Powerful. Impressive. Visceral. Heartbreaking. Humbling. Inspiring.
You all probably remember, or at least know of, the beloved television series “Flipper.” An integral part of the success of “Flipper” was Richard O’Barry who, in the 1960’s was the world’s leading authority on dolphin training. The Flipper lagoon, dock and house was actually O’Barry’s and it’s where he trained and cared for the dolphins who took turns playing Flipper. Well cared for and free to swim in open waters, it all came to a screeching halt with the cancellation of the tv show and the dolphins being sent to a seaquarium. It was there that O’Barry’s special dolphin, the one who played the majority of Flipper scenes, Kathy, died in his arms. Contained in a small tank, unable to swim free, engage with humans and exercise properly, according to O’Barry, he truly believes that Kathy finally just gave up from depression. And in that one moment, O’Barry knew what his life’s calling would now be – making certain that cestaceans (whales, dolphins) be kept free. Now a self-proclaimed “abolitionist” of dolphin captivity as “they don’t do well in captivity”, it is O’Barry’s advocacy and activism that bring us THE COVE.
Taiji, Japan is known for its annual herding of dolphins by local fisherman wherein the dolphins are funneled into a lagoon by disorienting them with noise which not only affects their sonar capabilities but instills fear in them. (According to O’Barry, dolphins do have emotions and after listening to him for only a few minutes, you yourself will have no doubts either.) Once the dolphins are in the lagoon, dolphin sales begin as Taiji is where seaquariums, private individuals and aquatic show producers go to buy their dolphins, some of which go for as much as $150,000 apiece. As you can imagine though, not all the dolphins are sold. So what happens with the those left behind?
Around the corner from the lagoon exists a cove. Described by director Louie Psihoyos as a “natural fortress”, it is protected by rocky cliffs on three sides. There is only one ingress and that is from the sea. The access to the cliffs from the land is blocked by fencing and guarded. Why?
For years it was known but never documented due to the inaccessibility of the cove, that the Taiji fisherman would herd the unsold dolphins into the cove, then bludgeon them to death and sell and/or donate the meat to stores, restaurants and even local schools throughout Japan, often times disguising it as “whale meat.” Officials with knowledge of this goes high on the political food chain. How many dolphins are killed each year for this? Approximately 23, 000.
Enter first time director Louie Psihoyos who was attending a conference of 2000 of the world’s top marine mammal scientists at which O’Barry was to speak. At the last minute, O’Barry was pulled from the dais and banned from speaking by conference sponsor Sea World. Intrigued, Psihoyos wanted to know why and connected with O’Barry who told him the story of Taiji. In that one moment, both Psyihoyos life, and now ours, would forever change.
Accompanying O’Barry to Taiji, Psihoyos wanted to get to the truth and tell the story, not only the story of the heinous dolphin slaughter, but the bigger picture involving mercury poisoning which spreads like wildfire as a result of dolphin meat being distributed to an unwitting public, and the causal relationship between man, pollution, the food chain and the sea. It was his hope to tell a balanced story with the cooperation of the government and citizens of Taiji. But that wasn’t to be the case. Describing it as a town “like out a Stephen King novel”, outwardly appearing normal but reeking of harboring some dirty secret, Psihoyos determined to penetrate the cove and see what was going on. But that would require military precision.
Documenting the operation step by step, we follow Psihoyos as he puts his team of the best-of-the-best together for what could prove to be a mission as dangerous as that executed by any military. Calling on champion freedivers Many Rae-Cruikshank and Kirk Krack, Industrial Light and Magic, an electronics expert formerly with the Canadian Air Force and even “pirates”, Psihoyos assembled his “Ocean’s 11″ team and proceeded with the operation which included surveillance, use of remote controlled helicopters, blimps and drones, military grade thermal cameras and exacting work performed almost exclusively at night so as to elude the Taiji guards. For Psihoyos, key to the success of this film is that “in this case everybody understood what the real story was. We started out with the cove. Once we decided that, we had this Ocean’s 11 theme going on. How is that pulled together? We had the footage. 600 hours of footage.”
Taking complexity to new levels, Psihoyos and his team made over 7 trips to Japan, shooting over 1 ½ years, with “7 nights into the cove. Sometimes we only had one or two cameras, depending on how many guards were in the lagoon. If we had the run of the place, we would try to get 4 or 5 cameras in. But sometimes we could only get a couple, one or two. Or we would break one [of the cameras encased in foam rocks created by ILM] on the way in. We had about four or five positions in the cove that we used 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 cameras and then helicopter footage and then one camera down below.”
No one, and nothing, can prepare you for what you will see in this footage. Shot in high definition, the imagery is beyond vivid and will blow you out of the water. Unsettling, distressing and horrifying, what you see on screen are not Cecil B. DeMille special effects performed by the hand of God or the staff of Moses. What you will see comes by the cruelty of man.
There are no holds barred, no stone left unturned, no image left unfilmed. The filmmakers really push the envelope with this one. Geoff Richman’s editing is top notch and keeps you on the edge of your seat, building to the moment when the secret film footage of the cove is finally shown. And Mark Monroe’s script captures the complexity and emotion so important to Psihoyos and the story. There is as much tension building in this documentary as in any Hitchcock film. According to Psihoyos. “I was really instrumental in trying to keep the story complicated. I never wanted to dumb it down and simplify it. To me, that’s the beauty of it – that it’s complex. It’s textured. It’s not just a movie about THE COVE, it involves mercury poisoning, over-fishing, Ric’s backstory, his story of redemption. Even Mandy [Cruikshank] and Kirk’s [Krack] story, that little sequence where you see them bonding with whales and dolphins. These are just emotional visceral things that I really wanted to keep in the film because they were so important to me.”
I’ve seen many documentaries on tragedy and the inhumanity of man around the globe – Darfur, in particular; the war, African starvation, water/drought, etc. but nothing – nothing – compares with the force with which THE COVE affected me and which I believe, will affect you. It’s one thing to see tragedy with people as the victims. But people allegedly do have brain power and the capability of voicing their complaints, taking a stand and doing something to try and resolve their problems or conditions. Animals do not. Ironically, though, as elaborated on by O’Barry, dolphins have the intelligence to “voice” their concerns and ask for help, and if given the chance, they could convey their emotion (as they do in this film with their sounds). But, because of man’s backward thinking and ego believing no creature can be as intelligent as humans, man refuses to learn and grow and communicate with these incredible creatures and in the case of Taiji, looks at them only as a meal ticket.
For O’Barry, his hope is that THE COVE will “spread the word around the world” and get people involved in the cause to abolish dolphin captivity and the Taiji slaughter, as well as, motivate politicians to take an active stance in international commissions on the subject. For Psihoyos, he hopes THE COVE makes people “think they should realize that these animals are more sophisticated than most people give them credit for. So that doesn’t mean incarcerate them and teach them to do stupid tricks for our amusement. I want them to realize that we’re polluting the planet and not just dolphins and whales, but polluting things we like to eat. . .we’re jeopardizing our major source of protein – seafood. And that’s through the burning of fossil fuels. People really need to get that connection. Mercury poisoning is real. It’s getting worse. And it’s not just mercury. It’s lead, cadmium. Basically everything [we] buy ends up at one point or another back down to the sea. We are doing what no wild animal will do. And that’s fouling our own nest. [The sea] is a really precious resource. We told the story through Ric’s backstory and through dolphins and whales – the big charismic megapod and people care about those. I do too, but I think the bigger picture is that we’re harming ourselves at the same time. I hope that comes through. . . There’s no shortage of bad guys in this movie. . . There’s this causal relationship. We’re part of that same chain of events that’s polluting the planet.”
Watching THE COVE makes you wonder exactly who is the intelligent species – man or the dolphins. My vote is on the dolphins and on people like Ric O’Barry and Louie Psihoyos.
Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Written by Mark Monroe.
For more information on the dolphin slaughter, Save Japan Dolphins and Ric O’Barry’s involvement with the Earth Island Institute, go to http://www.savejapandolphins.org. For more information on THE COVE Campaign to save the dolphins, go to http://www.takepart.com/thecove/. To learn more about Louis Psihoyos, Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, and OPS’ mission to our oceans, our creatures and our planet, go to http://www.opsociety.org/about-ops.htm.