Raid on the Killing Cove
Credit: Peter Carrette
The reason we are here is Flipper. There were five dolphins that played him in the hugely popular TV show from the '60s, and they were all trained by the same man, a guy named Ric O'Barry. O'Barry had been with the navy's elite antisubmarine hunter-killer group. He had blown off his right thumb with an underwater shotgun while doing stunt work with sharks for the Bond movie Never Say Never Again. Working closely with dolphins, he had never ceased to be amazed by their uncanny intelligence, emotions, and communication skills.

"I knew they were self-aware 30 years before any of the studies confirmed it," O'Barry told me by phone before we left for Japan. "Every Friday night I'd pull a long extension cord and a TV out to the end of the dock and Flipper would watch Flipper. She loved it."

O'Barry is now the marine mammal specialist for the conservation group Earth Island Institute. He's 68, graying, tough, tattooed, and determined to stop the slaughter of dolphins in coves like Taiji. "The 13 boats leave the harbor at first light," he said. "They find a pod of dolphins or pilot whales and bang on long metal poles in the water. This creates an acoustical net. They drive them into the cove and net it off, then they kill them in the most brutal way imaginable. The healthiest females are selected for captivity, for dolphin shows, and aquariums. They're pulled out, away from their dying families."

The Japanese permit the killing of 23,000 dolphins and small cetaceans every year, according to environmental groups. Most are harpooned offshore, but the particularly horrific method used in Taiji – called a "drive hunt" – is also used in two other coves in Japan. One top dolphin scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that a Japanese aquarium official had said to her, "The government thinks of them as pests who eat all the fish. They tell us to kill them."

Sakae Hemmi, an environmentalist in Japan who has been documenting the slaughter for years, says local fishermen can get close to $10,000 for a live bottlenose dolphin and twice that for larger species. Those that are sold for food fetch only a fraction of that. "The meat goes to stores and school lunch programs, and it's dangerously high in mercury," O'Barry says. "If it weren't for the money involved in selling live dolphins, this industry would have rightfully died years ago."

For the last five years O'Barry has been standing beside the cove watching the killing. Sometimes he has to enter town in a wig and gauze mask so he won't be hassled by angry fishermen and the Japanese mafia. He had been trying to get the world's attention, but no one seemed to be listening. A break came two years ago when Louie Psihoyos learned of the cove. He had wanted to make a movie about the sea, something that would bring attention to its deterioration, and when he saw images from Taiji he knew he had his subject.