It was both a tragic and inspirational start to the dolphin drive season in Taiji, Japan. As a pod of between 40-60 bottlenose dolphins were pushed into the cove, Japanese activists made history of their own.
There was no grace period for dolphins this year. Despite the presence of Japanese media, activists and a contingent from Dolphin Project.org, Taiji fishermen drove between 40-60 bottlenose dolphins into the cove on the very first day of the season.
As the pod of dolphins churned the waters in panic, a rather bizarre scene unfolded on the beach ahead of them. Members of a right-wing Japanese activist group, set up umbrellas, played Hawaiian Luau music and planned a whale barbecue.
Across the beach from them, separated by a large contingent of police, Brazilian activists wandered down toward the beach and merged with Japanese activists. Collectively, they stood alongside Ric and Lincoln O'Barry from the Dolphin Project, and special guest, Matt Sorum, former singer and drummer with Guns N Roses.
As the war of words between megaphones began, the pro-dolphin entourage was warned by police not to shout. So Sorum did what he does best, and began to drum quietly. He then took to the guitar to lead the group in a rendition of "Give peace a chance," followed by a haunting version of "Knockin' on Heaven's door."
The entire scene, which unfolded live on the Dolphin Project's U-Stream channel, was beamed around the globe by Ric O'Barry's son, Lincoln O'Barry. The O'Barry's were there on the opening day of the dolphin drive season, as they are every year, to raise awareness for the dolphins.
At the beach with them, were volunteer Cove Monitors and international supporters from six continents. Around the world, more than 100 individually simultaneous events spread the word of Taiji's dolphin drives as part of Japan Dolphins Day 2013.
Taiji's dolphin drive season
The small coastal whaling village of Taiji is located in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan. Every year between Sept. 1 and March 31, dolphins across several species are driven into a tiny cove by fishermen and either slaughtered for their meat or sold (at great profit), to the captive marine industry. Last year, 1,486 dolphins were driven into the cove. This year's quota, is 2,013 animals.
An old Japanese proverb says, 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,' so aside from small groups such as Elsa Nature Conservancy, for many years, the pressure to stop the dolphin slaughter consistently came from outside of Japan. It is only within the last few years that activists of Japanese descent, have begun to step forward. Fearing reprisal, the steps were hesitant at first. Izumi Ishii, a former dolphin hunter turned pro-dolphin advocate, was one of the first to take the plunge.
The leap cost Ishii-san and his family dearly. But he stood tall, and spoke out against dolphin hunting at the 2002 International Whaling Commission's (IWC) annual meeting. Here, under public scrutiny, he announced his intention to cease hunting and urged his fellow dolphin hunters to do the same. Today, Ishii-san and his family, run a dolphin and whale watching business.
Further massive change occurred this year, when Japanese activists chose to air their disagreement with the Japanese government. Having cracked the doors in previous years, they now threw them wide open, shedding light on their country's whaling policies.
History in the making
In Tokyo, last Friday, grassroots Japanese organization, Flippers Japan, held a Flash Mob Action at the busy Shibuya Crossing, and invited Ric O'Barry and Matt Sorum to take part.
Together with Ishii-san, they recreated the powerful ending of the movie, The Cove. In the scene, O'Barry stands silent in the Shibuya crossing; a body screen shows video of the dolphin hunts as hundreds of Japanese people walk by.
Also making their presence felt were members of the Japanese group: Action for Marine Mammals. They hosted a lively protest march at Shibuya for Japan Dolphins Day 2013.
But the most poignant and heartfelt moment occurred on the beach of Taiji's cove. As newly-captured bottlenose dolphins frantically slapped the waters with their tails, Japanese activists donned their swimsuits and swam out towards the nets where the dolphins were being held.
Melissa Thompson Esaia/Video stillshot
A young Japanese activist protests the Taiji dolphin drives in the cove. On the other side of the net, a pod of bottlenose dolphins swim frantically having just been captured.
Challenging the patrolling Japanese Coast Guard, Satoshi Komiyama and his fellow activists stood calmly by the nets and delivered their message. Translated by Yuka Azuma, Komiyama's sign read:
We are not shaming Fishermen. We think we need to change the policy of our country. It is not the time any more to hunt dolphins and eat them. We are now facing the time of era when we as nation must contemplate on the way of the dolphin hunting.
As Komiyama returned to shore, he broke down in tears. Having dipped his head in the waters, like Ishii-san before him, he had heard the dolphins cry.
Melissa Thompson Esaia
Satoshi Komiyama is comforted by Ric O'Barry. The activist broke down after swimming out to the nets where bottlenose dolphins were being held. Their cries of panic and fear overwhelmed him.
Arms waited to greet and comfort the young Tokyo activist. He was assisted from the water by Ric O'Barry. On the beach was Melissa Thompson Esaia who captured the event on video. This was her second year in Taiji for September 1st, and she described the experience as being, "even more emotional and surreal," than last year.
The video (top) appears courtesy of Esaia; the original can be viewed here on Vimeo.
For the bottlenose dolphins held in the cove overnight, 18 young and attractive animals were selected to be sold to the captive marine mammal industry. The remaining dolphins, minus their young, were released back to the ocean.
In a discussion between the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria or WAZA, (sister organization to the American AZA) and the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), bottlenose dolphins driven into the cove during September are for captive selection only. This 'grace period' is not afforded to other dolphin species and by October, even bottlenose will be slaughtered.
It will be a daunting six months for dolphins running the gauntlet off the coast of Taiji, but with Japanese activists now embracing their cause, there is also great hope.