The Secret of Taiji

Dolphins are marine mammals closely related to whales and porpoises. There are almost forty species of dolphin in 17 genera. They vary in size from 1.2 m and 40 kg, up to 9.5 m and 10 tonnes. | Photo: | Dolphin, Mammal, Ocean, Intelligent, Swim, Endangered,

Greed in the guise of tradition

"I never planned on being an activist'"'Ric O'Barry, leading dolphin advocate.

This sentiment is shared by most activists, myself included. There is one issue, one event, something that resonates so deeply inside us, we have no choice but to take action. For Ric O'Barry, Campaign Director of Save Japan Dolphins, a campaign devoted to ending the drive hunts of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and the capture and trade of dolphins in the dolphin entertainment industry, according to savejapandolphins.org, his journey into activism began with Kathy, one of the dolphins portraying Flipper of the 1964 television show.

As the 2009 documentary, The Cove, which brought immense awareness about the slaughter, describes, O'Barry felt responsible for the exploitation of dolphins, as it was Flipper that developed the multi-billion dollar industry (therefore creating the incentive of capturing dolphins), regretting that he had even captured the five dolphins portraying Flipper, himself. Over the years, he realized these animals did not belong in captivity, where dolphins should be respected, not exploited; these beings are intelligent with cognitive abilities, self-aware. To O'Barry, one of "nature's greatest deceptions," is the dolphin smile, creating the illusion that the dolphins seem happy in captivity; however, to fully understand why captivity does not work, we must see them in the wild. Many times, dolphins become depressed, as evidenced by Kathy.

Kathy had committed suicide in O'Barry's arms. As he recalls, every breath for a dolphin is a conscious choice, unlike a human breath. Kathy looked directly into O'Barry's eyes, took one last breath, did not take another one, and O'Barry was forced to let her go, as "she sank to the bottom on her belly." O'Barry's response: freeing a dolphin. He had spent ten years building the dolphin entertainment industry; he has spent the next 35 in reversing the consequences of it. O'Barry reflects, if he had known then what he knows now, he would have raised the money to pay for the dolphins' freedom. He has also realized that if there are people who insist on the institution of dolphin captivity, "there are people who will set them free."

Wild dolphins travel 40 miles per day, surfing, socializing, where they are acoustic creatures, as it is their primary sense. Dolphins can "see right through you," seeing your heart beating, knowing if you are pregnant, seeing your bones. Even in the wild, they will come up to divers, seeking out the interaction and affection, wanting to be with us, as accounted by Kirk Krack, an expert diver working with the documentary team. Mandy Rae-Cruickshank, another world class diver, had put her hand out in front of her, as the dolphin rolled into Cruickshank, allowing his/her belly to be rubbed. Intelligent, curious, affectionate, dolphins are also sensitive to sound, "their downfall in Taiji," states O'Barry.

Taiji is a "little town with a really big secret." Taiji is a coastal town, located on the eastern shore of the Wakayama Prefecture; the waters of the cove permeate red, with the blood of the thousands of slaughtered dolphins and other small cetaceans from their "traditional" drive hunt, every year from the first of September until March of the next year, a practice developed only in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the migratory routes the dolphins use are routes they have been using for thousands of years. The hunters, in the guise of fishermen, exploit the knowledge of these routes, creating a wall of sound to frighten the dolphins, as they are "all running for their lives," observes Louie Psihoyos, Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), a nonprofit organization inspiring people to save the oceans by the use of media, and director of The Cove. O'Barry describes, he hears the banging noise of the hammers hitting the long poles all the time, even in his sleep.

Paul Watson
Paul Watson

Paul Watson (born December 2, 1950) is a Canadian animal rights and environmental activist, who founded and is president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a direct action group devoted to marine conservation. He was an early and influential member of Greenpeace, crewed and skippered for it, and later was a board member. | Photo: Whale Wars |
As detailed by Scott West, the Director of Intelligence and Investigations for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), an international nonprofit marine wildlife conservation organization, and the Cove Guardian Campaign Coordinator (also an original Cove Guardian), 11-12 boats are taken into the ocean in search for pods of dolphins. Once a pod is sighted, the hunters make loud noises to disorient the dolphins, easily herding the entire family unit along the shore; as there are naturally occurring rocks in the ocean, the hunters are able to drive the dolphins into the mouth of cove, directing them further towards strategically placed nets, as it is the only place for the dolphins to go. Once the hunters have driven the dolphins into their desired area, they are then able to herd them into the "killing cove," the infamous cove replete with the blood of these innocent beings, "The Cove."

As detailed in The Cove, high-tech listening devices, hydrophones, were placed deep underwater in efforts to listen to the dolphins. O'Barry observes, "The dolphins we are hearing right now are all dead." Tomorrow, there will be another group to replace them. What is more devastating is that these beings are aware. Parents are aware their babies are being slaughtered, many times right in front of them, anticipating what is going to happen to them, as described by O'Barry. The babies are quartered off by themselves, knowing their parents were being killed, describes Cruickshank. Emotional, she details one dolphin who was trying to get away, able to get over the nets, with a blood trail behind him/her. A few more breaths were taken; then he/she went down, and "we never saw it again." Another heartbreaking image, dolphins make a huffing sound when they are scared or angry, "I can't get those noises out of my head," states West. In addition to the slaughter of the dolphins, the hunters will kill Pilot whales. What affected West was the knowledge that these cetaceans "can see and hear their families being killed, and they know they're next." These hunters will not only kill the Pilot whales, but also Orcas, simply out of opportunity.

The Taiji hunters use the guise of "tradition" for these drive hunts; however, the true reason is in the lucrative dolphin entertainment industry. Approximately 1,000-1,600 dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji each year, as hundreds are captured for the dolphin entertainment industry. A butchered dolphin can amount to $600-800, as $15,000-30,000 will be paid for an untrained dolphin; $100,000 and upwards can be offered for a trained dolphin, according to West. As detailed in The Cove, dolphin trainers from all over the world will line up to select dolphins for their dolphinariums, all in search for Flipper, selecting the young females. The Taiji Whale Museum brokers the sale, sharing profits with the hunters. Taiji is the largest supplier of live dolphins for dolphinariums. It is the dolphin entertainment industry that allows the hunt to continue.

Hardy Jones, Founder of BlueVoice.org, an ocean conservation organization devoted to protecting dolphins, whales, and other marine animals, offers the irony of the slaughter and the dolphinariums. Jones had first visited Iki in 1980, which was famous for the slaughter of thousands of dolphins, which could have been done in one day. Jones visited again in 2006 to discover the disappearance of the thousands of dolphins that once streamed the coast. Iki had wanted to take part in the dolphin entertainment industry; however, there aren't any left. "Every cetacean is in danger" just by being anywhere near Japan.

As described by West, the official drive hunt season takes place through a duration of six months; in reality, the kill season lasts the entire year, as the hunters will target other species, and kill if the opportunity arises. At the end of March, the boats are outfitted to fish for tuna, as dolphins aren't plentiful at this time. If the opportunity arises, as dolphins are naturally curious creatures, often swimming near boats, the hunters will harpoon the dolphins and drag them to slaughter. Currently, the hunters use the method of "plithing," during the official hunts, where steel rods are drove into the spinal cord. The hunters claim it as a more "humane" method of killing; in reality, the method is in efforts to control the amount of blood seeping into the water.

As documented in The Cove, the water turns crimson, instantaneously, from the blood of the once swimming dolphins, whose bellies go up. Some dolphins are frantically flapping their tails as their lives drain out of them. They are then dragged onto the boats, as the hunters take a smoke. The hunters slaughter "every one they can get." West continues, plithing often only paralyzes the dolphins, where dolphins may drown or die on transit. The dolphins are then dragged by their tails and brought to the processing plant, by means of skiff, covered with tarps.

Sea Shepherd states, as many as 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are slaughtered in Japan each year. The remaining number results from the harpoon slaughter of the Dall's porpoise in the northern part of Japan, taking place in several ports, including Otsuchi, in the Iwate Prefecture. Sea Shepherd first became involved with the battle against the drive hunts in early 2003, when a team was sent to Taiji after hearing about the hunt, capturing horrific photographs of the practice. A member of the team included Ric O'Barry.

O'Barry is adamant, the justification of "tradition" of the hunts is a lie, as accounted in The Cove. The majority of the Japanese population is unaware of the practice, as illustrated when they spoke with citizens in Tokyo, all expressing sentiments of "How is it I don't know about this?" and "If it's true, we should make an issue of it." O'Barry attributes this lack of knowledge in areas such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, to the systematic, deliberate media cover-up.

Dolphin meat is heavily laced with mercury; the farther up the food chain, the concentration of mercury increases exponentially. Almost no one eats dolphin meat, yet 23,000 dolphins are killed each year; the meat is then packaged as whale meat. What is alarming is that these hunters are not only poisoning themselves, but unsuspecting consumers of whale meat, where the Japanese government is in full awareness. The "safe"' level of mercury in food is .4 parts per million (ppm); the amount in dolphin meat is 2,000 ppm.

Mercury poisoning was first discovered in Minamata in 1956, named "Minamata Disease," although it wasn't a disease. The Chisso factory in Minamata had been dumping waste into the bay for 12 years, where human fetuses are most sensitive; effects evidenced in babies born deformed. A desperate father, crying, announces his outrage of all the children whose eyes cannot see, "ears that can't hear' mouths that can't speak or taste' hands that can't grasp' legs that won't walk'"

Despite the toxicity of the mercury, the hunters insist on slaughtering thousands of dolphins in efforts to sell only hundreds into the dolphin entertainment industry, with every incentive to stop the world exposure. Hunters will often provoke O'Barry, in efforts to get him arrested, and therefore, stop the exposure of the practice. One hunter held up a baby dolphin (that was already dead) and slit his/her throat, right in front of O'Barry, in efforts to provoke a response, particularly, of a physical alteration. Despite how difficult it was for O'Barry to not react, he resisted, so that he would not be arrested.

West accounts, the Japanese legal system allows an arrest and detention of three days without charges or due process, as the police were free to question those detained. The police could then go to court to request a 10-day extension of detention, then another, for the total maximum of 23 days, where those detained generally would not have access to legal counsel. Attorneys in Japan encourage their clients to make confessions, even false confessions, in order for leniency at court. Consequently, many innocent people are convicted, as Japan can boast a large conviction rate.

Allison Lance Watson and Alex Cornelissen were a part of the late 2003 team sent to Taiji. A pod was brought in, where Lance-Watson and Cornelissen dove into the cove, freeing approximately a dozen dolphins penned and scheduled to be slaughtered the next morning. Subsequently, Lance-Watson and Cornelissen were detained in a Shingu City jail for the 23 days. Neither Lance-Watson nor Cornelissen said a word, a piece of valuable advice all volunteers are given. Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd, wrote a letter to the Japanese police to secure Lance-Watson and Cornelissen's release, stating he would never send any representatives of Sea Shepherd to Japan to commit any crime. The Japanese police were satisfied; Lance-Watson and Cornelissen were deported back to the United States in 2003.

Amber Valletta
Amber Valletta

Amber Valletta in a Pierre Balmain dress designed by Oscar De La Renta. Valletta is the spokesperson for Oceana's Seafood Contamination Campaign, where she brings awareness of the dangers of mercury poisoning in seafood. The decision to join was prompted by the mercury-poisoning experience of a friend and the fact that she is a mother of two. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich |
The goal of O'Barry is to expose the world to Taiji's barbaric practice of the hunt, with the hope Japan will stop, as it would be a "PR nightmare," as described in The Cove. The hunters themselves admitted, if the world discovered what was occurring in Taiji, the practice would be shut down. In advancing that goal, Sea Shepherd launched the Cove Guardian campaign in 2010. Volunteers from all over the world, devoted to stopping the senseless slaughter of dolphins and other small cetaceans, stand watch over the cove, near Taiji Harbor. Cove Guardians are independent of, acting in support of, but not as an official representative of Sea Shepherd.

According to West, the Cove Guardians have made a tremendous impact, as the salient feature of their campaign is to create a mammoth economic burden (additional Japanese police are in place to not only monitor the Cove Guardians, but to protect them in the prevention of an international incident; a police station had to be built near The Cove). Efforts must be done in an indirect way, as West views this as the best method, long term. If actual action was taken, it would give Japan leverage to ban Sea Shepherd from the area (using Watson's previous letter). Without Sea Shepherd's presence, the hunters are free to continue the killing without the negative stigma and exposure, driving these dolphins into extinction. The ultimate goal of the Cove Guardian campaign is to end the slaughter, unyielding to not leaving until Taiji ceases the killing of the dolphins and other cetaceans. Every season, West hopes it will be the Cove Guardians' last.

Anyone can join the campaign, beginning by writing to the Cove Guardians to request an application. Everyone can help stop the slaughter, by writing to their consulates and embassies, in addition to political leaders (as the movement is global), and spreading awareness, as it further damages Japan's reputation, with hopes of Japan making a change to repair it. West also urges people to stop supporting the live dolphin entertainment industry, by boycotting live dolphin shows, or swimming with captive dolphins, as every time someone gives a dollar to a dolphin show, they are supporting the industry of killing and capturing dolphins for profit.

As detailed in The Cove, Taiji was offered a subsidy, where they were offered the same amount of money they would have received from the hunts, if they docked their boats. Taiji refused, using the justification of dolphins as pests, diminishing their fisheries; however, overfishing is an effect from people, not the dolphins. It is apparent Taiji will use any justification they can to continue the slaughter, adamant in the root of the practice as "tradition." However, most espouse tradition with pride. Why is it that Taiji would espouse their tradition, all in secrecy?

I, like many people, adore dolphins. I appreciate their intelligence, their curiosity, their affectionate nature. I love dolphins enough to never step foot in a dolphinarium again.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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