Filmmaker Louie Psihoyos says driving into the Japanese fishing community of Taiji was like entering a Stephen King novel. Everywhere he went, there were images of whales and dolphins, even on tiles in the sidewalks. On the town's bridge, he recalled seeing a sign in English saying “We love dolphins.” There was a whale museum, a whale-tail fountain, and a whale-shaped boat in the harbour. This was a place that appeared to adore cetaceans, the order of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
But Taiji, located 150 kilometres south of Osaka on the Pacific Ocean, was a town with a terrible secret. Psihoyos couldn't miss a large cliffside park in the middle of the community. Tsunami Park was created as a refuge for residents fleeing a tidal wave, but nobody can enter it because of barbed-wire fencing and regular foot patrols. “It's completely blocked off so that even townspeople can't get in there,” Psihoyos (whose name sounds similar to “sequoias”) told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Toronto.
Secrecy is necessary because from the mountainside above, anyone could observe the slaughter of dolphins that takes place each year in a secluded cove below.
According to Ric O'Barry, the central figure in Psihoyos's emotionally charged documentary The Cove (which opens in Vancouver on August 21), 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed annually in this tiny body of water and sold to unsuspecting Japanese consumers as toxin-free Antarctic whales. In fact, says O'Barry, the dolphin meat is loaded with mercury, which can cause memory loss and impaired brain function in adults and severe disabilities in children born to women who consume it while pregnant.
O'Barry, an anticaptivity crusader and former dolphin trainer, charges in The Cove that the Japanese government and the Japanese media have participated in a monumental cover-up to prevent citizens from knowing the truth. In a phone interview from Toronto, O'Barry also claimed that the International Whaling Commission, which regulates whaling, has failed to protect dolphins, which he describes as “small whales”. In 1986, the IWC implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling. Since then, according to O'Barry, there has been a threefold increase in dolphin hunting.
“I don't have any hope for the IWC,” O'Barry, campaign director of Save Japan Dolphins, stated. “I think they will go down in history as a ship of fools who failed miserably to do their job.”
The Japanese Embassy in Ottawa e-mailed the following statement to the Straight: “In Japan, prefectures including Iwate, Shizuoka (Izu), Wakayama, and Okinawa have local traditional dietary habits of eating dolphin meat and dolphins have long been captured and utilized in these regions. The Japanese government believes that it is important to mutually respect the differences of dietary habits and food culture that each country or region have [sic] long cultivated.”
O'Barry, a 69-year-old Miami resident, trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the 1960s film and television series of the same name. During that period, he realized that not only were dolphins exceptionally intelligent, they had self-awareness and remarkable emotional depth. To this day, he insists that a dolphin named Kathy committed suicide in his arms by choosing not to take another breath.
He was so mortified that the next day, he launched his career as a dolphin liberator, becoming the bíªte noire of the multibillion-dollar dolphin-and-whale captivity business. He claims that trainers from around the world descend on Taiji every autumn as dolphins are driven into the bay by Japanese fishermen on boats. They bang hammers on metal pipes to create a wall of noise that forces scores of dolphins toward shore. There, the trainers select the best for export to aquariums at a cost of up to $150,000 each. The remainder are taken to a nearby cove where, according to O'Barry, they're massacred.
“We need to stop this slaughter,” O'Barry said, before adding: “The reason it continues is because there is very little opposition.”
A well-orchestrated campaign of harassment by local fishermen and police prevents news crews from filming the killings. This differs from the Canadian seal hunt, which is broadcast to the world.
To ensure that the Taiji bloodbath continues unabated, local authorities goad environmental activists into getting arrested so they won't be allowed to return. Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was banned from the area after using direct-action tactics to try to free the dolphins in 2003.
O'Barry said his preferred tactic is gaiatsu, a combination of the Japanese words gai (“external”) and atsu (“pressure”), to shame Japanese officials into stopping the dolphin killing. “I've been bringing CNN, the BBC, the German and Swiss journalists,” he said. “Louie Psihoyos was one of these journalists that I brought there. I had no idea at the time that when he showed up, we won the lottery.”
Psihoyos, a former National Geographic photographer, confessed that at first, he thought O'Barry was a “paranoid madman”. That's because O'Barry was convinced that he was always being followed. To avoid detection, the dolphin rescuer would wear a surgical mask and a hat while driving so that authorities would mistake him for a Japanese resident.
However, Psihoyos's impression changed as he got to know O'Barry better. “He was definitely driven, but he wasn't paranoid,” Psihoyos said. Because of all the security around the cove, Psihoyos knew that it would take extraordinary measures to achieve O'Barry's goal of showing the slaughter to the world.
The director said he visited the mayor's office to learn how Taiji residents viewed cetaceans. “They said, ”˜It's very dangerous for you to be around this town. We can't guarantee your safety,' ” he said, adding that they specified areas that were off-limits. “You know, they threatened us with arrest.”
Psihoyos noticed that his crew was being tailed by seven different vehicles at various times. Most of the time, they were driven by police, but he maintained that there were also yakuza (Japanese gangsters) present. “You could always spot them,” he said. “They were driving big American cars and had wraparound sunglasses.”
On-screen, Psihoyos exudes the intensity of a serious environmentalist, and demonstrates the cunning of an investigative journalist. But how would he show something that couldn't be photographed? The breakthrough came when he decided to assemble an “Oceans 11 team”, adding a Mission: Impossible dimension to the documentary.
The expedition director, Simon Hutchins, is well-known in the B.C. freediving and cycling communities. He brought in Coquitlam-based female freediving record holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and her husband, Kirk Krack, who has coached several world-champion freedivers, including Cruickshank. People in this sport dive deep underwater without oxygen and can hold their breath for long periods of time. Daredevil Charles Hambleton, who also has freediving experience, joined as the head of “clandestine operations”. The team, including technicians, had to figure out how to place cameras and sound equipment in the cliffs above the cove as well as beneath the water. And DNA scientist Scott Baker was retained to prove that dolphin meat was being sold to Japanese consumers.
Psihoyos, executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, told the Straight that it wasn't easy filming while being harassed. The OPS—a nonprofit group of filmmakers, photographers, and environmental activists—created The Cove. Many times during the production, security staff near the cove shoved cameras in the crew's faces, while fishermen hurled insults in Japanese. And, as the documentary demonstrates, they were repeatedly followed. “Trying to make a movie while you're constantly threatened with being bodily harmed or being arrested adds an order of complexity that I'm only starting to appreciate now,” Psihoyos quipped.
In a phone interview with the Straight from his Coquitlam home, Krack noted that he and Cruickshank had earlier shot scenes for the OPS in the early stages of the project. Because both Cruickshank and Krack can hold their breath for more than six minutes, they were able to provide amazing footage for The Cove. In the Bahamas, Cruickshank swam with wild dolphins for 45 minutes, stroking one animal's stomach as Krack filmed the sequence.
“That interaction brought tears to Mandy and I—emotionally, it was very powerful,” Krack recalled. “We never had a wild animal convey that much intelligence and desire to communicate.” They're highly intelligent and they have emotion.”
On the phone from Florida, where she was teaching a freediving course, Cruickshank told the Straight that she felt a strong connection with the wild dolphins. “They're willing to let you into their area and not harm you at all,” she said, adding that it was a humbling experience.
The two travelled to Japan thinking they were going to swim with pearl divers. After their arrival, however, the OPS crew asked if they would be willing to help stop the dolphin killings in Taiji. Krack said they were informed of the opposition from fishermen, and possibly from the yakuza and others.
“They said, 'There is a chance you could be arrested on trumped-up charges,'" Krack recalled. “There was a woman from an NGO a couple of weeks before who had been beat up, thrown on the train, and all of her camera equipment [was] broken, so they said, 'We understand if you don't want to go through with this part of it.' We said, 'Sign us up.'"
Cruickshank also wanted to help save dolphins' lives. “When you're presented with the chance to make a difference for such an important issue, it's really hard to say no to it,” she said.
The pair are in some of the film's most dramatic scenes. In one segment, an infrared camera captures their tension-filled late-night trek toward the bay as they prepare to swim to the cove. Their goal is to place hydrophone-and-camera systems underwater, but they have no idea of the depth of the cove.
“It's like Vancouver water,” Cruickshank said. “So if you've ever been out at night and looked into the water, it's black. It's very black.”
Krack said it was more disturbing returning the following night to retrieve the equipment after the dolphin massacre had occurred, not knowing if there would be sharks attracted by blood in the water. “It was all pretty unnerving,” he said.
Neither Krack nor Cruickshank knew at the outset that Psihoyos's film would be so ambitious. The Cove not only covers the conspiracy of silence in Taiji, it also exposes corruption within the IWC, as well as the sale of heavily contaminated dolphin meat in Japan. In addition, there are dramatic hidden-camera scenes of Japanese police interrogating O'Barry in a hotel lobby.
The documentary—which at times has the feel of an investigative thriller—has won more than a dozen awards on the festival circuit, including the audience favourite at Sundance.
Psihoyos said that mercury levels in some of the dolphin meat being sold in Japan are more than 5,000 times higher than Japanese law permits. He predicted that after the Japanese people become aware of this, the dolphin hunt will be stopped. “But it's just a matter of getting enough people to see it so we can create this groundswell—this overwhelming tsunami of negative publicity for the Japanese government,” he said.
O'Barry said the film has validated his 40-year struggle to keep dolphins out of captivity, as well as his more recent efforts to halt the killing of dolphins. “As soon as this movie gets in front of the Japanese people, it's all over,” he predicted. “I say that because I know how things work in Japan.”
Despite the potential consequences, O'Barry said he plans to return to Taiji in September to continue his fight to stop the massacre.