Caroline J. Howard, ABS-CBN News Channel

MANILA, Philippines – In a sleepy coast in Taiji, Wakayama in Japan, a little-known fishing tradition, unmatched elsewhere in the world, has been quietly going on for sometime now.

It involves fishermen herding migrating dolphins into a hidden cove every September, away from the prying eyes of tourists, and mercilessly spearing them until the water is stained with dolphin blood.

A gripping documentary
This is the scene depicted in the gripping Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove”. 

Environmentalists are now using the emotionally-charged piece to push their advocacy of dolphin protection right to Japan’s doorstep.

The film follows former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, who gained popularity in the 1960’s for capturing and training dolphins who played the title character in the international television sensation “Flipper.” But he admitted his life turned around when one of these intelligent creatures committed suicide in his arms by holding its breath while in captivity.

As O’Barry himself summed it up: He “spent 10 years building an industry up, and 35 years trying to free every captive dolphin.” Now it is his hope to help awaken the same realization in others. 

Backed by a brave group of filmmakers with underwater sound and camera equipment, and special effects artists and free divers, O’Barry and members of the Oceanic Preservation Society set off on an adrenaline-fueled agenda, overstepping boundaries and planting hidden cameras in rocks and trees in the cover of darkness to unveil the brutal killing of dolphins in Taiji.

As the film presents, huge revenues from selling captured dolphins to dolphinariums and marine parks fuel the town’s tradition of ‘drive-fishing’ or dolphin hunting, with each live dolphin fetching as much as $150,000.Some 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are supposedly killed in Japan every year.

Fishermen consider them “pests who overeat fish” thereby limiting their catch.

Another fact the film supposedly uncovers is how Japan’s residents are unaware of the market of dolphin meat from these kills, and how these contain high levels of mercury.

“The Cove” is a critique not just of the deplorable practice of capturing and killing dolphins but also of the seeming uselessness of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body tasked to ensure the protection of marine mammals, allowing the sale and transport of dolphins for entertainment purposes, as well as their culling for dangerous mercury-streaked meat.

The Philippine connection

Environmentalists hope to raise awareness on dolphins and stop their brutal massacre thru a network of efforts, beginning with a drive to gather 5 million signatures.

So far, Earth Island Institute (EII) and its international networks have gathered 1.7 million signatures. O’Barry has gathered a million more to present to the Japanese Ambassador to the United States.

EII encourages the public to watch future screenings of “The Cove” to help the effort.

 “The target is to close the Philippine connection with dolphin shows,” said EII Regional Director Trixie Concepcion. “The Philippines has imported animals from the drive fisheries and it went to a facility called Ocean Adventure which has dolphin shows. So if we want to stop the practice here, signature campaigns are all right but it’s the money we have to stop which buys animals in Japan.”

Concepcion revealed that a 1985 study commissioned by the UK Government on all existing dolphinariums concluded that dolphin shows do not resemble anything of the life of animals in the wild and purely serves entertainment purposes.

“The dolphin shows and guidebooks have unanimously been assessed by three education experts as containing little to any educational purpose. They find that the form and content of the shows may well give visitors a false and anthropomorphic impression of the animals,” wrote Dr. Margaret Klinowska of the Research Group in Mammalian Ecology and Reproduction Physiological Lab, University of Cambridge in the UK.

The study noted: “The layout of the dolphinaria had nothing in common with the natural habitat and everything in common with the requirements of the performance.”

The study also acknowledged that the study of wild or captive cetaceans was not enough. It recommended a complete review of the legal status of UK wild cetaceans.

“The dolphin population is being decimated. In the eastern tropical Pacific, it’s because of tuna fishing companies. In the western Pacific, in countries like Japan, they’re hunting it more for food. In Japan, they had three islands doing it before: Fudo, Iki and Taiji. The other places in Japan which used to do it before don’t do it anymore, not because they changed but because there are no more dolphins,” explained Concepcion.

Individual efforts

Inspired by the film’s message, some Filipinos like AG Saño and Karina Escudero have also joined the advocacy.

“Keep the wild animals in the wild. There’s a law in the Philippines (FAO 185) that says no one can touch a marine mammal. But we found out there are loopholes which marine parks have been exploiting. A marine park in Misamis Occidental claims the animals are rescued but we found out they’ve been there for six years. If it’s a rehabilitation center, then why are they still there? If they’re healthy, they should’ve been released. That’s the next step to rehabilitation. They’re charging tourists to pay fees, and even bigger fees if guests want to feed the dolphins. We talked to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and they said they never gave a permit for such a program,” said AG Saño.

Saño added they are drafting letters and hope to have a dialogue with the people running the park.

An artist and wildlife photographer, Saño has been researching on the migration of humpback whales in the Babuyan Islands for the past 10 years. He aims to paint 23,000 dolphins before the end of the month. He has painted close to 15,000 dolphins and has been traveling all over the country to paint murals of dolphins to help raise awareness on these creatures and protest the keeping of dolphins in captivity. 

“I’ve been studying marine mammals for the past 10 years and I’ve been caring for migrating humpback whales for the past 10 years. It’s natural for me to have a negative reaction against what’s happening in Japan. We have 99% of marine mammal experts in the Philippines on our side who say it’s wrong to keep animals in captivity. When dolphins are kept in contained spaces, they get bored and go crazy. It’s not fair for us to do that to a very intelligent creature,” he said.

Saño cited cases where confining marine mammals have manifested negatively on their behavior.

“There have been a lot of incidents when marine mammals went wild. Last summer, a head trainer in Sea World in Orlando, Florida was killed during a show in front of thousands of kids,” Saño said, and went on to argue the inauthenticity of the educational value in animal shows.

“If you look at the grade school textbook, it tells you about the flipper, the tale, but it won’t tell you the natural behavior of the animal in the wild. Dolphins love freedom. They travel 40 to 50 miles a day and limiting them to a small area would destroy their life process. The real message of the campaign is captivity, not necessarily the slaughter. Slaughter is a function of captivity and Japan has been doing this for centuries. One thing is for sure: the slaughter won’t continue if people stop going to the shows,” explained Saño.

Alternative dolphin encounter

Moved by her own encounter with “The Cove,” diver and underwater documentarist Karina Escudero urged the public to look at other alternatives to having a close encounter with dolphins.

“The film made me cry. I watched it several times. As a diver, I’ve videoed these animals, dolphins, whales. They’re wonderful in the wild. I just don’t want to see them in captivity. It’s totally wrong. What we can do best is to make sure none of those dolphins end up here. There’s a map of the world that shows the Philippines is red, which means it’s part of this whole system that gets dolphins slaughtered. There’s a place called Subic Ocean Adventure where dolphins from the cove go,” Escudero said.

Since 2001, the EII said the Ocean Adventure Park in Subic has imported five false killer whales and seven bottlenose dolphins from the Japanese drive fishery. Four out of the five killer whales and a bottlenose dolphin have died. Another four bottlenose dolphins were imported by Ocean Adventure for ‘breeding’ purposes in October last year.

“You don’t need to go to an ocean park or a dolphin show. There are places in the Philippines that offer good watching trips: Puerto Princesa Bay, Bohol, Pamilican Islands, and Bais in Dumaguete,” Escudero said.

“The Cove” won Best Documentary Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards. The film was directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos.

“The Cove” will be shown for free on September 28 and October 1 at the Director’s Club, SM Mall of Asia.

For more information on the global campaign to save the dolphins, email [email protected] or[email protected], or send an SMS to 0918-6293648.