to Winter's story after their own hardships.   Continued...

Winter, a dolphin who learned to swim with a prosthetic tail, is seen in his tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, in this undated handout picture. REUTERS/Clearwater Marine Aquarium/Handout via Reuters