South Side native discovered injured dolphin that inspired film

Winter, the inspirational dolphin star of the new movie, Dolphin Tale, was rescued by one of Syracuse’s own, James P. Savage. A Syracuse native, Savage is the fisherman that saved the dolphin’s life.

Savage had gone out fishing in the Canaveral National Seashore on December 10, 2005, when he discovered Winter caught in the line of a crab trap. He cut her loose and expected that she’d just swim away and he’d go home and tell his fishing buddies the story.

“I waited for her to catch her breath and she just wasn’t looking good,” Savage said.

He called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and they sent a rescue team out for Winter. A rescuer from Sea World didn’t think Winter was going to make it, Savage said. But make it she did, with the help of a prosthetic tail fashioned for her.

Winter’s story of struggle and perseverance in the face of disability inspired Warner Bros. to create the recently released movie. The film’s star-studded cast includes, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Freeman, and of course, Winter, as herself.

Winter and her rescuer were able to spend some time together last fall during the filming of the movie. When Savage saw the now celebrity dolphin, she was relaxing in her brand new pool resting her head on a floaty without a care in the world, he described.



He looked at Winter and said, “When I told you things were going to be OK, I didn’t mean this good,” he remembered with a chuckle.

Wednesday night’s premier screening of the movie was held at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., near to where Winter was rescued and the aquarium she now lives in. Although it was a red carpet event, Savage said none of the main actors attended.

Wanting no part of the red carpet fussiness, Savage skipped it altogether. Once the buzz began circulating that he was the man who rescued Winter, kids started coming over and asking to take pictures with him. “That was cooler than any red carpet stuff,” he said.

While some of the details in the movie were a little sketchy compared to the actual happenings, Savage said the inspirational part was spot on. “Winter inspired people with her spunk,” he added.

The portrayal of the fisherman that was supposed to be Savage as a sort of bumbling guy sitting on a lounge chair when he saw Winter on the beach, was not a favorite among Savage’s family, who attended the premiere with him, but they still loved the movie overall, he said.

Dolphin Tale hits Syracuse theaters Friday, Sept. 23, in RealD 3D, and there is no doubt that Savage recommends seeing it.

“It kept all the adults’ attention,” he said, “and kids will just be blown away.”

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