The Cove is a 2009 documentary about an annual dolphin slaughter — 23,000 bottlenose dolphins killed every year in a secluded bay at the whaling town of Taiji, Japan. We first became aware of it when it won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and finally watched it this week after it surfaced in our Nexflix queue.
Documentaries about environmental activism are not generally popular, and certainly few people care to view mass killings of dolphins, but there are numerous reasons why this movie won the Oscar, and several aspects of its story that make it a compelling film to watch:
- The Cove was directed by Louie Psihoyos, an award-winning National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. It not only looks great, but it unfolds at a brisk pace with a clear and coherent narrative.
- The story is built around dolphin expert Ric O’Barry, who captured and trained the five female dolphins who portrayed “Flipper” in the enormously popular 1960s TV series of the same name.
- The success of Flipper led to the exploitation of dolphins and whales in aquarium shows and “swim with dolphins” attractions, making them an extremely lucrative catch for dolphin hunters and whalers. Ric O’Barry says it was the suicide of the Flipper dolphin Kathy, in his arms, that turned him into an anti-captivity dolphin activist looking to end dolphin attractions and dolphin hunting.
- A center of dolphin hunting due to their annual migration and Japan’s whaling traditions, the town of Taiji outwardly presents itself as dolphin-friendly, yet it doggedly guards the specific cove into which dolphins and pilot whales are driven and trapped each September. Trainers for aquariums and attractions from all over the world pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best dolphins, and then the remainder are slaughtered for meat.
- Due to its high levels of mercury, dolphin meat poses a severe mercury poisoning health risk to humans, producing neuropathic symptoms as well as serious birth defects. To get around this, dolphin meat can be misrepresented as whale meat, and one proposal highlighted in the film would make it a mandatory food in Japan’s school lunches.
- To circumvent Japan’s authorities and police protection of the isolated Taiji cove, Louie Psihoyos and his Oceanic Preservation Society assemble a sort of “Ocean’s 11 team” of divers, camera people, and even a former head mold-maker from Industrial Light & Magic, with the goal of capturing the dolphin killing on video by secretly planting camouflaged, high-definition cameras and audio recorders in the cove.
- The bigger picture is a story of politics at the International Whaling Commission, and Japan’s insistence on hunting of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in general.
To be sure, The Cove presents its story from the side of the dolphin activists. It does, however, include an offical with Japan’s Fisheries Agency as well as Joji Morishita, Japan’s International Whaling Commission delegate, both assuring that all dolphin killing is instantaneous and humane. There is also a quick mention of the fact that Westerners slaughter and eat many other animals — such as cows — even as they abhor the butchering of dolphins.
Despite its evangelism, the movie is a fascinating and even thrilling look at a clash of cultures and the reappraisal of some awe-inspiring creatures. It’s a process that started personally with Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry, which he hopes to spread worldwide through his message of “Text DOLPHIN to 44144” (which ABC cameras avoided when The Cove won the Oscar) or “TakePart.com/TheCove.”
I found The Cove very worth watching, and rate it 3 and a half out of 4 stars.