The Cove opens with an artfully composed nighttime shot of a lighthouse presiding over a picturesque ocean inlet. But that scenic bay, located in Taiji, Japan, holds a brutal secret.
The film cuts to the inside of a car, suddenly grainy and alive with hand-held urgency, and focuses on a man wearing a low-brimmed cap and a surgical mask. The man is Ric O’Barry, and he is one of the few people outside Taiji (a place he calls “a little town with a really big secret”) who knows the truth about what occurs in that cove.
“I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally,” director Louie Psihoyos (a former National Geographic photographer and cofounder of the Oceanic Preservation Society) says in voiceover as the car lurches into action, with O’Barry crouching behind the wheel in an attempt to pass himself off as an elderly Japanese man. Why Psihoyos and his crew couldn’t tell this story legally—and why O’Barry has to disguise himself—becomes clear as the film, a gut-wrenching blend of espionage thriller, documentary and environmental rallying cry, unfolds.
O’Barry gained prominence as the man who captured and trained the bottlenose dolphins used for the 1960s TV show Flipper. The popularity of the show was fueled by the antics of the dolphins, and in turn paved the way for aquatic theme parks like Sea World, where dolphin shows and petting pools are popular attractions.
Although O’Barry says he knew even at that early date of scientific study that dolphins had keen intelligence and self-awareness, it took the death of one of the primary dolphins who portrayed Flipper to turn him from trainer to activist.
“She swam into my arms and took a breath,” O’Barry describes, inhaling, “then didn’t take another one.”
In moments, the dolphin, named Kathy, sunk, dead. Unlike humans, cetaceans—the family to which whales, dolphins and porpoises belong—are conscious breathers. O’Barry believes that Kathy, unhappy from her long captivity, chose to kill herself.
“The next day,” O’Barry continues, “I was in jail for trying to free dolphins … I was going to free every captive dolphin I could.”
In the ensuing years, O’Barry has freed many dolphins from dire conditions. Perhaps nowhere are conditions more dire than in Taiji.
During dolphin migrations, dozens of ships equipped with giant metal tubes that hang into the water are sent from Taiji ports. As schools of dolphins pass, crews bang on the tubes, creating a wall of sound that drives the dolphins away from the ships and toward the bay; the boats pursue, steering the dolphins into the confines of a lagoon, where they are enclosed by nets.
Individual dolphins (primarily female bottlenose like those used on Flipper) are then purchased by marine parks and swim-with-a-dolphin programs around the world, fetching up to $150,000 each in deals brokered by Taiji’s whale museum (where visitors can enjoy dolphin and whale meat as they take in a dolphin or whale exhibit) with profits shared by the village and its fisherman. The remaining animals, however, are not set free; they are rounded up into a concealed cove away from public site.
It was the chance to expose what occurred in that cove that united O’Barry and Psihoyos. “You’re either an activist or an inactivist,” Psihoyos says. “I wanted to stop this.”
But it was not an easy task. O’Barry himself attempted to breach the cove, which lies amid a protected wilderness area surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs (which in turn are topped with high fences and razor wire) on previous occasions with reporters from the BBC, London Times and Time magazine. Likewise, efforts from a Greenpeace group and members of Surfers for Cetaceans were thwarted by Taiji police and hostile fisherman.
Psihoyos and his crew initially approached various branches of Japanese government, only to be stifled at every turn. At one point the filmmakers are shown a map depicting X-ed off areas. A member of Psihoyos’ team slyly asks if they can keep the map so they know what areas are off-limits.
As Psihoyos points out, the map served as their template “of where we had to go.” Indeed, X sometimes marks the spot.
With map in hand and sanctioned filming not an option, Psihoyos assembled what he calls an “Ocean’s 11” crew, comprised of a modeler for Industrial Light and Magic (tasked with constructing rock-like cases for hiding cameras), free divers (charged with planting sound equipment in the lagoon) and various ex-military personnel and techies sympathetic to the cause. In addition to his team, Psihoyos rounded up an impressive array of equipment, including thermal cameras, underwater cameras, high-tech sound recording devices and even a blimp painted like a dolphin and named Kathy in honor of Flipper (“The theory was even if we got caught, everyone loves a balloon,” Psihoyos explains. “Kids, police, everyone.”).
What the filmmakers captured is as hard to watch as it is hard-earned. In a montage that is handled as artfully as possible without diminishing its impact, viewers experience the combined visual and audio horror of helpless animals being brutally and senselessly slaughtered.
Dead dolphins also fetch a profit, though only a modest $600 each, and are sold for their meat, which is often packaged and retailed as whale meat.
The Cove is filled with unexpected twists and intriguing side stories—not the least of which are tales of fish at marine parks being dosed with antacid before being fed to dolphins to treat ulcers developed from the stresses of captivity and regimented performing; seeing evidence of the dangerous mercury levels contained in the dolphin meat; and watching corrupt Japanese officials bribe poor nations in the largely toothless International Whaling Commission to support Japan’s ongoing efforts to roll back whaling restrictions.
The film—recently released on DVD and Blu-ray after an award-winning festival tour and brief theatrical run—is about more than the plight of dolphins terrorized into a cove where the largest killing of their kind takes place; it’s about man’s ever-dwindling link to nature and our collective human morals.
For all of the film’s haunting images and thrilling narrative construction, The Cove strikes its most resonant chords in the words of the impassioned O’Barry, who says of the human barbarism that occurs in that hidden bay, “If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.”
The movie’s action website.
The official site for Save Japan Dolphins, Ric O’Barry’s effort.
Surfers for Cetaceans’ website.
My favorite review of The Cove.