The true story of Winter, a rescued bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail, the 2011 movie "Dolphin Tale" was an instant hit, grossing over $95 million worldwide and capturing the hearts of audiences everywhere. "Dolphin Tale 2," its just-released sequel, continues her story and spotlights the marine mammal conservation and rescue efforts of Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter’s home.

The initial film did wonders for the CMA, says David Yates, the aquarium's CEO and an executive producer of "Dolphin Tale 2." "We're a nonprofit and it’s driven awareness of our mission and what we're about. Winter has become this inspiration for millions around the world. Our mission is rescue, rehab and release — get them well and back in nature as long as they can survive there. It drove awareness of what we do, and generated a lot of respect for marine life and the environment. We're caretakers of marine life and the environment and 'Dolphin Tale' helped us accomplish that because it reached millions we couldn't have reached otherwise."

Attendance has increased tenfold since the first film's release, and that has allowed the CMA to expand build more animal care areas. "It's been a surreal and very fun process," says Yates, gratified that people have responded to the aquarium's work and Winter's very relatable story. "I think it resonated because people love the kind of work we do, and Winter's story is very compelling. Everybody has life challenges, some problem that they have to deal with. It can be anything from having a major physical issue to autism to being overweight to being bullied at school. Winter gave people lots of inspiration. If she can get through her problems, so can they."

"Dolphin Tale 2" introduces Hope, a baby dolphin orphaned by the death of her mother when she was two to three months old. "She was about the same age as Winter was when she was rescued," notes Yates. "The mother was apparently fairly old — there were no signs of anything like a boat strike." In any case, Hope never learned to hunt food or fend for herself, so she'd have to remain in captivity like Winter, who couldn't survive in the wild with or without her prosthesis.

The film portrays the two dolphins' first meeting as contentious, but Yates reveals that "it actually went a bit better in real life. The director trumped it up a bit for the movie. Winter considered the inside pools her home and we introduced this new dolphin and she was like, 'Who is this now?' She was blocking Hope from getting into her tank and on her platform.  It was pretty funny to watch."

The dolphins Hope and Winter

Fortunately, that changed over time for the pair, who will turn nine and four in October. "Now they're best friends It's a big sister-younger sister relationship, they get along very well. They'll do a tug of war over a toy, It's hilarious. But beyond being cute they're very critical to each other. They need social partnership and give each other that."

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that captive dolphins have a same-sex companion. When her companion and surrogate mother Panama died of old age, Winter might have been shipped off to another aquarium had Hope not been found, or if the two couldn't get along. The film fudges the chronology a bit for dramatic effect — Hope was actually rescued before Panama died—but the situation was the same. "We had to rely on the hope — no pun intended — that Winter and Hope would have a good enough relationship. The first couple of weeks we were very concerned about that," notes Yates. "If they hadn't gotten along, we would have had a big problem: two dolphins that don't have partners."

"Dolphin Tale 2" also weaves in the rescue of a beached and sunburned dolphin named Mandy who got well and was able to return to the Atlantic. This also happened, but earlier, says Yates. Mandy was one of two dolphins rescued, rehabilitated and released in 2006. The meddlesome pelican named Rufus, played by a pair of birds in the film, is based on a pelican that "roamed the halls and hung out" at the CMA.

While Winter and Hope play themselves in some scenes, it wasn't practical to use the actual dolphins in others. First, computer graphics were used to shrink Hope down 61 percent to the size she was three years ago, "And anything that was overly active, Winter can't do, like jumping out of the water, was CGI," says Yates. Animatronic stand-ins were used for sequences that were difficult or dangerous.

As in the first film, the camera equipment was brought in ahead of time to familiarize the animals with them. Production didn't disrupt the daily routine of the aquarium, which remained open for business as usual. "We sat down with the studio for the first movie and said we can't discontinue our rescue and rehab work and they agreed," says Yates. "It was challenging, but it went extremely well with a lot of planning and understanding that the animals come first."

The closing credits of "Dolphin Tale 2" play over a heart-tugging montage of mostly disabled adults and kids who've visited Winter at the CMA, "A flood of tens of thousands of families that have come or written to us and told us stories of how Winter has inspired them," notes Yates. "Families have traveled from Europe, Australia and all over the United States because their child was going through chemotherapy or autistic or a burn victim and connected to Winter's story and it helped them get through a tough time in their life. That's the essence of these movies. Winter gives people the inspiration to persevere."

There's more of the story in the documentary "Winter: The Dolphin That Can," which is now being updated but a current version is available for purchase at seewinter.com and will stream later this fall. “We go into detail of how Winter was rescued, the tail process, interviews with the CMA team and me, how Hope arrived during the wrap party for "Dolphin Tale,' and personal stories," says Yates. “It’s hosted by Cozi Zuehlsdorff who plays Hazel in the movies. It's very inspirational."

As for future projects, another feature film is "certainly a consideration," Yates reveals. "We have some more stories here. We'll see how 'Dolphin Tale 2' does but we're assuming a commitment to do something, somehow, maybe TV. We would probably do something different than a weekly drama. It could be a reality show, an inspirational show focusing on the kids we work with, or an animated series. It's a very inspiring story that needs to keep being told."

"Dolphin Tale 2" is currently in theaters.

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