Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Cove

"Flipper is the Anti-Christ"

23,000. Remember that number.

Ric O' Barry is on a mission.

Because he feels responsible for it.

In 1962, there were only three "dolphinariums" in the world. Then O'Barry, for his job, caught and trained five female bottle-nose dolphins for the television show "
Flipper." Now, well here's a partial list of them; we love them to death, those dolphins, and they're a multi-million dollar industry in theme park revenues. Trouble is, for dolphins, the venues are less than ideal, causing stress and depression in the mammals, killing them long before their time in the Wild. O'Barry realtes a poignant and tragic tale about Kathy, the lead dolphin of "Flipper," an experience that so shook him to his cartiledge that the next day he began to free dolphins from their servitude. They never had a promise of "Arbeit macht Frei." And O'Barry, who before Kathy's death, held the chains ("What did I care?" he states frankly. "I was getting a new Porsche every year!") has dedicated his life of not just raising awareness, but freeing the dolphins, wherever they're kept captive.

For years now, O'Barry has been trying to alert the world of one of Japan's dirty little secrets, one in which the theme parks are complicit: the wholesale slaughter of dolphins in a particularly inaccessible cove in Taiji harbor.

The process runs like this: dolphins are rounded up into nets inside the cove by fleets of ships with pipes extended down into the waters. The fishermen pound on the pipes, confusing the sonar of the dolphins who flee the sound right into the nets. The lucky ones, the trainable ones, are bought at $1500 a nose by trainers from the various theme-parks and dolphinariums. Then the rest are herded into that protected body of water and in the words of Japan's representative at the rather toothless International Whaling Commission "instantly and humanely."

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

But pictures speak louder than words. So, no photographs are allowed at the Taiji Cove. The police exert pressure, the fisherman harass and push and block with threatening placards and one particularly loathsome fishing employee for the Taiji Whale Museum (through which the moneys are funnelled),* dubbed "Private Space" by O'Barry stands in front of any cameras, screaming into the microphone, and taking pictures himself for police evidence. O'Barry is told bluntly: "If the world finds out what happens here, we'll be shut down." When the Japanese fishing industry was restricted from hunting whales due to ICW's whaling ban (which they skirt through technicalities), dolphin and porpoise deaths increased by a factor of 3.

O'Barry got together with filmmaker Louie Psihoyos to accomplish one thing—get photographic evidence of the dolphin slaughter. O'Barry is infamous among the Seaworld community (In the documentary, he's asked "How many times have you been arrested?" "This year?" is his immediate reply) and found himself permanently banned from IWC meetings. In Japan, he's something of a cause celebre, followed by a team of police who follow his every move, effectively neutralizing him.

Psihoyos then uses his best resources to form a team, "Mission: Impossible" style to get that hard evidence. He hires photographic experts with thermal cameras and HD set-up's. A concert roadie knows how to transport everything. He hires world-record holding deep-sea free-divers. And for gadgets, who better than Industrial Light and Magic who create camouflage stones for the cameras to operate in—right down to the color of the native stones. With O'Barry as a decoy for the police, the Psihoyos-dubbed "Oceans 11" team steal to the Cove at night and plant their devices—sequences that are just as nail-biting as fiction, only real.

The footage they retrieve is harrowing. The dolphins are stabbed repeatedly while the cove-waters turn a vicious red, and the excruciating pain the dolphins experience is obvious in their death-thoes—writhing in panic, sometimes thrashing their tails in agony against the water's surface, while the slaughter goes on and on and on, adolescent dolphins penned up just a few feet away. What must they be feeling? "A collective horror," one of the team calls it. "Mind-boggling." I'll warn people of violence in movies with a "not for the Squeamish." But this is for the Squeamish. Everybody should see this, especially the sensitive, who might rise up in righteous indignation, and maybe refuse to take kids to see dolphin shows.

And now, it's September—the time when the dolphin slaughter starts (and lasts through March). Has "The Cove" had an effect? This Japanese web-site is doubtful. But, the World is watching, and unless the Japanese government protests it, this earnest, passionate documentary-thriller will run away with the Oscar for Best Documentary this year.

Oh. 23,000 is the number of dolphins killed every year. And could be killed this year.

* The Museum has a lovely sculpture with a plaque that disingenuously states: "Pray for the Departed Souls of the Whales." Or maybe it's "Prey on," translations being what they are...

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