Carnage in a cove in Japan exposed

Film focuses awareness on dolphin slaughter

Tourists can swim with dolphins at Whale Beach, a popular attraction in Taiji, Japan. Not many of them know what happens to the animals when the beach closes in the fall. Tourists can swim with dolphins at Whale Beach, a popular attraction in Taiji, Japan. Not many of them know what happens to the animals when the beach closes in the fall. (John M. Glionna/ Los Angeles Times)
By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times / September 20, 2009

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TAIJI, Japan - Keiko Hirao sits on pebbly Whale Beach in the late morning sun, taking in this town’s main summertime attraction - two playful dolphins swimming alongside tourists in a picturesque cove.

The creatures flap their tails and perform acrobatic jumps as dozens of delighted children tread water in the aquatic petting zoo. But Hirao is troubled. She knows something that many other tourists here don’t.

“When I found out,’’ the Osaka resident said, “I cried.’’

Each September, Whale Beach is closed to swimming. That’s when the dolphin slaughter begins.

Taiji is one of the few towns worldwide where the sea mammals are legally herded from the sea and killed in groups so their meat can be sold at market, marine specialists say.

Over seven months, 2,300 of the dolphins are steered into a hidden cove, where the choicest specimens are selected for sale to dolphin parks for $150,000 each. The rest are speared by fishermen in a frenzy of blood and thrashing fins.

Officials of the isolated town of 3,500 residents on Japan’s southeastern coast have long blocked outsiders from observing the kills. Now a controversial US-made film documenting the carnage has unleashed worldwide outrage over the practice - and led the fishermen to say they will release 100 dolphins from the year’s first catch (while making no promises about cutting back on future kills).

“The Cove,’’ winner of the 2009 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, portrays Taiji as a charming burg with a darker self, a place where Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.

To foil efforts to block their access, the filmmakers used divers with sophisticated underwater equipment, aerial drones, as well as surveillance and military-style thermal cameras. The result is part graphic horror flick, part suspense thriller, and part “gotcha’’ movie - its dramatic scenes of determined undercover police giving chase to cameramen ending with chilling footage of churning water stained red.

Ric O’Barry, the documentary’s human protagonist, is a dolphin trainer-turned-activist who has traveled to Taiji for 15 years to crusade against the hunt.

Once the dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV series “Flipper,’’ the 68-year-old now feels partly responsible for people’s fascination with captive-dolphin shows.

“In my life, I have watched dolphins give birth and have nursed them back to health when they were sick - I’ve captured and trained them,’’ he said. “When I go to this cove and see the slaughter, it sickens me.

“It’s just over the top in terms of cruelty. It has kept me awake at night for 15 years. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.’’

O’Barry first came to Taiji in 1993, guiding journalists interested in writing about the dolphin kills. He was harassed by supporters of the hunt and soon resorted to disguises involving wigs, hats, sunglasses, and even dresses.

For years, Japan has faced worldwide protests over its whaling industry. After the International Whaling Commission instituted a commercial whaling moratorium in the mid-1980s, the country announced it would still harvest a small number of whales for scientific purposes.

Japan insists that dolphins, a cuisine served mostly in the countryside, and other small cetaceans are not covered by the moratorium.

The Japanese kill about 20,000 dolphins each year, most harpooned in the open sea. Taiji is the only place where the creatures are herded to shore before being killed, said Shigeki Takaya, an official with the Fisheries Ministry. He said the government monitors the dolphin kills.

“Most reporters tell one side of the story,’’ he said. “They are prejudiced, so I usually don’t comment on this. We have to respect our own culture. But why do you only focus on Taiji?

“We are not the only nation that kills dolphins,’’ he said, pointing out that Canada, the Faeroe Islands, and Denmark also hunt dolphin.

Yet some Taiji residents are conflicted.

“I know people think we are all barbarians,’’ Councilman Hisato Ryono said. “There has to be another way to kill these creatures without making them suffer. But I don’t know what it is.’’