A lighthouse shines in the distance against the velvet-black sky—against the darkened theatre of Cinemapolis at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 25, 2009. The lighthouse’s beacon beckoned ships and sea creatures alike near a darkened cove, lined with rocks and fishermen’s spears. It beckoned viewers to a closer look at the award-winning FLEFF-sponsored documentary The Cove.
The cove is a perfect trap for Richard Connell’s character General Zaroff to set up “the most dangerous game”—to set up for a true man-hunting game of cat-and-mouse, hunter-and-hunted, and predator-and-prey.
The cove is also where Taiji government in Japan set up a secret dolphin slaughterhouse. “I do want to say, we tried to do the story legally,” the narrator began the documentary, driving a vehicle with a hospital mask hiding his face, while trying to avoid the police. Of course, the town of Taiji—with “We love dolphins!” posters hung around every corner—is a “little town with a really big secret.”
One might find it curious that there are certain places that one is not allowed to fish or hold cameras. These places are the coves of Taiji, where big red “X’s” mark the forbidden territory. But for some, “X” always stood for buried treasure, and a big secret was sure buried in Taiji and other places like Taiji. The governments knew this, of course, so they were employing in this cat-and-mouse game, tailgating the man with a facemask. All the man needed was a camera. With some leaked footage, the rest of the word to find out.
Ric O'Barry with Cathy the dolphin.
Perhaps this story started with Flipper, a popular television series in the mid-1960s. With care-free catchy lyrics such as “They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning, no one can see is faster than he…” many became fascinated with dolphins—the playful creatures. “If it weren’t for Flipper, we wouldn’t even care about dolphins,” someone commented about the public’s spotlight.
And at the height of the dolphin era, no one was more popular than the dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. He built up the dolphin industry, spending many hours in the water, living in the television sets of countless homes. However, after “Flipper,” a dolphin by the name of Cathy, consciously stopped breathing, committing suicide in the young dolphin trainer’s arms, O’Barry spent the rest of his years trying to tear down the dolphin industry.
“I never planned on being an activist,” said O’Barry. “I spent years building the dolphin industry and spent last 35 years tearing it down.”
Save a Whale, Ride a Dolphin: Smile for Free Willy
“Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking,” began the melancholy song ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin. ‘Smile’ was Michael Jackson’s favorite song. Perhaps the late King of Pop was on to something. In 1993, Jackson wrote the song ‘Will You Be There’ for the motion picture Free Willy, a movie about a boy who tries to save a whale from being killed from captivity.
The boy—Jesse—was just trying to do what Ric O’Barry has been doing since Cathy died: free Willy.
“The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they are always happy,” said O’Barry. “You realize after a while that they don’t really belong in captivity.”
Yet by trapping bottle-nosed dolphins in stadiums packed with people, clapping and shouting, one is killing them with a wall of sound. Dolphins have incredible sensitive hearing and sonar; they are able to see with sound. To see tourists day after day with their loud thunderous clapping and cheering as they leap through the air, the dolphins are slowly dying.
About 23,000 dolphins and porpoises die each year in coves like Taiji, however, most deceased dolphins are not show dolphins. While dolphins in Taiji do get sold to water parks to perform, most dolphins in the Taiji coves are slaughtered in the salty blood red waters. Most of the dolphin meat doesn’t even get eaten.
Dolphins have been known to help humans—such as the stray surfer who leans to close to a shark; yet humans kill dolphins.
As Charlie Chaplin sang, “Smile, though your heart is aching…”
The Biggest Public Health Problem
“If we lose access to sea creatures, it may become the biggest public health problem,” they said, especially in an island such as Japan, where fish becomes 70 percent of protein for people. Yet with the current rate of fishing, there will be no fish left.
Besides the rate of killing of fish to extinction, there is another problem lurking beneath the cold depths of the Taiji cove. Dolphin meat is laced with mercury, and over time a buildup of mercury can make one lose one’s hearing, sight and mind. It can result to the Minamata disease: a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poison, causing deformity in infants and symptoms ranging from ataxia, numbness, general muscle weakness to insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. Therefore, dolphin meat isn’t a very popular food item for Japanese citizens. Still, in a tough economy, one finds it hard to deny free food.
With an abundance of dolphin meat, they start giving away free dolphin meat in kid lunchboxes. Dolphin meat in Taiji may be found in grocery stores, mislabeled as whale meat. The best part is that the government knows what is going on, but citizens wouldn’t know the difference.
Yet the problem of food poisoning isn’t limited to Japan, and the coves in Taiji aren’t the only slaughterhouses of dolphins. As Ithaca College Journalism Professor Todd Schack said, “We live in a giant glass house and we can’t blame Japan when they can turn around and blame us.” As unlikely as it may seem, food poisoning persists even in the good U.S. of A.
A recent New York Times article reported that a 22-year-old dance teacher became paralyzed after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli. Although selling tainted meat is banned, tens of thousands of people become sick by the E. Coli virus, which symptoms ranging from aches, cramps, diarrhea and seizures to a coma and paralyzation. E.coli contamination this summer led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states. Ground beef—or hamburger meat—is usually made from a variety of sources, and not all the processed meat is tested for E. coli.
As Ric O’Barry said, “If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.”
FLEFF is an acronym for Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.