It all started with Flipper, the beloved cetacean TV star that made us all dream of keeping dolphins in the backyard. Ric O’Barry, the man who captured and trained the five female dolphins who shared the starring role in the series, was once the world’s pre-eminent dolphin trainer, living a carefree life of luxury while establishing a firm bond with the intelligent, social, self-aware animals he came to love like family. One day, he had a rude awakening, when Kathy, one of the Flippers, committed a suicide of sorts in his arms, voluntarily closing her blowhole, choosing not to take another breath. As she sank to the bottom, lifeless, O’Barry, heart shattered, suddenly he realized what he had been blinding himself to all along; the dolphins wanted only to go home to the sea and their families. Days later, he found himself off the island of Bimini, attempting to cut a hole in the sea pen holding a captive dolphin. It was his first rescue attempt and his first arrest… and it would lead to many more.
In a lagoon in Taiji, off the coast of Japan, lies a shocking secret that a few desperate men will stop at nothing to keep hidden from the world. The sleepy seaside town is teeming with references to dolphins, killer whales and other gentle sea creatures, a devotion and adoration that seems sweet and innocent, but becomes all the more eerie once you realize what goes on in a hidden cove, surrounded by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs, right outside the town. It is here, under cover of night, that the fishermen of Taiji, driven by a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underhanded market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat, engage in an unseen hunt.
A live dolphin captured for a marine park show can fetch up to $150,000, although one killed for meat draws only about $600. The show dolphins may seem like the lucky ones, but over half of all captured dolphins will die within 2 years of their captivity. They must rapidly adjust to a new environment where they can no longer swim their usual 40 miles a day in open waters, engage with their social group or use their sonar properly.
O’Barry has been here before, many times. He recognizes most of the guards that yell and provoke, aiming hand-held video cameras in their faces to capture anything on tape that could warrant an arrest. A few years back he brought press photographers to capture these atrocities on film. But, accusations of doctoring photographs blunted the impact of the lenses aimed at The Cove that time.
This time, O’Barry is hellbent on acquiring the footage he needs to open the world’s eyes to the illegal inhumanities in the cove. He joins forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society; together, they assemble an “Oceans Eleven”-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers who will carry out an undercover operation to photograph the off-limits cove, while playing a cloak-and-dagger game with the local police (and Yakuza), who are hot on their trail.
The result is a provocative mix of Hollywood eco-adventure, investigative journalism and captivating nature footage, coming together in an urgent plea for help in the name of the 23,000 dolphins legally slaughtered in Japan every year. Despite all, it is a funny, gripping and hopeful film that will leave you feeling not disgusted or distraught but eager to help end the world’s injustices, one small cove at a time.
O’Barry thinks the U.S., in particular President Obama, can put more pressure on the Japanese. “All U.S. Presidents since Nixon have claimed to be against whaling (which is outlawed worldwide since 1986, but that prohibition only applies to whales, not smaller cetaceans like dolphins, in large part because of Japan’s opposition) but they have never done anything to stop it from continuing. They have let the status quo continue. Most politicians in the U.S. don’t know that the largest dolphin slaughter in the world takes place every year in Japan, so we are hopeful that this movie will really be a wake up call.”
Ric O’Barry comes across as a broken hero, he has sad eyes and is markedly destroyed by guilt, determined to win the battle against the industry he helped create. “I’ll tell you it’s very hard for me to watch The Cove — not because of what the audience sees but because of what they don’t see, which is the rest of my life — the births and death and jail cells and courtrooms that happened between the lines of what’s there on the screen. But nothing could have been more exciting for me than to see this film get 8 standing ovations at Sundance and to have people literally jumping up and asking “what can be done?” The main thing I want to say is that there is real hope on the horizon. I think there’s a good chance we can shut this cove down and if we can do that, it’s going to be a big step towards stopping all whaling of any kind. If people want to help, they should visit savejapandolphins.org.”
The Cove is directed by Louie Psihoyos and produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen and Fisher Stevens. The film is written by Mark Monroe. The executive producer is Jim Clark and the co-producer is Olivia Ahnemann. Find screenings near you on the website.