The Cove

[14 December 2009]

By Alistair Dickinson

PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor

It’s been a rough year for media portrayals of the Japanese; at least for those who support the country’s whaling industry.

First there was the rise of Whale Wars, a reality television show that celebrates the quest of some plucky sea-going activists to stop the annual Japanese whale-hunts in the Southern Hemisphere. Then there was the South Park episode based on Whale Wars, which poked fun at the self-righteous environmental crusaders, but also portrayed the Japanese as a harpoon-wielding mob of crazed whale-meat addicts. And, looming the largest over this whole Japanese whaling controversy, there is The Cove, a documentary that seeks to expose the harvesting in Taiji, Japan of one of mankind’s most adored sea-creatures: the dolphin.

The setup of the film has been its primary marketing point since its release was announced, so most people already know the basic plot. In a small fishing village in Southern Japan, there are annual roundups of wild dolphins so that trainers can come and select animals to take away and use for public performances. Apparently, the many dolphins not chosen are then guided into an adjacent cove, one that is guarded and completely closed to the public, where they are ruthlessly slaughtered and then sold as premium whale-meat or for school-lunches.

No one has ever been able to present any evidence of this to the outside world, however, so the team behind the movie set out to film the massacre using high-tech cameras and other spy-gear, battling angry local fishermen, lying to undercover policemen, and eluding armed guards along the way. The end result is a visual record of the brutal killings that the filmmakers say claim up to 2,300 dolphin lives a year.

The film’s hero is Richard O’Barry, the animal-handler who first sparked the dolphin-craze by training the cetaceans for the original Flipper series back in the ‘60s. Barry is guilt-ridden by the enthusiasm for live dolphin shows he feels he has created – now believing that keeping such intelligent animals in captivity is immoral—and talks about how he has spent much of his life since his TV days working to keep his favorite creatures out of human hands.

But the crime of dolphin-imprisonment soon becomes a secondary issue when compared to the mass-killings he learns about in Taiji. Like many an activist in the public eye (especially one considered by many to be on the “fringe”), O’Barry can sometimes come off as self-aggrandizing, but one quickly sees that this is a man who really has been fighting for his cause at great risk to his own safety, often with little if any outside support, and so perhaps has earned the right not to mince his words when it comes to his life’s passion.

Barry and the film’s director, former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, put together a crew of crack operatives that includes camera experts, free-divers and even a remote-control helicopter pilot. Their attempts to infiltrate ‘the cove’ are thrilling to watch, as one can sense the very real danger they are in if they get caught. Their methods range from futuristic (they use thermal-imaging to scout out the location at night) to Loony Tunes-esque (they have cameras that pop out of fake rocks and, to avoid detection, O’Barry dons disguises that make him look about as inconspicuous in a Japanese fishing village as Mick Jagger).

While the actual plot of the film is interesting enough, however, the deeper message of The Cove doesn’t always come across so well. Certainly when one listens to O’Barry and Psihoyos passionately expound upon the virtues of the dolphin and rail against the admittedly absurd international gimmickry which the Japanese government employs to ensure the whaling industry is allowed to survive, it is easy to get a bit riled up and feel plenty of sympathy for their cause. But there is a basic question running through the film that O’Barry and crew never fully manage to answer: namely, why is eating dolphins any worse than eating any other animal?

Sure, O’Barry has plenty of touching personal anecdotes about the intelligence and self-awareness of the dolphins he trained in his former life, there still is no hard scientific evidence that proves that dolphins are appreciatively more intelligent than many other species of mammal that are routinely killed and eaten by human beings. The visuals we eventually see of the dolphin’s fate are horrifying, but no more so than a video of the inside of a large-scale slaughterhouse while it is processing cattle. (Although to be fair, Psihoyos does claim in one of the DVD version’s bonus features to be a vegetarian)

Many of the points made by The Cove make a lot of sense; until you think about them for a bit longer. Psihoyos tries to make the claim that the whale-celebrating imagery of Taiji’s local art and architecture is totally surreal when contrasted with the town’s hunting practice, but that’s a bit of a stretch when one considers that early Europeans were as happy to paint pictures and carve figures of the aurochs (a large, black European wild ox) as they were to hunt the beasts to extinction.

The filmmakers make a point that’s harder to argue with when they ask: Why would anyone want to eat dolphin in the first place? Apparently, increased amounts of highly-toxic mercury (now prevalent in the world’s oceans, thanks to human pollution) enter a human’s bloodstream more readily when he or she eats large sea-creatures, including dolphins. When the mercury issue is addressed, O’Barry and crew are even able to find some allies in the town, including two council members who don’t want their children to be forced to eat the tainted dolphin meat in their school lunches.

The whole film, of course, leads up to its money shot: the actual footage of the dolphin slaughter shown at the end of the movie. The cove itself is a small, strikingly pretty place not far the town itself. During the slaughter, however, this idyllic little body of sparkling water turns bloody. It’s staggering to realize the scale of the killing that must be taking place under the fisherman’s boats to produce such a landscape-changing volume of blood .

The DVD edition comes with some deleted scenes, which include footage of earlier attempts to disrupt the dolphin culling. There is also a short feature which presents a more in-depth look at the mercury issue.

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