I just had occasion to watch the movie Dolphin Tale. This true story of a boy, Sawyer, who rescues an injured dolphin and helps it re-find its swimming ability, is both a coming-of-age tale and an ode to the power and lure of engineering.
In the movie, Sawyer finds a dolphin washed up on shore and injured from an apparent encounter with a commercial fishing boat. Sawyer helps get the dolphin taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where an attentive doctor and staff decide they must amputate the tail to save the dolphin, lovingly dubbed “Winter” by Nathan and the staff.
However, dolphins being dolphins, Winter needs to swim and he adopts a unique twisting movement around his spine. While this “work-around” devised instinctually by Winter allows the dolphin to happily swim around his rehab pool with Sawyer, the doctor soon realizes that this motion will slowly kill Winter. So, the search is on to create a prosthetic tail that can be attached to the abbreviated end of Winter’s body.
Now, the Tale turns to design engineering. Several prototype tails are devised, presumably by off-screen engineers, although credit in the movie is given to a local VA hospital where Morgan Freeman portrays an eccentric doctor who specializes in creating prosthetics for war veterans.
The various prototypes differ by material (a special type of sheathing material must be devised that will be acceptable to Winter’s super-sensitive epidermis; solved using a “silicon elastomer … soft as a lamb’s bottom”) and by mechanical design (how to devise a prosthetic tail which transfers the momentum of Winter’s up and down movements to a forward swimming motion). Careful attention is also paid to the flexible connection between the body sheath and the prosthetic.
An iterative design process is undertaken, and young Sawyer’s empathy and understanding of Winter’s reactions to the various designs (Winter rejects one device after another until the successful design is found) helps to guide the designers in their efforts. Finally, when success comes, Winter is able to swim effortlessly with the prosthetic tail, and becomes an inspiration to disabled people around the world, including disabled US veterans. Indeed, Winter can be found today swimming for the crowds at the Clearwater Aquarium and her story is told on her own website.
This is truly a compelling story about how engineering changed the life of one dolphin; captivated a small boy, a marine hospital staff, and a VA clinic; inspired the disabled and families of the disabled around the world; and resulted in the discovery and production of a silicon gel that is now used in wide variety of biomedical applications.
For those of us of an earlier generation, this is a The Right Stuff type of movie for today. I recommend all who wonder how they can make a difference in the world by using their intellect, passion, and instinct, see this movie. And, be sure to check out the credits at the end of the movie; there are terrific scenes of computational finite element analysis, prototype design, and human-marine life cooperation. And, the clips seem to feature real-life scientists and engineers in these clips. See for yourself!