Japan - Everywhere you looked, more than a thousand dolphins bobbed in
a churning, bloody sea as fishermen hacked and stabbed at them. The men
pulled them from the water with hooks piercing their bodies or noses.
Angry male dolphins fought the cranes and winches as the blue sea
turned from milky pink to scarlet to ruby red.
The dolphins died in the hundreds and in silence - their screams too high to be heard by the men in blue overalls, who chopped at their throats with meat knives and hooks.
A baby dolphin was dying beside the quay. I could still see a light in his shocked staring eyes but it was fading. Beside the slippery concrete harbor wall, running red with blood, I saw one dolphin, her nose daubed with scarlet, just give up. As two of her relatives were winched up with hooks in their tails, she turned over and started to sink, making no effort to save herself.
Live dolphins were tied to the backs of small blood-stained trucks and dragged along the quay to the slaughterhouse where other men finished the work, slashing, smoking cigarettes and laughing at the dying dolphins who thrashed on the concrete floor, their tails twitching, their bodies shuddering.
When the work day ended, the surviving dolphins were left for tomorrow’s killing - barely able to swim through the blood and body bits of their massacred friends.
Every year, thousands of dolphins are killed in Japan, more than 400,000 in the last 20 years. Many are harpooned at sea, but in Futo, Iki and Taiji - three small fishing villages tucked into Japan’s mountainous coastline - dolphins die by the thousands in drive hunts like these between October and April.
When fishermen spot a pod, they surround it with small “drive boats,” using drums and pipes to disorient the dolphins.
The dolphins are driven into a holding bay cordoned off with ropes and nets and left overnight. The next morning, aquarium owners are allowed to select the more docile females that can be easily trained by marine amusement parks. Then the killing starts.
It is a mind-numbing sight. It is hard to believe that humans can do this. Dolphins are highly sociable mammals with emotions. Dolphins live in families, play with each other and the children in their pods. Couples swim together with their fins lightly touching, like humans holding hands.
My travelling companion, former CBS News reporter and wildlife filmmaker Hardy Jones, co-founded the dolphin website www.bluevoice.org with actor Ted Danson. He has been working to protect dolphins for 23 years, but he would not be here today were it not for four brave dolphins who saved him from an attack by an 18-foot hammerhead shark while he was filming in the Bahamas.
In 1980, Hardy filmed a drive hunt in the small fishing village of Iki. Hardy’s pictures forced the village to end the hunt.
Some Japanese fishermen now believe it is wrong to kill dolphins. “I cannot kill dolphins anymore,” says Izumi Ischii from the fishing village of Futo. “They cry when they are about to die. I cannot kill something when tears are rolling down its cheeks.”
There have been no drive hunts in Futo since 1999, when an undercover Japanese camera operator working for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed the full horror of the hunt.
The International Whaling Commission has passed numerous resolutions requesting the Japanese government to reduce or stop the hunts but these resolutions have been largely ignored.
The residents of Taiji, a picturesque whaling town 450 miles south of Tokyo, are proud of their history. Pictures of dolphins and whales cover their wooden houses and are laid into paving stones. Even the flowerbeds of my hotel were shaped like dolphins.
Below my window, I could hear the plaintive cries of a captured orca that was caught along with four others in 1997. Already three of them have died. When she isn’t performing at the Taiji Whale Beach Park, she lies with her nose against the netting, desperate for a little bit of interaction with the 16 dolphins who live on the far side.
Dolphins are big business, especially since dolphin meat can easily pass as the more-expensive whale meat (even though ocean pollution has caused dolphin flesh to become so toxic that it cannot legally be sold for human consumption).
One morning before dawn, we climbed over the rocks and around the edge of a spiked iron fence on the harbor wall to inspect the six “aquaculture” pens on the other side. Our worst fears were confirmed. The pens actually contained 14 of the dolphins caught in drive hunts but spared because they were docile females who could be sold to an aquarium dealer for as much as $15,000.
Dolphins that cannot be trained are dumped back into the sea where - separated from their pods and their spirits broken - they face almost certain death.
These dolphins were destined either for Tahiti or a new aquarium in Nagoya being built by Hammond Consultants, a California-based company. The habitues of a local sake restaurant told us that dolphins are also being sent to Korea, Israel and Hong Kong.
“There are more than 19 swim-with-dolphin programs in Mexico alone,” said Hammond in his office at Dolphin Base where tourists pay $90 dollars to swim with four of the 16 dolphins living in four pathetically small sea pools. The amiable American betrayed no qualms about his activities. He boasted of using transport methods that ensure the dolphins would not die from pneumonia. During the winter, he explained, he uses Federal Express to transport his dolphins from Cleveland, Ohio, to San Diego, California.
On the shore beside the sea pen, I found four more dolphins in a 20-foot transparent water drum. When I put my hand to the glass, they pressed their faces against it, like inmates in prison meeting rooms.
That was when I cried.
Annabel Heseltine is a UK-based reporter who has covered several BlueVoice actions.
On October 9, as fishermen in Taiji began to kill 30 pilot whales, a BlueVoice.org team appeared with videocameras.
“While we couldn’t stop the kill,” said BlueVoice’s Hardy Jones, “we were able to document this brutal atrocity. They killed an entire pod, including large numbers of young calves.”
When they discovered they were being videotaped, the fishermen attacked the environmentalists with poles and hard hats and attempted to force them to hand over their videotape. But the video team was able to break free and brought the videotape evidence out. Jones has filed charges against the fishermen for assault, attempted theft and illegal detention.
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