Commando Filmmakers Expose Secret Dolphin Slaughter in Japan

By Eliza Strickland | August 3, 2009 4:43 pm

dolphin killingA new documentary film that has all the intrigue of a thriller is giving the world its first glimpse of what goes on in the scenic waters near the coastal town of Taiji, Japan. The Cove tells the story of a skilled group of activists who reveal the slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fisherman, with scenes so bloody that the cove’s waters are dyed red. This killing may be legal — dolphins and other small marine mammals are not protected by the ban on commercial whaling — but … the methods used are so nonchalantly brutal and gut-churningly primitive that Taiji officials are understandably publicity-shy [The New York Times].

In an effort to keep the dolphin killing off film, mysterious individuals follow, harass, and confront the filmmakers. The cove where the slaughter takes place is private property and strictly off-limits, but the movie makers are more than willing to break the law for their cause. To ensure they get their footage, the team includes a “clandestine operations” organizer, two of the world’s best free-divers, and a former avionics expert with the Canadian Air Force. This cloak-and-dagger crew makes use of such tools as a military infrared camera for night cinematography, unmanned aerial drones, a blimp and fake rocks specially designed by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic to hold secret cameras [Los Angeles Times].

Dolphins are a major source of income for the people of Taiji; some are sold as performers for the Sea Worlds of the world, while the majority are sold for meat. Local fisherman drive the dolphins to the cove, an area that’s protected from the prying eyes of outsiders by high fences and razor wire. Then trainers, who have flown in from seaquariums all over the world, line up and take their pick of the candidates for $150,000 per animal. Finally, those dolphins not selected as future performers are simply butchered as part of a clandestine market for dolphin meat [Los Angeles Times]. The Japanese government estimates that about 23,000 dolphins are killed each year, and argues that dolphin meat is a cultural institution. But the filmmakers counter that dolphin meat contains atrociously high levels of mercury, and say no one should be eating it.

The Cove was directed by Louie Psihoyos, a photographer for National Geographic, and it stars the activist Ric O’Barry, who gained fame in the 1960s when he trained Flipper–or rather, the five dolphins that played that beloved cetacean. He became a passionate opponent of keeping dolphins in captivity after the death of one of the Flippers, a bottlenose named Kathy [Time]. O’Barry has campaigned against dolphin shows and marine mammal parks ever since, which eventually led him to the dolphin industry in Taiji. The two men teamed up to reveal the bloody secrets of the little town. Psihoyos says he ended up with hours of graphic footage of his crew defying the dolphin killers and filming the slaughter. Only about two minutes of it ended up in the film. “Sitting through that footage,” he said, “was the hardest month of my life” [The Seattle Times].

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Image: Oceanic Preservation Society

MORE ABOUT: dolphins, ocean

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