In one of our most impressive feats of procrastination, we managed to put off watching The Cove for nine months. It’s not that we weren’t interested in the film. We just wanted to watch it at the right time—and it’s hard to find “the right time” to watch a film about the slaughter of thousands of dolphins.
Well, we finally watched it. To say that we loved The Cove would be incorrect. It’s not the type of movie that one “loves.” (The Princess Bride would fall under that category.) The Cove was amazing. It was shocking, horrific and powerful. EVERYONE* NEEDS TO SEE THIS FILM.
The documentary opens with Flipper trainer-turned activist Ric O’Barry driving through Taiji, Japan wearing a surgical mask. O’Barry, who has spent the last 40 years advocating for wild dolphin protection and against dolphin captivity, has been trying to expose Taiji’s annual dolphin hunt since 2003. Now, although he’s on the dolphin “fishermen’s” sh*t list and hides behind a surgical mask to avoid getting arrested, O’Barry is finally on his way to telling the world about Taiji. The Cove is the story of the OPS (The Oceanic Preservation Society) Team and their Mission Impossible-esque operations to capture footage of the slaughter.
Japan kills 23,000 small cetaceans each year. And each year, government-permitted Taiji fishermen herd migrating dolphins into a cove, hundreds at a time. Trainers from dolphinariums come to the cove to select a few dolphins for their facilities (at a price of $154,000 per dolphin) and leave the rest to be slaughtered the following morning. Approximately 2,500 dolphins and other small cetaceans are killed during the six-month-long dolphin drive.
The resulting dolphin meat is served to schoolchildren and sold in grocery stores and at dolphinarium concession stands (where one can eat dolphin while watching a dolphin perform). It’s always labeled as “whale” and it’s loaded with mercury. And by “loaded,” we mean full, teeming and absolutely stacked. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare sets the acceptable level of mercury in tissue at 0.4 ppm. The OPS team measured dolphin meat in the market with 2000 ppm mercury. Ingesting high levels of mercury leads to mercury poisoning, a fatal neurological disorder that was once so common in a Japanese town called Minamata that it is known as Minamata Disease.
The Cove isn’t just about dolphins and mercury poisoning. It’s a multidimensional story of ecological unsustainability, human health, the ridiculous politics of the International Whaling Commission (which would be funny if they weren’t depressingly real), government cover-ups and the economics of this “pest control” program woven together into an overpoweringly effective statement that the slaughter needs to end.
Obviously, the film has an agenda, but the filmmakers make an effort to present the other side of the story. It’s hard, though, to justify making dolphin meat a mandatory lunch meal for all schoolchildren in the town when is stuffed full of toxins. It’s also hard to claim that the slaughter is part of the Japanese culture when the vast majority of “people on the street” have never heard of eating dolphin meat and were appalled at the notion of slaughtering them in such high numbers.
Disclaimer: We have worked with captive dolphins. The dolphins had amazing cognitive abilities and unique personalities. We loved Akeakamai, Phoenix, Hiapo and Ellele, but we’re not dolphin worshipers! We are incredibly grateful for our experiences with these dolphins, but don’t believe that dolphins should be removed from the wild and placed in captivity. That doesn’t mean that we think all captive dolphins should be released. Most captive marine mammals could not survive in the wild after spending most of their lives in captivity.
*This is not a children’s movie. It’s a thriller and a horror movie. Parents and teachers, please use your judgment to determine if this film is age-appropriate.