As in the classic butterfly effect metaphor, it’s often remarkable how the most innocuous and innocent of events can lead to the most disastrous consequences. In the early ’60s, Ric O’Barry became famous for capturing and training the dolphins used in the Flipper TV series. At the time, O’Barry says, there were no manuals on how to train dolphins; the producers would simply tell him what they needed, and he would work with the dolphins in order to achieve it. But after one of the Flipper dolphins named Cathy died in his arms, O’Barry says he had a revelation that it was morally wrong to keep dolphins in captivity. He believes that dolphins have self-awareness and consciousness and that Cathy even committed suicide when she swam into his arms and stopped breathing because she was so depressed over being in captivity. Ironically, the popularity of the show itself drove up the popular demand for dolphins, which increased dolphin hunting and the amount of dolphins in captivity.
Throughout the years, O’Barry has been arrested many times for interfering in dolphin captures, working to set them free even at the cost of his own freedom. One day he became aware of the annual dolphin drive hunting that happens in Taiji, Japan and has sought to expose its brutality ever since. Taiji is a small fishing village that, like so many fishing villages in Japan, has been hurt by the increasing shortages of fish and the 1980s ban on whaling. The dolphin drive hunt begins on September 1st and involves a small group of fishermen using sound, to which dolphins are sensitive, to lure them into a small cove where they capture them. They then seek to sell a few to become show dolphins; these sell for around $150,000 a piece. The rest, however, they herd into a concealed corner of the cove where none can enter and they kill them—much as if they were hunting whales—and sell them for their meat.
O’Barry himself is like a wanted man in Taiji, one whom the local fishermen hate and have done everything in their power to have arrested. Considering that even the local officials keep such a watchful eye on him, it’s a small miracle this film got made at all. The bulk of the film sees an elaborate plan involving O’Barry, a member of the Oceanic Preservation Society and several others sneaking into the cove at night to plant hidden cameras in order to record the slaughter. The hidden cameras were made by Industrial Light and Magic (the people behind Star Wars) and placed inside faux (but incredibly realistic looking) rocks and birds’ nests. The team even took with them military-grade thermal cameras that allowed them to observe the movements of guards at night.
The majority of the film plays out like a mix of propaganda and espionage thriller, with the latter parts being reminiscent of another award-winning documentary from recent years, Man On Wire. However, unlike Man On Wire, The Cove’s “real life” drama feels more than a little manipulative, artificial and lacking in believable, dynamic personalities; we never really feel as if the team is in danger of getting caught, considering there doesn’t seem to be anyone really patrolling the cove at night. As propaganda, however, it’s riveting and eye opening, though it will likely provoke thinking viewers to wonder just how much of what’s stated is true, how much is exaggerated, how much is misleading and how much is downright false. One would certainly question, for instance, what right the U.S. would have to demand that the Japanese stop killing dolphins when we kill cows and chickens daily. Using an unfalsifiable argument like the intelligence, consciousness and spirituality of dolphins doesn’t seem enough to declare their massacre immoral.
It seems that the makers of the film realized that as well, and if they can’t get the viewer on an emotional and sympathetic level, then they have a back-up plan to get at them on a self-preservative, fear level. That’s where the mercury argument comes in. Supposedly, due to the pollution of power plants, the levels of mercury have risen dangerously in sea-life and the problem gets worse as you move up the food chain. The film brings up Minamata disease caused by severe mercury poisoning that, as of 2001, has claimed 2265 victims and killed 1784.
The film cites that the EPA recommends that fish sold shouldn’t contain more than .4 PPM (parts per million) of mercury, while one sample of dolphin meat contains a whopping 2000 PPM. Though likely an extreme example, the consensus seems to be that most whale and dolphin meat is well over the recommended PPM. This meat is then packaged as more expensive whale meat and sold to unsuspecting consumers, or even “donated” to schools for children to eat. O’Barry and others claim that the Japanese public is unaware of the dolphin slaughters and this is because of a national cover-up and blackout that starts in the government and spreads to the media, who doesn’t report it. The individuals they interviewed seemed totally ignorant of the issue and horrified that such a thing was happening.
Wherever one stands on the morality issue, it’s hard to deny that there is a heightened modern awareness of mercury in fish, which is more of a global issue than a Japanese issue. Even though O’Barry and others in the film argue convincingly that the sale of dolphin meat poses a severe health risk to individuals, one can’t shake the feeling that this argument feels like a fear tactic meant to achieve their activist goals of freeing dolphins from captivity and preventing their slaughter. But on a sheer cinematic level, the film undeniably packs a punch. The footage taken from those hidden cameras, which includes speared and profusely bleeding dolphins swimming and struggling for their lives, is chilling. Perhaps most effective is an underwater camera that captures the flood of dolphin blood that turns the seas red, almost like the opening of a James Bond film.
In August of 2010, the local news in my area reported the dangerously high mercury levels in fish caught over July 4th weekend. Watching this film and looking back at that report I feel like it was a mere ripple reaching a far shore caused by an imperceptible atomic depth charge that went off miles away. Even if we question the veracity of all the claims made in this film (as we should), there’s usually a kernel of truth in even the grossest exaggerations. If all this film does is make people aware of these issues it was worthwhile, but it also makes for highly engaging, highly entertaining viewing.