Killing Flipper

As much thriller as documentary, ‘The Cove’ blows the lid off Japan’s horrific dolphin fishery

Killing FlipperThe dolphin’s smile, says Richard O’Barry, is “nature’s greatest deception.” He should know. During the 1960s, O’Barry captured and trained dolphins, including the five that played Flipper in the TV series of the same name—which did more than anything to popularize the notion that marine mammals are happy to perform tricks in captivity. O’Barry became the world’s most famous dolphin trainer, earning enough from Flipper to buy a new Porsche each season. But his growing sense that the show’s dolphins were severely stressed was confirmed one day when Kathy, the dolphin that played Flipper most of the time, died in his arms. As O’Barry explained in a Maclean’s interview, dolphins are not automatic breathers, and Kathy “committed suicide by not taking her next breath.”

In death, she was still smiling. The next day, O’Barry was jailed for releasing dolphins from Miami’s Seaquarium. And he has dedicated the rest of his life to campaigning against the multi-billion-dollar dolphin captivity industry. “I spent 10 years trying to build that industry up,” he says, “and 38 years trying to tear it down.”

Finally, O’Barry is about to get the world’s attention. His efforts have inspired an astonishing documentary called The Cove, which blows the lid off the dirty little secret behind dolphin showbiz. This devastating exposé takes us to Taiji, a seaside town in Japan, where dolphins are captured for export to aquariums around the world. Thousands of others are slaughtered for their flesh, a mercury-laden meat that was fed to Japanese schoolchildren as part of a free but compulsory lunch program; kids were forced to clean their plates.

Since its premiere at Sundance in January, The Cove has been gathering momentum, stacking up prizes at one festival after another, including audience awards for most popular film at both Sundance and Toronto’s Hot Docs. The movie, which opens in Canada on Aug. 7, seems on track to be an Oscar sensation—An Inconvenient Truth for marine mammals. And the filmmakers are hoping that the scandal it provokes will embarrass the Japanese government into revising its hardline support of whaling and dolphin fishing, a policy that’s enforced by a media blackout forbidding criticism of the industry.

The Cove also represents a potent new prototype in the evolution of the eco-documentary as a mix of agit-prop journalism and pop entertainment. It’s being marketed as a thriller, an Oceans 11-style caper movie about a hand-picked squad on a special ops mission to penetrate a secret hideout of environmental horror. Activists have been protesting the Taija dolphin slaughter for years, playing a cat-and-mouse game with fishermen who try to stop them photographing the bay where the dolphins are trapped after boats drive them from their migration routes. But until now, no one had been able to document the cove around the corner where the slaughter takes place—a natural fortress surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, and protected by high gates with barbed wire and razor ribbons.

With a US$5-million budget financed by Jim Clark, the creator of Netscape, director Louie Psihoyos assembled a Mission Impossible team that drew on talents ranging from Hollywood to the military. Canadian air force veteran Simon Hutchins devised sophisticated unmanned drones, including a miniature model helicopter, to shoot aerial footage of the slaughter. Charles Hambleton, an adrenalin junkie and divemaster who worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, was in charge of “clandestine operations.” He obtained military-grade thermal cameras to monitor the movement of the guards in the dark. Model makers at George Lucas’s special effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic, created fake rocks designed to hide HD cameras in the cliffs. And two freedivers, including world-record holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, smuggled underwater cameras and hydrophones into the depths of the cove to shoot the slaughter from below.

As this small army descends on Taiji, they engage in a cloak-and-dagger dance with the police. Every time the crew members make a move, they are followed. “We had five hotel rooms, the police had five hotel rooms,” says Psihoyos. “Often we had several cars following us at the same time. We would switch cars, and use distraction techniques to draw guards out of the cove. We would go out in a decoy van to shoot temples and tuna farms with cops on our tail.” Although the crew repeatedly broke the law, for months they eluded authorities. But now, says the director, “there are warrants out for our arrrest for conspiracy to disrupt commerce.”

What’s ingenious about the film is that the slick intrigue of the covert operation ends up serving as a central narrative. It wasn’t planned that way. The military thermal cameras, for instance, were meant strictly for surveillance, until Hambleton suggested using them to gather material for a “making-of” documentary. Once the editors saw the spooky night-vision footage, they convinced the director to make it part of the film. “I resisted for a while,” he says, “but I realized we could make a kind of Oceans 11 film with all these amazing characters.”

Psihoyos, who had never made a movie before, is known as one of the world’s top photographers, with 18 years of experience at National Geographic. The American director is also a diver and ardent conservationist—he founded the Oceanic Preservation Society with Jim Clark in 2005. Psihoyos stumbled across the Taiji dolphin story at a conference in 2000. O’Barry was listed as a keynote speaker, but his appearance was cancelled after SeaWorld, one of the sponsors, objected. His curiosity piqued, Psihoyos looked up O’Barry, who then invited him to check out Taiji.

The film portrays this Japanese backwater as a kind of Twilight Zone town with a happy face and a dark secret. It’s a tourist attraction with a whale museum and an aquarium that has performing dolphins. Cartoon-like images of them adorn signs around town, and there are even sightseeing boats shaped like dolphins. “If you didn’t know what was going on,” says Psihoyos, “you’d think it’s a town that loves dolphins and whales.” The killing cove is well-hidden, but dolphin meat is served at the aquarium—you can actually eat Flipper while watching dolphins perform tricks.

Some 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in Japan every year, according to O’Barry, and Taiji is the world’s largest dolphin slaughterhouse. Ironically, what drives the carnage is the live captivity industry—the worldwide demand for fresh talent to perform in dolphinariums or swim-with-dolphin programs. Live dolphins can fetch up to US$150,000 each, while butchered ones are worth only about $600. The film shows Taiji’s fishermen driving herds of the animals toward the shore by suspending metal poles from their boats into the sea and banging on them to create a terrifying wall of sound—dolphins have super-sophisticated sonar. Once the animals are driven into pens by the shore, desirable young female bottlenose dolphins are separated for live capture, while the rest are reserved for slaughter.

Although dolphin aquariums often have an eco-friendly face, O’Barry insists that even the more humane ones are cruel. “The dolphin’s got a larger brain than the manager of the Vancouver Aquarium,” he says. “And yet its habitat is a concrete box. Is that stressful for an animal that is free-ranging and normally travels 40 miles a day? Of course it is—that’s why the mortality rate is so high in dolphin amusement parks.” O’Barry says it’s impossible to get accurate data because the industry hides the numbers. “The veterinarians fill out the reports, and having been around the industry for 50 years, I’ve never met one marine mammal vet who was loyal to the patient; they’re all loyal to the client.”

However, the issue that the filmmakers are counting on to rescue dolpins from both fishing and capture is not animal welfare. It’s mercury poisoning. Like all large sea creatures near the top of the food chain, dolphins contain high levels of mercury, which is the most toxic non-radioactive element on the planet. In high concentrations it can impair vision and hearing, destroy neurons, and produce effects similar to mental retardation. The Cove’s crew included DNA scientist Scott Baker, a marine mammal expert, who tested samples of “whale meat” in Tokyo markets that was supposed to be from the less contaminated southern oceans. In fact, some of it was dolphin meat containing 20 times Japan’s acceptable level of mercury. The crew’s tests prompted Taiji’s city commissioners to conduct their own tests on dolphin meat in the school lunch programs, and as a result it was removed from the lunches in the area.

Dining on whale and dolphin is not unusual in Japan, and is defended as part of the country’s cultural and nutritional heritage. In fact, the website for Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recommends a diet for pregnant women that includes regular portions of sperm whale, porpoise—and even bottlenose dolphin, which can have anywhere from five to 5,000 times Japan’s legal mercury level. But Psihoyos says there is “a systematic cover-up of mercury and dolphin hunting issues in Japan” that’s linked to government corruption and the yakuza— Japan’s mafia. “We don’t blame the Japanese people,” he says, because they are unaware of what’s going on. “Japanese people who have seen the film are shocked and em­barrassed.”

The Cove has been sold to distributors in some 40 countries, but so far Japan is not one of them. Psihoyos says the government is preventing the movie from being released there, “but it’s more important for it to be shown in Japan than anywhere.” Given the Internet, it will find a way in. And if the movie goes to the Oscars—which seems inevitable—Japan will be unable to ignore it.

As his awards pile up, Psyihoos says, “The biggest reward is if we can stop this horror show. We’re not trying to make a movie; we’re trying to start a movement.” Yet it’s not the message, or its harrowing footage of Taija’s bloodbath, that will draw audiences to The Cove. It’s the film’s value as real-life espionage thriller. Like Michael Moore’s documentaries, or An Inconvenient Truth, this is a movie that makes saving the world an entertaining prospect. So more than four decades after Richard O’Barry helped build an industry to drive dolphins from the wild with Flipper, they could be rescued from slaughter by catching another Hollywood wave.