Raid on the Killing Cove
Credit: Peter Carrette
October 29, 01:00 hours

We load our surfboards and head out for Taiji. The OPS team left hours earlier with their cameras. Whatever happens, they will record it. We drive through empty streets, up deserted, dark highways. It's a long drive, so we chat to pass the time. Hayden tells me she grew up in suburban Palisades, New York. Her father is a retired New York City firefighter who lost many friends on 9/11. She's always loved animals, and when she met Jeff Pantukhoff of the conservationist group Whaleman Foundation at a Hollywood event and heard about the plight of whales, she decided to accompany him to Mexico, to Baja California's San Ignacio Lagoon. From the moment she saw gray whales in their natural habitat, she was a committed conservationist.

A half-hour outside of the village, just at first light, we all crowd into the one van with the surfboards. We will have to be fast to get out into the cove while the killing is taking place, without being blocked or arrested.

At dawn we park behind the big humpback and calf statue, hunker down below window level, and wait. Everybody is a little scared. The fishermen have spears and long knives. They are known to get violent in the presence of undesired visitors.

Charles the guitarist is on a mountain, in camo, filming down into the inlet. At just after 7 am he radios Louie on another mountaintop, who in turn calls Joe, our driver.

"They're killing," Louie yells. "Go! Go!"

Joe pulls out. To hide that he's an American, he's wearing a surgeon's mask and sunglasses. He speeds the 300 yards through a tunnel and pulls to an abrupt stop. "Now!"

We slip out, run to the rear, grab boards, and dash down the steps to the public beach. No police. Ten running steps across the gravel and we splash onto our boards. Then a sprint paddle out to the rock spur that guards the corner of the killing cove. As we paddle out we can see the open ocean beyond the mouth of the lagoon, a pale tint of rose in the water. We can see a net right in front of us. We paddle over it. Then we see the pilot whales. Ten or 15, silvery gray, pressed in panic against a far net. There had been close to 30 yesterday. They huddle tighter as we get closer. We clear the corner and look into the cove. It is thick red, like paint. An entire inlet of blood.

We form a tight circle. We sit on the boards and make a kind of prayer. The large dolphins beyond us look our way and visibly calm down. They flow together. A baby sticks its head up. Then a boat cruises around an outer point of rock, a long, open motorboat. The fisherman throttles when he sees us. Eighty yards beyond the pilot whales are two more nets, and he skims over them. Even if we could have cut this near net, there were these others, and the kill boats beyond them. The whaler wheels dangerously close, standing, yelling. He motions for us to go. I look around our little circle. Everyone seems calm, poised. The whaler revs his motor and tries to frighten us with the propeller. He comes so close to Hayden's leg where she sits on her board that she has to move. Furious, he circles once more and heads to the beach.

Rastovich tells us to paddle out, not in. Closer to the dolphins. We do. It's a bold move, as the cops must be scrambling. We are yards away from the pilot whales now. The little pod huddles against the net, and we can hear them breathe, hollow blows over the slick water. We float in the blood of the other half of their pod. Hayden begins to cry quietly. Then Isabel. Then Hannah. Then, to my surprise, so do I. This is what editors call going native, getting too close to a story. I don't give a fuck.

Soon the boat speeds out to us again, and this time there are four whalers aboard. They feint with the prop. We hold the circle. One yells wildly, picks up a long forked pole, and jabs it at the closest boards. He hits Hannah in the thigh, then shoves Hayden's board. Both women stay calm, keeping their balance. Behind them I notice the pilot whales going crazy, thrashing against the net. Okay, enough, Rastovich says. "Let's paddle in. Stay against the rocks." We break the circle and push hard for the beach. Hayden is in front of me. I see her wade out of the water and collapse to her knees, sobbing without restraint. A local whaler rushes up to her, roaring like an enraged bear. Hayden's Hollywood mom, waiting for us on the beach, perfectly coiffed and made-up, steps in front of the big man, and, with a face fired with mockery and scorn, says, "Whoooo! Whoooo!" The man pulls up, shocked, and backs away. Go, girlfriend.

We throw the boards in the back of the van, duck to the floor, and speed away. Forty-five seconds later sirens wail and police cars speed past us, going the other way.

Two hours later, at the edge of Wakayama Prefecture, we are pulled over by 13 police cars and more than 30 cops. They are very polite. They write down our flight information and take photos of our passports. They want to know who crossed the nets. They take down the names. "Conspiracy to interfere with commerce" is a jailable offense. The police back in Taiji want to make arrests. "Some sensitivity about dolphins," they say cryptically. But these cops wave us on. Momentary reprieve as the authorities figure out what to do with these six gaijin interlopers.

Back in Osaka we all change our flights and leave the country before the higher-ups decide to make someone pay.