Dying to make us happy: The bloody truth behind the dolphinarium

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Ever since 'Flipper' died in his arms, Richard O'Barry has been on a mission to stop the killing and capture of dolphins. This month, as Andrew Johnson reports, that ambition moves one step closer – when the annual slaughter in Taiji, Japan, is exposed to the world in a new film

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Richard (Ric) O'Barry is a marked man. Whenever he travels to Taiji, a tiny former whaling village on the southern coast of Japan, he has to wear a disguise. There are people there who would like to kill him. Or, at the very least, give him a severe beating and run him out of town. Nevertheless, he goes there every year – he has just returned – dodging police tails and shadowy underworld figures as he tries to put an end to the annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins that he inadvertently helped to start.

"I spend more time with people who want to kill me than with my four-year-old daughter and my wife," he says. O'Barry lives in Coconut Grove in Florida, and though he will be 70 next month, he has the vigour and passion of a young man. And, like many activists, he is thorny, single-minded, committed and difficult. He has to be.

During the 1960s, O'Barry pioneered the underwater training of dolphins for the American film and television show Flipper. A kind of aquatic Lassie, Flipper lived in a fictional marine park in Florida and helped out with sea rescues and crime busting, while keeping an eye on Sandy and Bud, the children of the park's warden and the (human) heroes of the show.

O'Barry, a former Navy diver, started out in the Miami Seaquarium, one of only three dolphinariums in the world at the time. He caught five female bottlenose dolphins in the wild to play the role of Flipper (females are less aggressive and so don't come with the scars that male dolphins inevitably pick up). The five were called Patty, Kathy, Scotty, Squirt and Suzy. The role of Flipper was played predominantly by Suzy, however, and she and O'Barry formed a close bond.

Until then no one had trained dolphins underwater, and it was O'Barry's diving skills that came to the fore. "They'd give me the script and it said Flipper does this, and I'd have to figure out a way to get her to do it," O'Barry says. It was a good life. He lived in the house used in the filming, at the Seaquarium in Florida, with the five dolphins just down the beach.

The show was a worldwide hit and introduced millions of people to the grace and intelligence of dolphins. Unsurprisingly, they wanted to see these amazing creatures for themselves – to watch them walk on their tails, or leap high out of the water through hoops. And so dolphinariums sprung up all over the world – there are now more than a hundred – giving rise to a multibillion-dollar trade in live dolphins.

At the time no one, least of all O'Barry, knew the effects of captivity on dolphins: that, free in the oceans, they swim 40 to 100 miles a day; that the chemicals in the water causes health problems and blindness; that the life span of a captive dolphin is reduced from around 25 years in the wild to about five; that half of all dolphins die within 90 days of capture.

"Very few people see dolphin captivity as a problem," O'Barry says. "The dolphin is smiling, the music is playing, the sun is out, everyone's having fun. What's not to like?

"But apart from the other problems, they also have a problem with inbreeding. The live trade is banned in Europe and America. They want to capture dolphins in the wild but they can't import them in the US or Mexico or Europe. Some are imported through Turkey, however. The Dominican Republic has a large dolphin show called Ocean World. They tried to import 12 dolphins from Taiji for around £1m. We went to the government and asked them to stop it, which they did. So now Ocean World is suing me for $300m. I go to court on 2 November."

The turning point for O'Barry came in 1970. The film Flipper had been released in 1963, and the spin-off TV series ran from 1964 to 1967. After that, Suzy retired and remained in the Miami Seaquarium where she was looked after by O'Barry. He had started to notice her unhappiness, however, and when she died in his arms, he was convinced she'd committed suicide. "Dolphins are not automatic air breathers," he says. "Every breath for them is a conscious effort. She looked me right in the eye, took a breath and held it. She just sank to the bottom of the water. That had a profound effect on me. So the next day I started a campaign to stop the capture of dolphins. It was Flipper's death that made me realise that dolphins shouldn't be in captivity."

Taiji is a small fishing port on the south-east coast of Japan. Each year thousands of dolphins swim along their migratory routes past its beautiful coastline. Tourists flock to see them and, during the summer, pleasure boats, often shaped to look like dolphins or whales, take thousands of visitors out to spot pods of the frolicking cetaceans whose mysterious "smile" and apparent intelligence holds a timeless fascination for humans.

On the surface, Taiji is a town that seems to love the dolphin – there are pictures of the creatures everywhere. Taiji, however, is also the biggest supplier of live dolphins to seaquariums, dolphinariums and "swim with dolphin" programmes in the world. It also slaughters them.

Once the visitors have gone home at the end of the summer another, more sinister, flotilla takes to the waves and the dark secret of Taiji is played out. These boats have long pipes attached to their sides which run the full height of the boats and trail deep into the water. The boats will surround a pod of unlucky dolphins while the crew bang the top of the pipes with hammers and the resultant cacophony, transmitted into the sea, plays havoc with the dolphins' inbuilt sonar and communication system. The boats form a line and herd the confused and disoriented dolphins into a small cove (see box, above). Once they are corralled, a net is strung across the entrance to prevent their escape.

The dolphins, crammed into the small bay like a herd of penned cattle, are left overnight to calm down. Then, representatives of dolphinariums, desperate to replenish the dwindling gene pool of their captive money-spinners, wade into the water to pick off the best of the crop.

A few will be plucked from the teeming cove of Taiji for a short lifetime of captivity in the world's dolphinariums. Those left behind will be butchered one by one, either by having their throats cut or with a pike driven into their neck, so the meat can be sold in supermarkets, in a slaughter that will turn the water in the bay crimson. It is the live dolphin ' business, however, that underpins the slaughter. "Each live dolphin is worth $154,000 [about £96,000] and the business is worth $2bn [about £1.2bn]," O'Barry says. "This is the economic underpinning of the slaughter. That's what's rewarding the fishermen. In The Cove [the documentary film about O'Barry and the Oceanic Preservation Society's work in Taiji, released this month] we see 30 dolphin trainers in the water. When we go to dolphin amusement parks they are displaying these dolphins."

Except in a few isolated whaling communities, there is no history or tradition of eating dolphin meat in Japan. The fishermen of Taiji and the yakuza, the Japanese mafia who are believed to have a big hand in the whaling and dolphin business, are therefore attempting to create a market by claiming it is a traditional food. They also pass it off as whale meat, O'Barry says.

The slaughter in Taiji will continue from now until the end of the season in March, by which time about 2,300 dolphins will have been killed or shipped off to an aquatic coliseum (about 10 per cent of the 23,000 dolphins and porpoises that will be killed in Japanese waters this year).

While activists have known about the slaughter for years, until recently, no one was able to get into the cove to witness the scale of the killing first-hand, or to capture it on film to show the world. The land surrounding the bay, a national park, is fenced off with barbed wire and patrolled during the dolphin season by guards and dogs. O'Barry had started going to Taiji in 2002 to campaign against the slaughter. "I'd known about it for 15 years," he says, "but I didn't do anything. I assumed that people were campaigning against it. I was shocked to learn there was no opposition."

In 2005, the film-maker Louie Psihoyos contacted O'Barry, asking if he could follow him around with a film camera. O'Barry agreed and Psihoyos quickly decided he wanted to film, for the first time, the annual dolphin slaughter of Taiji. The horrific spectacle of the actual slaughter is handled with decorum. What makes The Cove so fascinating, however, is the story of how the film-makers and O'Barry managed to get into the cove to film what happened there.

To do so, Psihoyos gathered a crack team – all experts in their various fields – and mounted a clandestine operation worthy of a spy thriller to plant secret cameras and listening devices. The team was trailed by the local police throughout their time in Taiji – at one point in the film a panicked "abort, abort" is shouted through the radios when something, which turns out to be a wild animal, is spotted.

"I always felt in danger," Psihoyos adds. "We were under 24-hour police surveillance. There was always a car in the hotel parking lot which followed us to our rendezvous. The reality was much more dangerous than it comes across in the film. We were concerned for our lives. The yakuza showed up, too. It was the middle of the night. These fishermen carry big knives. Anything could have happened and the authorities wouldn't have cared too much about us."

The endeavour makes for tense viewing. The team are constantly followed by sinister men in white cars as they drive around Taiji. They are also confronted by angry fishermen. The climactic operation, undertaken after dark, is filmed on a shaky hand-held camera through night-vision equipment.

At one point, the team fears it has been spotted as the free divers are still underwater and there is a tense wait for them to surface so they can flee before the dark figures who seem to be rushing towards them reach them.

In the end, the underwater cameras were of little use; the sea quickly turned red when the killing began. The sound from the underwater microphones – dolphins make voluble clicks – was deeply shocking, however.

"There is an arrest warrant out for me for trespass," Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer, says. "Which is a problem, because the film is going to be shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival [TIFF] and I would like to go."

Ironically, O'Barry points out, the best hope for the dolphins is the pollution of the seas. Analysis of dolphin meat shows it contains high levels of mercury. Mercury poisoning of seafood is a particularly resonant issue in Japan (see box, this page). Dolphin meat from Taiji, taken from supermarket shelves, has been shown to contain levels of mercury up to 10 times higher than considered safe. The analysis has been carried out by several groups, including O'Barry and his team as well as in research conducted by the Universities of Hokkaido and Daiichi. This exposure led the state assembly of Wakayama, the prefecture in which Taiji lies, to remove dolphin meat from the school-meals programme in Taiji. O'Barry says the meat was being given free to schools in a cynical attempt to create a market. Supermarkets are also increasingly removing dolphin meat from their shelves.

"The fishermen were livid when the meat was taken off supermarket shelves," O'Barry says. "They blame it on me. At the heart of it is the yakuza, who are very involved in fisheries and whaling. There's no telling what they will do. If you have a problem in Japan you call the yakuza and whoever is causing the problem disappears. We are up against fishermen who are pushed to the edge and aren't going to take it any more. We've shown their meat is contaminated."

At first O'Barry and Psihoyos feared that the TIFF (where, this month, The Cove will be shown for the first time in Japan) would not screen the film due to the cultural climate in Japan. But pressure from Hollywood stars such as Ben Stiller, who has become involved in the campaign since seeing The Cove in America, forced a change of mind.

"They weren't going to show it," O'Barry says. "It was only after Stiller and his Hollywood friends called the director of the festival and condemned the censorship and hypocrisy [this year's TIFF has a green theme, with green carpets instead of red ones] that they agreed to the film being shown."

For O'Barry, the battle will not be over until the slaughter at Taiji is stopped. While the film-makers have gone on to different projects, he is once again in Taiji trying to end the carnage that he, inadvertently, helped bring about all those years ago with Flipper.

The climax of The Cove is an International Whaling Commission meeting in which the Japanese lawyer plays down the scale of the slaughter. O'Barry, wearing a flat-screen television on his chest like a sandwich board, gatecrashes the meeting and causes mayhem as he displays footage of the slaughter captured for The Cove. "This all started in 1970, but I never planned to do it for the next 40 years," O'Barry says. "When I started campaigning for dolphins in the 1970s I was coming from a place of guilt. Flipper was the best and worst thing that happened to dolphins. It made people aware of them but it created this multimillion-dollar industry. This wasn't a chosen career, and I don't feel guilty any more. It's not something I want to do. It just happened. I can't stop now, though. Not with Taiji about to be exposed."

The Cove has already caused an international outcry and dolphins caught in Taiji this year have been released. Psihoyos adds that The Cove is also a testament to what one inspired and dedicated person can achieve. "It shows that one passionate person can make a difference," he says. "You can change things if you are dedicated. We can stop this horror show. It's a win for dolphins, a win for Japan and a win for the environment." n



'The Cove' is released in cinemas nationwide on 23 Oct. For more information about Richard O'Barry's campaign, visit www.dolphinproject.org

Cove breakers

How Taiji's secret was filmed

Mercury rising

The Minamata mystery solved

The film-makers behind The Cove faced enormous difficulties bringing the slaughter of the dolphins to the public's attention. The geography of the cove, in Japan's coastal town of Taiji, meant that Richard O'Barry and director Louie Psihoyos had to use a mixture of stealth and expertise to film the fishermen's actions.

O'Barry and Psihoyos raised $2.5m in the planning stages for the documentary, then enlisted a team of activists and divers to assist them. The team started by going to the land areas of the cove at night, dressed in black, to place cameras disguised as rocks in strategic positions to film the killing. Other cameras onshore were able to record the Japanese divers whose job is to bring harpooned dolphins to the surface of the water.

Then, professional freedivers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack placed an underwater camera near the shore, where the dolphin's blood collects. They also put underwater microphones nearby to pick up the dying dolphins' cries. The cameras filmed those dolphins selected to be transported to aquariums being moved away from the cove to another area (top right of graphic, above), while the "rejected" animals enter the constricted area, top left, and are slaughtered.

A dolphin-shaped "blimp" (top, with Psihoyos far left in picture) was launched to get aerial footage of the dolphins' plight, but didn't manage to capture any film: it did, however, distract the Japanese authorities. Also in the aerial unit was a mini-helicopter, which filmed the fishermen – taken together, these scenes form a dramatic section of The Cove, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival in the US.

In April 1956 a mysterious disease broke out in the factory town of Minamata on the west coast of southern Japan. It particularly affected children and was first noticed in a five-year-old girl who was having difficulty walking and speaking. The symptoms of what became known as Minamata disease came over people without warning. By October 1956, 40 cases of the disease had been recorded and14 people had died.

The cause was soon traced to mercury poisoning, caused by high levels of the element in the seafood caught in the bay and eaten. The Chisso Corporation's chemical plant, which dumped wastewater into the Minamata bay, was immediately suspected of being the cause.

Then, in 1965, a second outbreak of the disease occurred in Niigata, about 850 miles to the north. Again, this was caused by a factory sinking its toxic waste into the sea. Only in 1968 did the government admit Minamata disease was "a disease of the central nervous system... caused by long-term consumption, in large amounts, of fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay", and that the poisoning was caused by mercury due to wastewater deposits from the Chisso plant.

In all, as of 2001, 2,265 victims had been recognised (1,784 of whom had died). More than 10,000 people were paid financial compensation from Chisso, which by 2004 had paid out $86m ( about£53m) in compensation. AJ

Cover breakers: How Taiji's secret was filmed

The filmmakers behind 'The Cove' faced enormous difficulties bringing the slaughter of the dolphins to the public's attention. The geography of the cove, in Japan's coastal town of Taiji, meant that Ric O'Barry and director Louie Psihoyos had to use a mixture of stealth and expertise to film the fishermen's actions.

O'Barry and Psihoyos raised $2.5m in the planning states for the documentary, then enlisted a team of activists and divers to assist them. The team started by going to the land areas of the cove at night, dressed in black, to place cameras disguised as rocks in strategic positions to film the killing. Other cameras onshore were able to record the Japanese divers whose job is to bring harpooned dolphins to the surface of the water.

Then professional freedivers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack placed an underwater camera near the shore, where the dolphin's blood collects. They also put underwater microphones nearby to pick up the dying dolphins' cries.

The cameras filmed those dolphins selected to be transported to aquariums being moved away from the cove to another area (top right of graphic above), while the 'rejected' animals enter the constricted area, top left, and are slaughtered. A dolphin-shaped 'blimp' (top, Psihoyos is left of picture) was launched to get aerial footage of the dolphins' plight, but didn't manage to capture any film: it did, however, distract the Japanese authorities. Also in the aerial unit was a mini-helicopter, which did film the fishermen - taken together, these scenes form a dramatic climax to 'The Cove', which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival in the US.

Mercury rising: The Minamata mystery solved

In April 1956 a mysterious disease broke out in the factory town of Minamata on the west coast of southern Japan. It particularly affected children and was first noticed in a five-year-old girl who was having difficulty walking and speaking. The symptoms of what became known as Minamata disease came over people without warning. By October 1956, 40 cases of the disease had been recorded and14 people had died.

The cause was soon traced to mercury poisoning, caused by high levels of the element in the seafood caught in the bay and eaten. The Chisso Corporation's chemical plant, which dumped wastewater into the Minamata bay, was immediately suspected of being the cause.

Then, in 1965, a second outbreak of the disease occurred in Niigata, about 850 miles to the north. Again, this was caused by a factory sinking its toxic waste into the sea. Only in 1968 did the government admit Minamata disease was "a disease of the central nervous system... caused by long-term consumption, in large amounts, of fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay", and that the poisoning was caused by mercury due to wastewater deposits from the Chisso plant.

In all, as of 2001, 2,265 victims had been recognised (1,784 of whom had died). More than 10,000 people were paid financial compensation from Chisso, which by 2004 had paid out $86m ( about£53m) in compensation. AJ

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