Who killed Flipper?

The filmmakers behind "The Cove" discuss the shocking Sundance documentary that may forever change how we feel about dolphins in captivity.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published January 22, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

PARK CITY, Utah -- Unless you count the remnant of an ancient sea today known as the Great Salt Lake, Ric O'Barry and Louie Psihoyos are more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. But one-time dolphin trainer O'Barry and former National Geographic photographer Psihoyos are here in the Utah mountains with a devastating and highly engaging documentary called "The Cove," which has played to standing ovations at Sundance and is likely to change what you think about humanity's relationship to the oceans. As O'Barry puts it, after you see "The Cove" you may never buy a ticket to a captive dolphin performance at an aquarium again.

Once the trainer of TV's Flipper -- actually played by two different female bottlenose dolphins -- O'Barry has become the biggest nemesis of the "dolphinarium" business and the worldwide trade in captive dolphins, working legally or illegally to free them wherever he can. His conversion from trainer to activist is discussed in the film -- and it's an electric moment -- but director Psihoyos' central subject is the exciting and unlikely "Ocean's Eleven"-style raid he and O'Barry lead into a secluded coastal cove in Taiji, Japan, that holds a terrible secret. Hundreds of dolphins are corralled by local fishermen and herded into the cove, where the finest physical specimens are collected and sold to trainers at prices up to $150,000 each or more. What happens to the others?

As O'Barry had known for years, the dolphins not picked for export were being slaughtered by the thousands, butchered and sold for meat in Japanese markets (often falsely labeled as another kind of seafood). From his perspective, this was a senseless massacre perpetrated against a highly intelligent, self-aware species. It was also a potential crime against humanity. As predators at the top of the food chain, dolphins are the unhappy recipients of the worst heavy-metal pollution in the world's oceans. Dolphin meat that was being routinely fed to Japanese schoolchildren, for instance, tested many times -- sometimes hundreds of times -- above the legal limit for mercury.

Using clandestine equipment, some of it planted by free-divers in a midnight raid, Psihoyos captures on film what happens in that Taiji cove. I saw the film at a pre-Sundance screening for New York film critics -- pretty much the most jaded audience you could imagine -- and we sat and watched that footage in dead, haunted silence. Beautifully photographed and highly entertaining as it is, "The Cove" is also one of the most wrenching movies you'll ever see. It raises troubling questions about how badly we have befouled the 70 percent of our planet that's covered with water, and about why we have treated the species closest to us in intelligence with such cruelty and contempt.

Although international environmental nonprofits, the International Whaling Commission and the Japanese government have ignored or covered up the Taiji massacre and its consequences, Psihoyos and O'Barry are confident that their film can lead to a permanent shift in public opinion. (Dolphin meat is already off the menu in Japanese public schools, and the fisheries minister was forced to resign.) As President Obama reminded us this week, the market remains an effective mechanism for change; if you end the demand for dolphin meat and captive dolphin shows, you end the trade in living and dead dolphins. I met O'Barry and Psihoyos at their condo in Park City a day after the premiere of "The Cove."

"The Cove" is about the issue of dolphin captivity first and foremost. But secondarily it's a movie about you and the journey that you've gone on.

Ric O'Barry: I spent the last 40 years working on that obscure issue and it's very difficult because you have to define the problem first. There doesn't appear to be a problem with dolphins in captivity. You see dolphins in a beautiful blue pool and the music's playing, the sun's out, and you're with your family. What's wrong with this picture? Unless you're hitting the dolphin with a baseball bat, you can't see the problem. The movie changes all of that.

What you're talking about is the fact that you guys discovered this hidden cove in Japan [where] thousands of dolphins every year are slaughtered for meat, right?

 R.O.: Twenty-three thousand a year in different parts of Japan, but we’re focusing on this one body of water. Before Louie showed up, I thought we would be working on this forever and ever ... But now, because of "The Cove," I actually see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is not an oncoming train.

That's an amazing thing. And one of the things that is also really remarkable about this film is that you talk about your feelings of personal responsibility for the worldwide issue of dolphins in captivity because of your role in the TV show "Flipper."

R.O.: Yeah, well, "Flipper" helped create this multibillion-dollar industry. I mean, in the United States alone, they make $2 billion profit every 12 months. That's like filling this room with cash -- hundred-dollar bills -- every 12 months.

You had this sort of road-to-Damascus moment at some point in your life where you came to a personal realization that keeping dolphins in captivity was wrong. And that obviously changed your life completely.

R.O.: Yes. It's been a long, strange trip since I walked away from that industry. I could have stayed with it if I'd wanted to, and been making a lot of money. I could still do that, if I wanted to, you know, have my own politically correct dolphin "Flipper" sea school thing somewhere in the Bahamas. But I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Instead I go to Taiji, with Louie, where I can't sleep at night.

Louie, how did you get involved with this project in the first place?

Louie Psihoyos: I went to a marine mammal conference down in San Diego in 2000. The world's top marine mammal scientists were there. A lot of dry speeches, you know, all scientific speeches, and Ric was supposed to be the keynote speaker on a video night. I was really looking forward to hearing him talk because it was something I could relate to; [I watched] "Flipper" as a child and this is the guy that trained it. And at the last minute he was banned from talking and I gave Ric a call and asked why, and he said he was banned from talking because of his feelings about captivity and he was going to talk about this dolphin slaughter in Taiji and I said, "Dolphin slaughter?" I couldn't imagine that there was, in this day and age, people were slaughtering dolphins. So I gave him a call and said, "So who's doing something about it? What's going on?" And he said, "Well, I'm going next week. Do you want to come?"

I'd never actually picked up a video camera before and worked it as a professional. So I got a three-day crash course in training and went out there with Ric. Of course, after years at National Geographic I'm fairly good with a still camera, but it's a little bit different with a movie camera. You're working in multiple dimensions of time and sound. But, yeah, it was probably the worst conditions I can imagine to try to start a film. I'd just met Stephen Spielberg a few months before that -- I was actually on a boat and our kids were doing sleepovers on this vacation -- and he said, "What do you do?" and I said, "Well, I make films. I'm starting to become a filmmaker." And he says, "Let me tell you something: Never make a movie on boats or with animals." And I was about to start the Oceanic Preservation Society and I would be spending a lot of time on boats and photographing large, uncooperative animals. And now I'm going to this cove where people want to kill you. It's like this natural fortress; it's nearly impossible to get in there and then you have the police on your tail. Everything was working against us.

There's an element of secret agent mission, or as I think you put it in the film, "Ocean's Eleven" about this movie, right? You kind of had to put together a team of people who were going to shoot clandestinely under extremely difficult conditions in the middle of the night.

L.P.: Simon Hutchins, who is the head of expeditions, set up all these weird ways that we could set up devices to photograph this while actually not being there. To get into the cove and film it, we didn't need filmmakers. We needed people that had nothing to do with filmmaking. The joke on the set was, "We're all professionals, just not at this." We didn't know how deep the entrance of the lagoon was, and we wanted to set some hydrophones and underwater cameras there, so we had Mandy-Ray Cruickshank, eight-time world champion free diver, set the cameras. We had George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic build some 3-D rocks -- fake rocks to hide cameras in. We had a military-grade thermal camera that we used to tag the moving-around of the guards in the cove and the police that were tracking us. It was a military operation more than it was a film shoot.

If you're expecting some sort of dry, issues-dominated nature documentary, what you're getting is something a little bit more like a James Bond film that ends with atrocity footage at a certain point. It's extremely dramatic.

L.P.: Yeah, somebody told me it looks like a result of watching too many Jacques Cousteau specials and James Bond movies.

It is a combination of those things. And when we actually see what is going on in that cove in Taiji, it is absolutely shocking.

L.P.: It's pretty astounding what was going on. What’s even more shocking is that on the face of it, they're saying that Joji Morishita from the IWC [International Whaling Commission], he's saying the animals are killed instantly, they're killed humanely and the director of overseas fisheries who's in charge of all the quotas of dolphins, porpoises and whales, he says that they're killed instantly and humanely. And of course the footage tells a much different story.

Did you know exactly what was going on in the cove before you saw it or were you just deducing?

R.O.: Well, I'd been going there for five or six years before Louie came. So I knew before the film what was going on. But I was never able to capture it ... I can watch it, and I did, four, five times a day, every day. And it goes on from September through March. And it was so horrifying I was having a hard time believing I was seeing this. And how come the world doesn't know about it? It's been going on for 400 years and still today the Japanese people don't know that it's happening.

You interview people on the street in Tokyo who have no idea.

R.O.: They have no idea. And so the Japanese people are innocent. They are victims of a government that suppresses the news. A real democracy has a party in power and has an opposition party. They don't have that. They have one party, a right-wing party that controls the media and they make sure that the Japanese people don't know the truth. This film is going to break through all of that.

There's already been some incremental progress about the issue of dolphin meat in Japan, which is highly toxic.

L.P.: Right. Two city council members came out on record, after seeing the work of Ric and some of our work there, they went and had the meat analyzed themselves, because they couldn't take our word directly. But they had dolphin meat that was being served in the school tested, and it was 12-16 times more --

R.O.: Well, there are different numbers. It depends on how old the dolphin is, you know. And we've done these tests many times ... [he holds up photos] These are pictures of dolphin meat that we purchased in grocery stores throughout Japan, around Wakayama Prefecture. And you'll note that there's no warning label on it. But this is dolphin meat. Some of the internal organs were 3,500 times above the safe level.

Of mercury, we're talking about.

R.O.: And Mr. Yamashta, the city councilman, he didn't believe our tests. He tested it himself. Because his children are in the school and they're eating this dolphin meat. So he -- he is a national hero. Not yet. Right now he's really a guy who's having to sell his house, move out of his hometown. His children -- nobody will play with them or talk to them. But he's the guy who is exposing the mercury contamination in Wakayama Prefecture. But he needs our help, so we're going back there. We're going to try and give him a big award, which should embarrass the mayor -- although the mayor and the city council who run the Taiji Whale Museum, by the way, traffic in dolphins.

Yes, they took it out of the school, and why did they take it out? They took it out because it’s poison, and they don't want to poison their children. But they continue to sell it to their neighbors. What is that about? So that will continue until we can get this movie into Japan and cut off the demand.

It appears from the film that it's also not a terribly lucrative business, killing dolphins for meat. Did you say it's $600 per dead dolphin basically?

L.P.:  But it's also pest control. Seriously. The Japanese government has, over the last five years, been coming out citing scientific data saying that whales and dolphins are responsible for the decline of fisheries. Saying that that's the reason we don't have as much fish in the oceans right now.

Isn't that the definition of ass-backward?

L.P.: Well, definitely. It should be obvious to everyone that the decline of fisheries is because of human activity, not because of dolphins and whales.

Beyond the specific issue of the thousands of dolphins killed by Japan every year, you make a really powerful case in the film, by the way, that this is an intelligent and self-aware species. Is that what you gleaned from your years of working with dolphins?

R.O.: Yeah. I think the porch light is on and someone’s home. They are self-aware. We know humans are self-aware, and the higher apes, and dolphins are also self-aware. What I mean by that is we can look in the mirror and we know what we're looking at. It's not so with a dog or a cat or a zebra or so forth. And so these are self-aware, free-ranging, large-brained creatures that routinely make choices and decisions regarding the details of their life. They are entitled to freedom of choice, thus they're entitled to freedom. And driving them into this lagoon, and doing what we witness is simply wrong.

Beyond the issue of the slaughter, what more would it take, do you think, to really change world opinion on the issue of dolphins in captivity at a ll?

R.O.: One of the things is for people to stop buying tickets for dolphin shows, because it's the dolphin captures ... I have a contract in my hand here, you can see that dolphins are being sold ...

"Dolphin Purchase Provisional Agreement," it's called.

R.O.: From Ted Hammond, who's an American veterinarian, he sold these 10 dolphins to an amusement park in Turkey for $28,000 apiece. OK? Other dolphins, we know for sure, were sold from Taiji by the same guy for $156,000 each. A group went last week, just before I came here, to Mexico. No, Sea World is not going there and doing this. But their colleagues are. And they're not doing anything about it. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is not doing anything to police their own industry. And so these captures are the economic underpinning of the slaughter. This multibillion-dollar industry could end it any time they want to.

Just to clarify your position, when you think about the places that are not directly involved in this kind of gray-market international dolphin trade, like Sea World or the National Aquarium in Baltimore, or other places that have captive dolphins, you still believe that that's immoral for those places to keep those dolphins in captivity?

R.O.: Yeah, I think it is. It's also a form of bad education. It's the exact opposite of what they're telling you. They're telling you that this is educational: "We have to display them at the National Aquarium, [otherwise] people in the inner city, kids here, will never see a dolphin." Sounds logical. But the same children are never going to see a snow leopard. Should we go to the Himalayas and drag one of them into the building too?

But the proof, really the smoking gun, is in Japan. They have 50 dolphinariums. They’re about to build the 51ist in Kyoto. There are 50 dolphinariums, which translates into hundreds of millions of people who have been through the aquarium. They're now educated and they're going to protect dolphins. But where are they? So there is no science to sustain this theory that if we display any wild animal it's going to save them.

So where can our readers and listeners go for more information about this?

R.O.: Well, one of the places is SaveJapanDolphins.org.  There's another place --- the OPS  Web site, opsociety.org.

And that's your group, the Oceanic Preservation Society?

L.P.: We have a very simple mission statement. "We're not trying to save the whole planet, just 70 percent of it." And we're doing it through film and art photography, really.

I definitely came out of there wanting to burn down the nearest Japanese consulate or something like that, which is possibly not the most mature response. But maybe that could be channeled in a healthier direction.

R.O.: Well, you can, actually. People should -- and you can find them on the Web site very easily -- get in touch with the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. and file a formal complaint. That's much more effective than contacting the government of Japan because they just hit the delete button. The embassy in Washington has to record those complaints and they have to report to Tokyo. So that's something your listeners can do right now.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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