Courtesy International Marine Mammal Project
When The Cove won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film last year, director Louie Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens bounded on stage accompanied by the film’s star, former Flipper trainer and veteran marine mammal activist Ric O’Barry. As Psihoyos and Fisher accepted their Oscars, the 71-year-old O’Barry held up a black and white banner reading “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.” The cameras whiplashed away, but O’Barry had made his point: Over the next 24 hours, so many people sent the text message petition to President Obama and the Japanese prime minister, that, O’Barry says, the system crashed.
The action had all the elements of a classic Ric O’Barry maneuver: It was simple, effective, from the gut – and it made him extremely uncomfortable. “To draw attention to yourself, that’s a very difficult thing to do,” O’Barry told me recently. “It’s so difficult to walk up in front of a billion people like that.”
The tension between wanting to get the word out and not wanting to be seen himself has befuddled O’Barry throughout his 40-year-long effort to stop the capture and killing of dolphins. At heart, O’Barry is a loner, self-effacing and quiet. His work, however, often requires him to be at center stage. That’s been especially true since the success of The Cove and the launch of a follow-up television series, Blood Dolphins, on the Animal Planet network. O’Barry just wants to “do the work” – the most rewarding part of which is rehabilitating captive dolphins and returning them to the wild. Then someone reminds him that the cameras are rolling.
When I spoke to O’Barry in late April, he had just returned from Indonesia, where he had completed building a facility for dolphin rehabilitation. We talked about the Blood Dolphins episodes, how the earthquake and tsunami in Japan will affect the campaign to stop the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, and the declining attendance at SeaWorld.
In the year since The Cove won an Oscar, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve been working on?
Well, two things. The Solomon Islands, where they have been killing dolphins for 450 years. That ended last year when Mark Berman and I and Lawrence Maliki representing Earth Island Institute were there and we signed a contract. I don’t know if you saw the Blood Dolphins episode on that. Have you seen that?
Oh gosh, you’ve got to see it, it’s really awesome! I mean, you see it [dolphin killing] come to an end after 450 years. And it’s not going there and telling people what to do. It’s really about spending time with them, and listening and learning. And what we learned was, what they were doing is not sustainable according to their own stories. They’re sitting around the campfire talking about, “We used to go right outside the village in our canoes and drive dolphins in. And now we go 20 miles” – which actually means they go 40 miles because they have to go 20 miles back. So it’s not sustainable. So if you want to look into sustainable alternatives, Earth Island is willing to help you. And they went for it! They signed a contract, and now we’re working with these people, and they’ve become a part of our family.
And what are the sustainable alternatives to dolphin hunting?
Well, beekeeping is one of them. They make a special honey – they put their beehives in the mangroves and the honey is somewhat salty. Another thing they wanted to do for many years was to open up a tuna factory. And this is not long line but, you know, hand lining tuna, not tuna caught with nets. Earth Island has that dolphin safe label, and as long as they were killing dolphins they couldn’t use that. So there is a tuna company and that’s creating jobs for these people.
It’s hard to say right now, “Save Japan Dolphins.” The focus is on saving Japanese people.
That’s one of the exciting things. What’s the other?
Indonesia. The dolphin captures in Indonesia have ended. And now we’re working with Jakarta Animal Aid Network, which as identified 73 of the dolphins that were captured illegally in the national park, and we’re in the process of bringing them back into the national park. Putting them into a sea pen that we’ve built, and releasing them back into the wild.
Have you worked with any dolphins there so far in rehabilitation?
Not yet. So far we’ve built the sea pen and we have a base camp in the national park, Karimunjawa National Park, and we were in the process of confiscating the first three dolphins – two spinner dolphins and a bottlenose dolphin – and 30 minutes before the confiscation, somebody pulled the rug from under us and everything came to a stop.
And who was that?
It’s probably the owner of the aquarium. He’s a very rich guy. He has a lot of power and he is capable of picking up the phone and calling people with the Forest Department, who for some strange reason are in charge of dolphins, and stopping everything. And so it came to a halt.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for taking direct action to prevent the capture and killing of dolphins, but actually a lot of your work is dolphin rehabilitation, which gets less attention. What’s it like to work with a dolphin that has been in captivity?
The first step is to get them into a natural sea pen, where they can experience the natural rhythms of the sea, the tides, the currents, and that’s how the healing begins. They can never heal in a tank.
In a nutshell, it’s reversing the training process. Some people think that we train them to become wild again, but training really is not how it’s done. You can’t train – training is the problem to begin with. So training them to do more is not going to solve the problem.
Yeah, it’s really about empowering them. In captivity they have no decisions, no choices. When we get a hold of them, we put them in natural seawater and we introduce live fish into their sea pen, we don’t feed them. We introduce live fish and they have to chase the fish down and catch them. And if we can do it, we put them in the same place that they were captured, and that’s what we’ve done in Indonesia, in Karimunjawa National Park. That’s where their home range is, that’s where they came from, that’s where they were captured, and that’s where the sea pen is. When I was there last, there were nine dolphins right near the sea pen, and that’s probably their family. So it’s about letting nature take its course. Uh, it’s really about doing nothing. I get accused of doing nothing – but really that’s what it’s all about.
How long does it take?
It depends on the dolphin. The one in Colombia, Stephania, it took six months, and we never could free Stephania. Eventually storms blew the pen down and she was still there. She wanted room service! She had been through so much, living in isolation, small substandard tanks on the mainland in Colombia. Nobody ever questions their mental health, but I have to look at their mental health, not just their physical health.
If you and I had been through what some of these dolphins have been through, they go through difficult experiences. Some of them, like the three [in Indonesia] that we were about to confiscate, when I approached the tank, they didn’t pop their heads out of the water like dolphins do at SeaWorld or Marine World. They kept swimming in circles. I could see them looking at me but they never took their heads out of the water. This tells me they haven’t been hand fed. So they’re not begging for food, they’ve never been trained. Releasing those three is really quite simple, it’s just a matter of taking them back to their home range.
Speaking of SeaWorld, in February of last year a trainer was killed by one of the orcas there and this drew a lot of attention to the issue of marine mammals in captivity. Do you think the attitudes towards captive whales and dolphins are changing?
Absolutely. There’s no question about that. The Cove has helped a lot, so has Blood Dolphins, because those are very, very, anti-captivity shows and the message is: Be a responsible consumer and don’t buy a ticket. SeaWorld just recently laid off 300 employees, and their attendance is down, and people are starting to get the message. And so yeah, that’s definitely happening.
I’ve heard that, because of the earthquake in Japan, Animal Planet is pulling away from Whale Wars, the show about Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, because of the sensitivity around the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. How has that affected, if at all, your work around Taiji?
We won’t know until September [the start of the dolphin hunting season]. Because it’s really hard to say right now, “Save Japan Dolphins!” You know, it’s such a sensitive issue. There are people – 200,000 people – who are displaced because of the nuclear issue related to the earthquake and tsunami, people who’ve moved out of their house and they may never go back. So the focus right now is saving Japanese people. We have to figure out what to do because we’re sensitive to what’s going on there and we have to be careful how we do this campaign.
Much of the Japanese whaling fleet was destroyed in the tsunami. Do you think they’re going to want to rebuild, or might this be an opportunity for the Japanese government to walk away from it?
I think it’s a way for the government to walk away from it, and save face. Because the Japanese government – the taxpayers – subsidize whaling, and they can’t afford that anymore. Things have changed dramatically. So we don’t know what’s going to happen with whaling, but it may be over with. It may be that definitely the porpoise kill is over with. We just don’t know about Taiji. The cove is still there, and will it be open for business in September 1? I don’t know, but I’ll be there.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
It’s too early to say. And if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to telegraph exactly what we’ll be doing because the people who are there monitor us. Maybe it’s over with and we can celebrate!
What do you think needs to happen to end the dolphin hunt in Taiji?
I think if people in Japan – there’s 127 million people in Japan – if they saw The Cove, I think it would end. If they learned about mercury poisoning – and that’s where you learn about mercury poisoning, that’s where you learn about mercury in dolphin meat, that’s the best source. Louie, the director, mailed a copy to every home in Taiji. There are 3,444 people there.
Really? Did he really?
Yeah. So they’re seeing it. It’s based on supply and demand like any other product, so if the people get the information – they just don’t have the information right now – they wouldn’t buy it. That is the major part of our campaign, the Achilles’ heel is the mercury contamination. And that’s getting out finally. So it may be over, but we just don’t know yet; it’s too early to tell. Maybe around August we’ll know more and figure out what to do, but we have to be very, very sensitive to what’s going on over there. People are really suffering – a lot of people, and it’s going to go on for a very long time.
Journal editor Jason Mark traveled to Taiji with O’Barry in September 2009 to write a profile titled, “The Reluctant Warrior.”
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.