Cove Monitors Arrive in Taiji, Japan to Document Dolphin Hunting
Days are long for the team committed to protecting dolphins
Last weekend Ric O’Barry, star of the Oscar-winning documentary film The Cove, arrived in Taiji, Japan to help with monitoring the annual dolphin hunt that takes place there.
All photos by Mark Palmer
Ric flew in from Miami after being stuck in court all of last week. (For more on this, see below.) He was greeted by Maskao Maxwell, a member of our Dolphin Project team who maintains our Japanese website, and other Japanese volunteers who are determined to help educate the Japanese people about the dolphin hunts and the danger of mercury-contaminated meat.
So what is it like being a Cove Monitor in Taiji?
Since The Cove movie arrived in theaters in Japan, the Dolphin Project has had volunteers in Taiji every hunting season, which lasts six months beginning in the fall. The Cove Monitors are in Taiji not to interfere with the dolphin hunts, nor to harass the dolphin hunters, nor to break any laws.
The main goals of the Cove Monitors are to:
• Report to the world — via our blogs and social media, and any mainstream media we can interest — what is happening in Taiji and to expose the lies and cover-ups of the Japan Fisheries Agency.
• Make local contacts with people in Japan to spread the word about the hunt and the dangers of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat.
• To let the Japanese government and the dolphin hunters know that the world is watching what they are doing.
Cove Monitors also undertake special projects such as obtaining dolphin meat to test for mercury and other pollutants, including radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
This year, the monitors will be making a special outreach to people in Taiji about alternatives. We know the hunts are getting fewer and fewer dolphins, so we want to see if any of the local fishermen or town council members will talk to us about possible alternatives that the Dolphin Project could help them with, such as whale- and dolphin-watching trips, eco-tourism, sustainable fishing, or other inducements to stop the hunts.
Being a Cove Monitor is not for everyone. You have to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to head out to see if the dolphin hunting boats (the “banger boats”) have left port. If they are out, our Cove Monitors wait for them to return, hopefully without any dolphins. The weather in Taiji is very changeable, from very hot and humid in the fall (with frequent wet storms and even typhoons) to cold winter days (snow is rare, but our Monitors are exposed none-the-less). If a drive hunt develops, the Cove Monitors then head to the Cove overlook to estimate numbers of dolphins killed and captured for aquariums. They document the hunt with video and still photos. The hunts are usually concluded by 2 p.m., when the tired Cove Monitors return to their hotel to write up a blog and edit video and photos. Cove Monitors will also use the afternoon to check the status of captive dolphins in the Taiji Whale Museum, Dolphin Base, or the sea pens in the Taiji harbor.
The dolphin hunts themselves are quite horrendous and take an emotional toll on our Cove Monitors. And every year the dolphin hunters and the town of Taiji try to make our jobs harder. Last year, the parking lot across from the Cove was put off limits to our cars, so now we have to park a few hundred feet away and walk to the Cove.
We encountered this kind of harassment at the beginning of this week when some of the Cove Monitors tried to go to the notorious Taiji Whale Museum.
The place is right around the corner from the killing Cove in Taiji and, as noted in The Cove movie, you really can buy whale meat in the museum store! The museum houses a display of whaling, the skeleton of a large rorqual, and many live dolphins and small whales (pilot whales, false killer whales) captured during the bloody hunts in the Cove and now living out their lives in small tanks.
We wanted to see how the dolphins Sad and Lonely were faring in the museum. (Sad and Lonely were two spotted dolphins kept in a very small indoor tank at the museum until an international effort led to the museum moving them to a much bigger tank outdoors.) But when our group arrived at the museum, the staff refused to let us buy tickets. Our interpreter asked to see the manager, and the Deputy CEO appeared and said they would not let into the museum people who oppose the dolphin hunts. He then said was going call the police. And he did, telling them it was an “emergency.” We waited politely, getting video and still photos of this silly confrontation. About 20 police arrived. We explained our side, and the Deputy CEO explained his side. The police suggested a compromise — suppose we agreed not to take any video or photographs? We agreed to the restriction (not very happily), and our intrepid interpreter went back to negotiate with the Deputy CEO.
And he still would not let us in! So we moved along, not wanting to cause any scene and eager to keep away from confrontation. Such is the level of treatment one receives in Taiji from those who promote the killing and imprisonment of dolphins — they are the exact opposite of the many very kind Japanese that we have known on this trip.
Then, just a couple of days ago the town of Taiji closed off the trail to the top of the overlook over the Cove with a locked gate, put up overnight, blocking access due to “construction.” We asked the police when we could get access to the overlook, and they said they did not know.
This is egregious for many reasons. Most importantly, the overlook is an emergency retreat to higher ground for the people of Taiji in the case of tsunami or flooding due to typhoons. Now local residents will not have any access to the route. As Cove Monitor Tim Burns put it, it is incredible that the town of Taiji would endanger its own citizens for the purpose of preventing us from documenting the killing of dolphins.
The granddaddy of our Cove Monitors, of course, is Ric O’Barry, who has been to the Taiji Cove repeatedly since 2003. These next few days that Ric will be here is an opportunity for us all to learn how to be a Cove Monitor from the man himself. I asked Ric what he felt the value was of the Cove Monitors for the Dolphin Project.
“It’s like the tree that falls in the forest,” Ric replied. “If there’s no one there, did it really fall? For too long, the Taiji hunts have gone on unremarked by the rest of the world. Even the Japanese do not know these hunts were happening, at least not until The Cove documentary and our Save Japan Dolphins Campaign brought the truth to the people. Our Monitors keep the world aware of what is happening — they keep it in the news and on the Internet.”
Tim Burns agrees: “The importance of our Cove Monitors is public awareness. The more we expose the secrets of the Cove and the dolphin hunts, particularly here in Japan, the more people will question what goes on here. They will not be able to ignore it.”
Our Monitors also keep the pressure on the dolphin hunters. They know they are being watched. They go to elaborate steps to hide from our cameras and complain bitterly about our presence. They waste taxpayer money to demand police protection from us who pose no threat. They know now they cannot continue on with business as usual.
And all the while, their markets for mercury-poisoned dolphin meat are drying up. Fewer and fewer people will buy the stuff. And as a direct result, fewer dolphins are dying.
Ric and the Dolphin Project Team are going to be here in Taiji until the dolphin hunts end.
About the court case: Ric O’Barry and Earth Island Institute are defendants in a $450 million defamation case filed by the marine mammal park Ocean World. As noted before, this is a frivolous lawsuit filed against Ric and Earth Island because we opposed the import of 12 Taiji dolphins to a casino/aquarium in the Dominican Republic. Our protection under the First Amendment of the Constitution is at issue. The case has dragged on for years because of the opposition attorneys, who seeking to break us financially. By dumb luck, the case finally came to trial in late August, and Ric was unable to get away until this past weekend. Ric is optimistic that we have made our case that the lawsuit has no merit and that the judge will throw the case out – a decision is expected on September 10.