I have to thank my brother Steve for turning me on to The Cove, the Academy Award® Winner for Best Documentary of 2009.
It is a film the Japanese government did not want the world to see — the gripping tale of how dolphins are herded into a serenely beautiful cove in Taiji, Japan for viewing and selection by representatives of aquariums, marine parks, and swim-with-dolphins programs from around the world. The shocking secret is that the dolphins not chosen as show animals are then brutally slaughtered for their meat, a meat so tainted by mercury that it is unsafe for human consumption. In this remote part of Taiji, which visitors are forbidden to enter, the water of the cove at times turns red.
If only this film were fiction and not a documentary. It is set in a charming tourist town where visitors are transported in cute buses that look like smiling dolphins. The tale has all the elements of a great thriller — intrigue (stealth filming, cameras hidden in rocks), suspense (Will the filmmakers get caught?), and a gripping plot with many players and accomplices. There is even some forensic science. Some suspected that the dolphin meat was being being packaged and falsely labeled as fish for sale in supermarkets; DNA testing proved that the questionable fish was actually dolphin meat.
The Cove was finally released in Japan this month. The village portrayed in the film is still defending its practices. You can read more here: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/with-the-cove-victorious-at-oscars-japanese-village-defends-itself/
One of the key players in this film is Richard O'Barry, who captured and trained dolphins for Miami Seaquarium in the 1960s. These dolphins included five who played the role of Flipper in the TV show I and so many other American kids loved. OʼBarry is convinced that Kathy, one of the five, committed suicide. After she died in his arms, O’Barry began a new life as a dolphin activist. He has spent the last 40 years educating people throughout the world about the plight of dolphins in captivity, sometimes taking very public (and sometimes illegal) actions.
I have to confess I experienced pangs of guilt while watching this film. I had grown up with Flipper and had taken my son to aquariums and marine shows. And then I recalled that I had witnessed what looked to be very bored beluga whales blowing rings, catching them, and breaking them to amuse themselves at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. So I am part of the problem.
What can we do besides boycotting dolphin shows?
Since 2007, O’Barry has been the Marine Mammal Specialist for Earth Island Institute and Director of Save Japan Dolphins coalition: www.SaveJapanDolphins.org This website outlines a number of ways you can get involved.
Back to the mercury.
The dolphin meat, its mercury content, and the meat’s fate becomes the strong second plot of the film. In short, the tainted meat was quietly being fed to Japanese schoolchildren, despite its mercury content and potential to cause harm to the brain and nervous system. It took efforts of some courageous fishermen/parents to put a stop to the practice.
On the DVD there is a bonus feature dealing with the mercury content of seafood. Don’t miss this feature! One of the filmmakers has his blood tested for mercury with alarming results. You can find more information about mercury in seafood here http://thecovemovie.com/fishtoenjoy2.htm
Once you ascertain the mercury content of the fish you enjoy (enjoyed?) eating, you can also check on its sustainability by downloading a Seafood Watch Pocket Guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site
Do watch The Cove. Maybe not on date night, but sometime soon. For the dolphins. And for your own well-being. If the tale is told and no one hears…