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article imageActivist wants to stop dolphin slaughter in Japan Special

By David Silverberg     May 24, 2009 in Environment
Ric O'Barry went from being the dolphin trainer behind the TV show Flipper to becoming the most outspoken activist rallying against the annual dolphin killings in Taiji, Japan. His story has been made into a documentary, The Cove.
In a documentary about the dolphin massacre in Taiji, Japan, a simple scene speaks volumes: an underwater camera is placed at the site of the killings, where up to 23,000 dolphins are snuffed out annually. This camera, through a time lapse effect, first shows the blue-green water and then shows the gradual colouring of the water into a deep blood-red. The fishermen are killing the dolphins they can't sell to recreational marine facilities.
In The Cove, due to be released in August and screened recently at the Hot Docs film festival, the audience is given the full-frontal ugliness of a dolphin slaughter: spears pierce the dolphins' bodies, the whining cry of the animals echoes horrendously, and the Japanese fishermen laugh and joke with each other as they go about the business they have always done.
For all the graphic horror The Cove displays, its underlying message is simple: the world should know what is happening in this Japanese town, where dolphins are taken to be trained in marine aquariums or slaughtered for their meat. The film follows several activists as they covertly infiltrate Taiji, place cameras in an area where the slaughter occurs, and then avoid police, politicians and angry residents. It's a harrowing thrilling documentary, and it received the Audience Award at both the Sundance and Hot Docs festivals. It showed in Cannes to standing ovations.
Activist Ric O Barry in disguise
Ric O'Barry travels to Japan frequently to raise awareness about the dolphin slaughter. But he often travels in disguise
Courtesy The Cove
The chief protagonist behind the dolphin activism is Ric O'Barry, best known as the dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper. He collected, trained and exhibited dolphins for the Miami Seaquarium. When his favourite dolphin Kathy died, O'Barry went from Hollywood nature boy to dolphin-saver extraordinnaire. His remarkable turnabout inspired him to work tirelessly for dolphin rights, and he gained worldwide attention in 1970 when he was arrested in the Bahamas for cutting the wires of a dolphin's pen.
O'Barry's latest target is Taiji, awash with a whale museum and dolphin insignia but carrying a dirty secret. The Cove gives viewers a peek into the dolphin slaughter caught on tape. It accessed the cove where the dolphins are stabbed to death and then hauled onto fishing boats. O'Barry says The Cove is just the beginning.
"The film raises awareness about an issue everyone should know about," O'Barry says in an interview with He says The Cove is entertaining, a quality that moves people to take notice of the dolphin slaughter and then inquire on how they can help.
O'Barry points people to his website, a hub for info and resources on what occurs in Taiji while also providing tips on how to get involved. O'Barry says people can write letters to President Obama, call their local Japanese embassies and urge politicians and journalists to take a closer look at the killings.
There's another reason why the public should know about Taiji, O'Barry says. The dolphins in that area contain dangerous levels of mercury, and O'Barry notes that chemical analyses have shown that the level of mercury in dolphin meat is much higher than the maximum allowable level set by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan. Thing is, few Japanese people know about this poisoning, and often some supermarkets are disguising whale meat as dolphin meat.
Through his activism, O'Barry was able to convince a major supermarket chain to pull dolphin meat off the shelves from 136 stores.
"People who go to gourmet restaurants in Tokyo or Osaka are buying whale meat," O'Barry says. "But DNA tests show this meat is counterfeit, it's often dolphin meat. And dolphins eat fish that contain mercury, and thus have high mercury levels too."
The Cove's health alert and powerful theme has given rise to international attention: Switzerland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have all agreed to distribute the film. But when O'Barry met with Japanese film executives in Cannes, he was met with nervous hesitation.
He says the Japanese rep is worried about repercussions if he shows the film. "In Japan, losing face causes suicides," O'Barry says. "People would lose jobs if The Cove came out in Japan."
Fishermen in Taiji killing dolphins
A scene from The Cove, which shot covert footage of fishermen in Taiji, Japan, killing dolphins with spears
Courtesy The Cove
Japanese employees wouldn't be the only people anxious about the popularity of The Cove. "Some members of the international aquarium and zoo industry are strongly connected to the Japanese dolphin slaughter," O'Barry says. "They pay top dollar for dolphins deemed suitable for commercial exploitation in dolphin shows and captive dolphin swim programs."
O'Barry's battle with those well-known aquariums has landed him a lawsuit. Ocean World has filed a $300 million lawsuit against O'Barry for intentionally sabotaged Ocean World's dolphin delivery contract. The claim asserts O'Barry "traveled to Japan and the Dominican Republic in order to unjustifiably interfere, harass, and stop the transfer."
But no court filing is going to stop O'Barry for preaching about captivity and health issues afflicting the dolphin world. For years he has been promoting the cause to journalists from BBC to CNN, sneaking them into Taiji where he has set up guerrilla nests in order to watch the massacre secretly. The footage that comes out to the public could be the catalyst that turns the tide against the Taiji government, O'Barry asserts.
When asked about that sly dolphin smile, the smile that seems to be plastered on every dolphin's face when they flip and chase balls in aquariums, O'Barry says simply, "The dolphin's smile is nature's greatest deception." Because dolphins are sonic creatures whose hearing is incredibly sharp, an aquarium filled with shouting crowds and barking trainers can be stressful. No wonder the mortality rate at these aquariums is so high, he notes.
O'Barry would like to see dolphins swimming in their own environment. Dolphins are accustomed to swimming for 40 miles a day. Instead, they are relegated to pens that are six feet deep and 22-by-22-feet. "I want people to think twice before they buy tickets to those kind of shows," O'Barry says gravely.
The release of The Cove might do wonders for exposing O'Barry's cause, and all the media circus surrounding the film won't slow him down. In September, he'll be back in Taiji, likely wearing a disguise so police won't recognize him. He knows the city like the back of a dolphin's fin. He won't stop attacking Taiji for the dolphin slaughter. It's his central passion, his daily obsession, his life mission.
For more information, visit the Save Japan Dolphins website.
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