When the Oscar award-winning film, The Cove, was released last year, I resisted seeing it. The trailers upset me. I anticipated that the film would be emotionally devastating. I love dolphins. I have warm memories of watching the television program Flipper as a child. I’ve been thrilled to see a pod of dolphins playfully dive in and out of the water as they passed by a time-share condo in Florida that I once shared with my grandmother and my sister.
I’ve experienced a combination of emotions when seeing dolphins perform in various aquariums around North America: joy, sadness, curiosity, concern. I’ve sat by the window in the subterranean viewing area of our Vancouver Aquarium, watching the Pacific white-sided dolphins swim up to the window and wondering at how healthy and happy they are in their bleak enclosure.
I finally was convinced by my teenage son to watch The Cove this week. We downloaded it from our cable provider, and my son, husband and I sat down to watch it together. It was even more emotionally devastating than I had anticipated.
By the time the film was over, I felt completely emotionally overwhelmed. There were deep, deep sobs heaving within me, threatening to engulf me, but I wanted to debrief the film with my son. So I released a few tears and took a few deep breaths. We talked first of all about the dolphins in our local aquarium.
My son had questions: “Where did those dolphins come from?” “Is it okay to watch them do their shows?” I didn’t have the answers, but told him I would contact the aquarium to find out. (Although their public relations office has responded to my calls and emails, they have yet to schedule a conversation or meeting with us.)
The three of us (husband, son, and I) flipped open our Mac laptops and logged onto The Cove’s website for more information. My son and I both signed the online petition, and joined The Cove’s Facebook page. We’re now competing to see which of us can encourage more of our FB friends to join the cause. (You can support the campaign—well, my part of the campaign — on this Facebook page.)
Our conversation took some interesting paths. My son asked if the Japanese fishermen were “stupid.” We talked about the difference between ignorance and stupidity, and explored cultural differences. We talked about what rural Hindus in India would think about our North American fast-food hamburger culture, and what some Canadians and others around the world think about the Canadian seal hunt.
But our conversation then came back to the question of what we could do in addition to our Facebook cause campaign. Should we continue to visit our local aquarium, and other aquariums around the world? The producers of The Cove had raised our awareness that the demand for “show dolphins” and the popularity of swimming with dolphins in captivity were contributing to the slaughter of over 20,000 dolphins annually. So, is any dolphin in captivity a “bad thing”?
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums claims that 150 million people annually visit their AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. They also state that there are 1,236 marine mammals in their facilities. They don’t specify how many of these are dolphins, how many were captured, or how many were born into captivity. Is there a difference? In response to the question, “Is it okay to watch dolphin shows created with dolphins born into captivity?” The Cove filmmakers have responded, “It is the same question slave owners asked about children born into slavery.”
Should dolphins be in captivity at all? Both Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States have gone on the record to say a clear NO. They adamantly state that by attending dolphin shows or by participating in “swim-with-the-dolphin” activities, we are endorsing the capture of dolphins from the wild — and helping ensure it continues.
Back in Taji, Japan, the town where much of The Cove was filmed, there are some positive changes taking place since the movie was released. Although dolphins are still being caught for sale to aquariums, several dozen of the dolphins captured in September 2009 were reportedly released rather than killed. Yet, the town’s fishermen continue to claim that the hunt is part of their tradition and not much different than hunting deer for sport or raising cattle for meat.
According to “L.A. Unleashed” in the Los Angeles Times, the mayor’s office has also claimed that many of The Cove’s assertions are not based on science. An associate professor at Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, Tetsuya Endo, is profiled in the film and claims he was interviewed under false pretenses. He and Hisato Ryono, a local councilman who also appears in the film, have requested that the footage involving them be removed. Endo is reported to be considering legal action.
The film is scheduled to be released in Japan in June of 2010 and has received mixed reviews there following a screening at a Tokyo film festival.
The Cove has also generated controversy in the Western town of Broome, Australia, sister city of Taji, Japan since 1981. The two cities have historic ties, as many Japanese immigrants were involved in the development of Broome’s pearl diving industry. Over 900 Japanese pearl divers perished during dives, an unknown number more died at sea.
Broome is an eco-tourism location, and following the international outcry and national pressure generated by The Cove, the town council voted to sever ties with their sister city in August of 2009. Three councilors opposed this decision, and a special meeting was called, with ties eventually being restored between the two cities. Broome officials have pledged to support Taji in developing alternative economic solutions to the current dolphin hunt.
The Cove has raised issues other than the slaughter of dolphins, and whether or not dolphins belong in captivity. The movie also explores the high levels of mercury in dolphin flesh, and the flesh of other high-on-the-food-chain marine life. This will be part of the focus of The Cove’s director Louie Psihoyos’s next film, currently entitled The Singing Planet. Psihoyos states, “It’s not just about saving dolphins. It’s about saving humans.”
Watching this movie has shifted my thinking about my future interactions with aquariums. In the past, I’ve watched many dolphin shows at aquariums all over North America. The knowledge that my choice, made from a place of ignorance, has been even a small part of the horrific slaughter of these beautiful creatures deeply disturbs me. I will never again find any pleasure in a trained dolphin show.