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‘Dolphin Tale’s’ star, story and setting a life-changer for many

Winter, right, and new pal Hope are the stars of "Dolphin Tale 2."
(Bob Talbot / Warner Bros. Pictures)

During production of “Dolphin Tale 2" at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, the nonprofit facility operated 24/7 to rescue, rehab and release injured sea creatures, including dolphins and turtles.

The center was open to the public only on weekends, but during the first week of shooting, the aquarium made an exception, and production shut down for a special visitor: a gravely ill girl from Sweden who had flown in to see Winter, star of the 2011 film “Dolphin Tale.” The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin had been fitted with a prosthetic tail after a crab trap cut the circulation to her fluke when she was a baby.

“She was supposed to come see Winter as her last wish on Saturday,” producer Richard Ingber said of the girl. “But she was not doing well, so they wanted to know if they could bring her on Friday when we were shooting. We said absolutely bring her over.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the girl and her family arrived.

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“To see the faces of these big union guys sobbing because this little girl was relating to Winter,” Ingber said. “That sort of set the tone of why we were here and what Winter’s story is all about. It’s why this is more than just a movie.”

A critical and commercial hit grossing a surprising $72.3 million in the U.S. and Canada, “Dolphin Tale” went on to become a “global phenomenon,” said David Yates, chief executive of Clearwater and an executive producer on “Dolphin Tale 2,” which opens Friday. The sequel, like the first movie, is directed by Charles Martin Smith and stars Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and Kris Kristofferson.

“Thousands and thousands of families have told us stories on what ‘Dolphin Tale’ meant to their child who is going through chemotherapy or is a child who is autistic,” Yates said. “We had 10,000 emails just the first weekend when the movie came out.”

Bill Roscop, a retired Chicago police officer, started volunteering at Clearwater shortly after the release of “Dolphin Tale.”

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“I always knew Clearwater was kind of a nice place, but once you work there and actually see the visual reactions in these children when they meet Winter for the first time — they are totally overwhelmed,” he said. “You realize they have so many challenges, and at least for this brief moment, those challenges are gone.”

Average attendance went from 78,000 in 2006 to more than 750,000 after the film came out, and the facility has grown substantially.

“We basically can take care of two or three times the number of animals we could before,” Yates said. “We added operating rooms, a lot of rehab spaces. We have a brand-new turtle rehab area. We have a brand-new dolphin rehab area. We have a dolphin we rescued on July 4 that is being rehabilitated right now.”

“Dolphin Tale 2" introduces Winter’s social partner Hope, who was rescued the night of the “Dolphin Tale” wrap party.

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“She was found trying to nurse from her mom, who had passed away,” Yates said. “She was very dehydrated, very young, very sick. The party was winding down, and at 11:15 p.m., the van pulled up, we grabbed her and ran, and we didn’t expect her to live, but minute by minute, she survived.”

Just as with the first film, “Dolphin Tale 2" concludes with clips of the children and veterans who have visited Clearwater to meet Winter.

Russ Marek, 43, had his life changed by Winter. Nine years ago in Iraq, the Army staff sergeant lost his arm and leg to a roadside bomb. A brain injury also shut down the use of his other limbs.

“Russ was ready to tell his doctors to take his prosthetics and shove them,” said his father, Paul. “They were still a bit archaic.” But then Russ Marek was sent to see Winter, who was getting a new prosthetic herself.

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Sitting on Winter’s training platform, the younger Marek watched the dolphin swim a few laps with the new tail.

“The trainer said to Russ [that] she doesn’t like her prosthetics either, but if she doesn’t wear them, her back will go into distress,” Paul Marek said. He added that his wife heard their son tell the trainer, “If that damn dolphin can wear a prosthetic, so can I.”

Russ Marek wore his full dress uniform at the premiere of “Dolphin Tale” at Clearwater, and his father said they were planning to attend the premiere of the sequel scheduled for Wednesday night.

“He’s got his new leg and his new arm and is going to try and walk with one cane now,” Paul Marek said.

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Russ Marek has gone back to visit Winter over the years.

“When he went back and sat back on the platform,” his father said, “Winter was splashing him and the trainer said, ‘She remembers you.’”

Twitter: @mymackie


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