The Cove

3 Jul

Director: Louie Psihoyos (2009)

While I do try to avoid any overtly polemic reviews on this site, there are certain times when exceptions must be made to allow for more personal or vital issues to be broadcast – and this is one such occasion.

The Cove is an Oscar-award winning documentary directed by former National Geographic photographer, Louie Psihoyos, following the quest of Ric O’Barry, the former trainer of everyone’s favourite (captive) dolphin – Flipper. O’Barry was responsible for the capture and training of five wild dolphins who played this role but in doing so, soon came to realise the real consequences of captivity on wild marine animals behind the smiles and TV cameras and turned his attentions to freeing dolphins from captivity (leading to a persona non grata categorisation from SeaWorld) and raising awareness about the dangers of captivity and hunting.

The Cove is no tamed beast – as ambiguous and mysterious as its name, the eponymous cove lies hidden, of rather formerly hidden thanks to this film, in Taiji, Japan and is responsible for the massacre of 23,000 dolphins ever year. While this number is far greater than the number of whales killed in the Antarctic each year, strangely the plight of the Taiji dolphins is one that has been overlooked by the United Nations due to the bizarrely selective categorisation of cetaceans which means dolphins do not come under the jurisdiction and protection of the International Whaling Commission.

And so, as with any cause that is being ignored, O’Barry and Psihoyos take it upon themselves to gather proof to show to the IWC that Japan’s whaling industry is not as legitimate as they are leading (read: bribing) the IWC to believe. With a team including world champion free divers and Hollywood model makers alongside stadium roadies, we are given unique, unadulterated access to the true horrors that happen in The Cove, year upon year.

Shrouded in ‘Keep Out’ signs and barbed wire and patrolled by angry village fishermen with an unashamed hatred for any camera-toting Westerners or unfamiliar faces, there is no getting around the fact that these people do not want anyone getting close to the Cove.  Western tourists are interrogated upon arrival, followed by undercover police, creating an air of tension and blatant corruption – only exacerbated as a dolphin shaped boat floats by full of tourists who have paid their money to see ‘wild’ dolphins flipping their tricks in the ocean. This is where the problem lies  – and also where the business minded Japanese fishermen similarly turn their tricks in The Cove. Each year, thousands of migrating dolphins are lured into Taiji, herded by reverberating metal poles in the water to abuse and confuse the dolphin’s natural sonar, capturing them in huge nets. Once entrapped, local dolphinariums and aquariums come to see the wares on offer, choosing their dolphin of choice and paying extortionate prices, hoping to buy the next Flipper. However the real price to be paid is by the dolphins that don’t make the cut. After the buyers have gone home, the remaining dolphins are herded around the corner into The Cove itself. Here, thanks to the underwater microphones and covert cameras hidden in rocks placed during one of the team’s night-time missions, we are shown just why the local fishermen were so uneasy about cameras getting too close.

Trapped in nets, the fishermen take to their boats and proceed to kill the dolphins using knives and spears until the water, literally, runs red. It is a strange sight, one that is usually resigned to cheap horror films or theme park rides but as the footage continues, and a flipper frantically spasms in and out of the blood-red sea until it disappears, you realise this is no fabrication. No real comment is given to this discovered footage – nor does there doesn’t need to be. Previously banned from all IWC conferences, O’Barry straps a TV monitor playing the footage to himself and walks into the meeting, sombrely walking past the rows of worldwide delegates who seem to have turned a collective blind-eye to the true exploits of Japan and their fishing practices.

Japan’s only argument is that the sale of animals to aquariums brings in a huge revenue for Taiji, as does dolphin meat – which also forms part of the school lunch programme. A strange addition considering the majority of Japan were unaware dolphin was even eaten – a sensible statement considering the deathly level of mercury contained in dolphin meat – and now risking entering the systems of local children. Thankfully, The Cove does present a faint glimmer of hope – through the team’s lobbying, particularly within local governments, O’Barry’s team have made some accomplishments namely advocating the support of local politicians who have removed dolphin meat from the schools. But still Japan refuses to admit fault, or even the existence of the Taiji dolphin massacres – and so O’Barry’s work must go on.

These are striking and heart-stopping images that will stay with you, and certainly not ones for the fainthearted but in all fairness, we shirk away from too much horror in our lives and this is one that is already suffocated by political corruption and secrecy but hopefully this will soon change. Yes, as a documentary it is decidedly one-sided but in this case, there is really only one side. Delivered with suspense, sadness and abject awe at the efforts not only by team to film the footage but also of the government cover up and apparent ambivalence, The Cove is a truly powerful and compulsory documentary. I just can’t believe it took me so long to see it.

Read more about O’Barry’s work with Save Japan Dolphins here:

And sign the petition urging the United Nations to stop granting permits allowing these brutal killings to continue.


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