Bond and Cousteau track the dolphin killers

Spinning a grim tale of murdered dolphins and poisoned schoolkids, "The Cove" is an amazing, real-life spy story

By Andrew O'Hehir
July 30, 2009 2:30PM (UTC)
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Dolphins jump on location of "The Cove."

Photo Courtesy of Oceanic Preservation Society

Dolphins jump on location of "The Cove."

What's so remarkable about Louie Psihoyos' documentary "The Cove" isn't just that it's a powerful work of agitprop that's going to have you sending furious e-mails to the Japanese Embassy on your way out of the theater. That's definitely true, but the effectiveness of "The Cove" also comes from its explosive cinematic craft, its surprising good humor and its pure excitement -- from the fact that, as Psihoyos puts it, he spent his childhood watching too many Jacques Cousteau specials and James Bond movies.


A longtime National Geographic photographer turned filmmaker, Psihoyos tells an amazing true story in "The Cove," or perhaps two interconnected true stories. One of them is the shocking story of what happens every year in a sheltered cove near Taiji, Japan, "a little town with a big secret." Taiji is where hundreds of dolphins are captured and sold into the international dolphinarium trade -- and thousands more are pointlessly slaughtered and sold for minimal profit as mislabeled, mercury-poisoned meat. That grim tale is at least partly balanced by the second one, which is about one-time "Flipper" dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, who has spent his post-television life as an activist dedicated to freeing captive dolphins whenever and wherever he can, whether by legal means or not.

As I wrote after seeing "The Cove" at Sundance last winter, Psihoyos' film follows the unlikely "Ocean's Eleven"-style raid he and O'Barry led into the Taiji cove. Aided by a pair of champion free-divers and Hollywood special-effects designers, they planted hidden cameras inside the cove to capture what happened to imprisoned dolphins there. In a roomful of New York film critics -- pretty much the most jaded audience you could imagine -- we sat and watched the resulting footage in dead, haunted silence. Although it's beautifully photographed and highly entertaining, "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.

Finally reaching theaters this week, "The Cove" has already taken an early lead in the documentary Oscar race. Far more important than that, it's a movie that has already galvanized a powerful reaction and is likely to go much further. You can read my original Sundance interview with Psihoyos and O'Barry here (and listen to it here). Here are a few excerpts for your reading convenience, just below the theatrical trailer for "The Cove."


Ric, this movie is about the issue of dolphin captivity, and the killing of dolphins, first and foremost. But secondarily it's a movie about you and your journey.

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.

In the film, 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, where you came to a personal realization that keeping dolphins in captivity was wrong. 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 made a lot of money. I could still do that, if I wanted to, you know, have my own politically correct "Flipper" 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. [Laughter.]


Louie, how did you get involved with this project?

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. At the last minute he was banned from talking. I gave Ric a call and asked why, and he said he was banned from talking because he was going to talk about this dolphin slaughter in Taiji. I said, "Dolphin slaughter?" 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. It was probably the worst conditions I can imagine to try to start a film. I'd just met Steven Spielberg a few months before that -- I was actually on a boat, and our kids were doing sleepovers -- 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."


I was about to start the Oceanic Preservation Society, 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 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 was the head of the expedition, set up all these weird ways that we could photograph this while not actually 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, an eight-time world champion free diver, set the cameras. We had George Lucas' Industrial Light & 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 motion 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.

"The Cove" opens July 31 in New York and Los Angeles, with wide national release to follow beginning on Aug. 7.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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