So many movies claim to be "based on," "inspired by" or "suggested by" true stories that separating fact from fiction can be tricky. Dolphin Tale stays faithful to the essentials of Winter the bottlenose dolphin's injury and rehabilitation but still takes a few creative liberties. Spotting these differences is part of the fun of viewing Dolphin Tale. To get sharp-eyed viewers started, we've assembled a list of the movie's most obvious variances from reality. (Use our special Twitter feed to post your own observations about the movie. Just add #DolphinTaleSPT to your tweets and you'll be included in our special coverage at tampabay.com/winterstale.) Let the reality check begin.
HARRY CONNICK JR. VS. DAVID YATES
Connick plays Dr. Clay Haskett, heading the "Clearwater Marine Hospital" where Winter is taken after her rescue from entanglement in a crab trap. The role is based upon Yates, the president and CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which oversees Winter's care. His facility's name has been altered for cinematic effect but not the aquarium's purpose of rescue, rehabilitation and releasing injured sea life. Slender, bearded and balding, Yates should be flattered to be represented by Connick, a hunky heartthrob and world-class jazz musician.
MORGAN FREEMAN VS. DAN STRZEMPKA AND KEVIN CARROLL
Freeman plays Dr. McCarthy, an orthopedic expert who designs Winter's prosthetic tail and the silicone gel to prevent chafing her sensitive skin. In reality, the task required two inventors, Sarasota resident Strzempka and Carroll of Orlando, working for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. Aside from obvious racial differences — Freeman is black and the two inventors are white — Strzempka said after a recent screening that the research was "represented incredibly well." One true-life touch the film bypasses: Strzempka (on right in photo) has worn a prosthetic left leg since age 4 after a lawn mower accident.
"PHOEBE" VS. ABBY STONE
Winter's closest caretaker in the film is "Phoebe," a marine hospital assistant played by Austin Highsmith. But look closely in the background when she's in the dolphin pool with Winter and you'll often see the real-life Phoebe — senior marine mammal trainer Abby Stone, left. She was hired for a bit part to remain close to Winter, keeping the dolphin comfortable under filming conditions.
WINTER'S RESCUE ON SCREEN VS. REALITY
The movie depicts the dolphin being injured in the Gulf of Mexico, by a crab trap dropped from a boat with Hernando Beach markings. Winter is discovered beached in broad daylight on Honeymoon Island in the film, rather than pulled from Atlantic waters at dawn by fisherman Jim Savage. The rescue actually occurred during a chilly December; the film shows Winter's care beginning at the onset of summer. And her tail wasn't amputated as the film suggests; it rotted off from loss of blood circulation after several days.
Winter has met plenty of humans but "Sawyer Nelson" (Nathan Gamble) isn't one of them. The character was created for plot design and emotional effect, as the 11-year-old boy forges an E.T.-like bond with the dolphin. Yates said Sawyer represents all children who have been captivated by Winter. "There are thousands of Sawyers out there," he said. Likewise, Sawyer's war-injured cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) represents physically challenged visitors to the aquarium who left inspired by Winter's perseverance.
AND FOR PICKIER VIEWERS, THESE MOMENTS WHEN 'DOLPHIN TALE' SWIMS AROUND THE TRUTH:
• Winter never swims in the cove adjacent to her aquarium home. A climactic sequence portraying that happening is entirely fabricated with computer-generated animation and a "dummy dolphin" carried to the cove by stretcher.
• There is no mischievous pet white pelican named "Rufus" hanging around the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
• A key scene depicts a hurricane passing through Tampa Bay and severely damaging the marine hospital. Nobody seems to notice it's coming until a fictitious Bay News 9 reporter named "Sandra Sinclair" breaks the news. The storm's passing and the cleanup of debris should happen this quickly in real life.