'Cove' Director Surfaces Deep (And Dark) Secrets Director Louie Psihoyos talks about his new documentary film The Cove, an expose of dolphin abuse in Japan. Former Flipper trainer Ric O'Barry joins the conversation.
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'Cove' Director Surfaces Deep (And Dark) Secrets

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'Cove' Director Surfaces Deep (And Dark) Secrets

'Cove' Director Surfaces Deep (And Dark) Secrets

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We just heard David Edelstein's review of "The Cove," the new documentary about the capture and slaughter of dolphins in a cove in Japan. Here's another scene from the film. This is the diver Edelstein mentioned, Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, who plants the hidden underwater cameras to document the dolphins' slaughter. She's describing an encounter with the fishermen in "The Cove."

Ms. MANDY-RAE CRUIKSHANK (Diver): Our first encounter with the fishermen was they went down there at first break of light and as soon as we arrived a number of fishermen showed up.

(Soundbite of ocean)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. CRUIKSHANK: We were down by the beach looking at - you could see the blood coming out of the killing lagoon. You could see a bunch of the babies were cordoned off by themselves away from their parents while their parents were all being slaughtered. And so I wanted to get a better look into the lagoon and as Joe and I tried to walk down the top some of the fishermen came and actually butted chests against us…

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. CRUIKSHANK: …trying to stop us from getting that vantage point on the killing. Then just after that we walked down to the water's edge and this one poor dolphin it - you could see it trying to get away and it was swimming straight for us in shore.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUIKSHANK: And it actually made it over a couple of the nets. And every time it came up for a breath you could see all this blood coming out behind it and then you could see the last couple of breaths it took and then it went down and we never saw it again.

GROSS: My guests are the director of the film "The Cove," Louie Psihoyos, and the main character the documentary follows, Ric O'Barry. Psihoyos worked as a National Geographic photographer for 18 years and has shot covers for Smithsonian, Discover, Time and Newsweek. In 2005, in cofounded the Oceanic Preservation Society.

Ric O'Barry trained the dolphins that played "Flipper" in the TV series. Now he's an activist opposing the capture and the slaughter of dolphins.

I asked Psihoyos what it was like to go to Taiji, the Japanese village where he and O'Barry documented the slaughter of dolphins.

Mr. LOUIE PSIHOYOS (Filmmaker): Going in the Taiji where this all happens was like walking into a Stephen King novel. You go into town and on either side of the bridge going into town they have these dolphin statues and then you're immediately confronted with this big mural that says, we love dolphins, in English. And, you know, the whole town was built around, you know, loving dolphins and whales. And then in the middle of this town is this national park that even Japanese people can't go in: you know, big tall fences, steel spikes on the gates, razor ribbon, barbed wire, a series of tunnels to get through on one side to get there. And, you know, it was just like a fortress, and Ric said, you know, that's where this all happens, in this national park.

GROSS: So let's talk about some of what you learned that goes on at the cove. You say that there's a slaughter there and that it's also the place that a lot of representatives from, you know, mammal aquariums from around the world go to find dolphins for their dolphin shows. So what happens there? Like, how are the dolphins sorted out for the aquarium industry versus slaughters? Is there some kind of audition?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean…

Mr. RIC O'BARRY (Dolphin Activist): Exactly. Yeah, they - and you can see that in the film. You see dolphin trainers, as many as 30 of them, some of them Westerners, you see them in the water up to their waist selecting the best. Just like I did when we started the "Flipper" series I - we captured over a hundred and we were looking for five that were young females without blemishes that are photogenic and that's what they're doing. You see them at the cove.

And I get more upset with the dolphin trainers I see there than the fishermen. The fishermen really think that they are fish and one of the reasons is the word, the character for a whale, kujira, in Japanese translates into monster fish. So they're thinking fish, but the dolphin trainers who are there working side by side with them look them in the eye everyday. They give them names. They spend time with them. They know they're self-aware. And so I get more upset with them than I do the fishermen who are slaughtering them.


Mr. O'BARRY: But clearly, the trainers are assisting them. And you can see that. The evidence is irrefutable.

GROSS: So what happens? The fishermen herd the dolphins into the cove and then the people from the aquariums come first, choose the dolphins they want, and the rest are slaughtered?

Mr. O'BARRY: The way it works is 13 boats will go out at sunrise and they go out to sea several miles and they find these migratory routes the dolphins have been using for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, and they get on the outside of them. And the boats spread out a couple of hundred meters and they put a long metal pole into the water that has a flange or a bell-like apparatus on the bottom. And they start banging with a hammer and it makes this - literally creates an underwater acoustical net or a wall, if you will, and this frightens the dolphins. And they're able to drive them ashore and into the cove, which they seal with a net.

And so it's predictable that when that happens, when they drive them in, which is usually around noon or later, it's predictable they will go home and go to sleep and they won't come back until the sun comes up. So that's our window of opportunity to bring in CNN, the BBC, or Louie Psihoyos and his film crew or whoever.

GROSS: Now you mentioned the way the dolphins are herded into the cove is through this kind of ring of fishermen in boats making noise.

Mr. O'BARRY: Yeah.

GROSS: And dolphins have sonar, the equivalent of sonar and they are very, very sensitive to sound, so…

Mr. O'BARRY: Exactly. That's their downfall.

GROSS: So that must be pretty upsetting to them, to hear that they're fleeing that sound. Is that what's happening?

Mr. O'BARRY: They're terrified. They are in sheer terror and they're running sometimes three or four or five hours from these boats. And then by the time they get to the killing cove they are exhausted. And babies are left behind. Mothers, you know, pregnant females abort. The old are left behind. It's amazing what goes on there. It's just so over the top in terms of cruel - more than a slaughterhouse. Some people compare this to a slaughterhouse but in a slaughterhouse you don't terrorize the animals for, you know - I've seen them do this for up to a week.

So yeah, that's what happens. They're driven in and the best are selected by the captivity industry, mainly China, a lot of them are going to China right now. The last group went to Mexico, to Cancun, so that tourists can swim with them. The group before that went to Turkey and the Philippines, different parts of the world. They haven't come into America since, I think it was 1980 - 1993. Earth Island Institute wrote a letter to the National Marine Fishery Service warning them that if they continued to issue permits to allow these dolphins into America, we were going to file a lawsuit and that's when it stopped.

GROSS: Louie Psihoyos, you among other things planted microphones in the cove so you could hear the dolphins' sounds. Would you describe the tape that you got back from the cove?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Horrifying. I mean we wanted to, you know, we don't know what the dolphins are saying but you can actually, you know, you could tell they're terrorized. The squeals are just, I know, they're deafening. I mean…

Mr. O'BARRY: Yeah, the purpose of banging on these poles is to terrify them. That - it's very deliberate. It's to terrify them.

GROSS: And so, Louie, the tape that you have is tape of the dolphins after they're trapped by nets in the cove and they're waiting there to be chosen for aquariums or to be slaughtered. Is that where the tape comes from?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah. The sounds that you're hearing are actually one when they're getting killed.

GROSS: I see. In order to hear what we're talking about, why don't we hear a clip from the film? And this is the part where you're playing the tape of the dolphins squealing as they're being slaughtered. Is that what you're saying? This is as they are being slaughtered?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Exactly.

GROSS: Okay, here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Cove")

(Soundbite of water bubbling, dolphins squealing)

GROSS: That's the sound of dolphins as they're being slaughtered in a cove in Taiji, Japan. And what goes on in this cove, how dolphins are slaughtered and how dolphins are also sold at very high prices to aquariums around the world is the subject of the new film the "Cove." And my guests are the filmmaker, Louie Psihoyos, and Ric O'Barry, who is a former dolphin trainer. He trained the Flipper dolphins for the TV series, and now he is opposing the slaughter of dolphins or the capture of dolphins.

Why are the dolphins slaughtered? Is it for dolphin meat? What happens to the slaughtered dolphins?

Mr. O'BARRY: Well, there are two reasons. One is, yes, for the meat, which we've learnt as highly toxic.

GROSS: Because of mercury levels?

Mr. O'BARRY: Yeah, mercury. And pest control - using their own words, these few fishermen who are doing this. And by the way, it's not the whole town of Taiji and it's not the country of Japan. Most people in Japan don't even know this is going on. It's a small group of people. We're talking about 13 boats, two men in each boat. That's 26 men, plus others in the slaughterhouse and in the union and truck drivers. So it's a pretty relatively small group of people.

But, one day, my wife and I were there five or six years ago. And the police took us into the city hall, and we had a meeting. And they said this is the first time we ever sat down and talked to Westerners. This is, incidentally, a very remote part of Japan where you don't see Westerners. But, we offered to subsidize - we said look, how much would it cost if we subsidized you? In other words, if your boats didn't go out for this year, let's just try it for one year. We'll pay you the same amount of money that you would make had you gone out and killed the dolphins.

And they translated that around the table, and it came back it's not about money. It's about pest control. In other words, overfishing is the real problem. They've overfished the coast of Japan to the point where they see dolphins and other whales as competition. Kill the competition. So that's the problem - that's one of the problems, over fishing. And that's a world-wide problem. That's not a Japanese problem.

GROSS: Again, getting back to what's done with the dead dolphins, you're saying part of the reason that they're slaughtered is they're seen as competition for the fish that the fishermen want to catch because the dolphins eat the fish. But what else is done with the dead dolphins? How much of it is sold as dolphin meat?

Mr. O'BARRY: Nobody knows the real numbers, because, you know, 23,000 -the numbers are down now, incidentally. Last year, there were less than 20,000 killed. But they end up in supermarkets, and we've gone to those supermarkets and we've tested the meat. And the mercury level is higher than the fish that impacted more than 200,000 people in Minamata in the 1950s. So it's not fit for human consumption. It's not fit for fertilizer to be put on the ground or pet food. And those are the three things they do with it.

GROSS: My guests are the director of the new documentary, "The Cove," Louie Psihoyos, and the activist he follows, Ric O'Barry. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Louie Psihoyos, the director of the new documentary, "The Cove," which documents the capture and slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese village, Taiji, and Ric O'Barry, the activist the film follows. O'Barry has been arrested many times for his protests against dolphin slaughter and his attempts to free captured dolphins. Louie Psihoyos, I'm going to put you on the spot. A lot of people will see your movie, be appalled what's happening to the dolphins, and at the same time think that Ric O'Barry is a real zealot. And I'm going to put you on the spot, Louie, and ask you what your impressions of Ric are now, having worked with him. I mean, he's been so, like, obsessed with this for decades.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Ric, you know, like, I'm - look at him in the eyes. He's a hero to me. I mean, I really, really look up to him a lot of - you know, I know what it's like to be working in Taiji. But I'm - you know, I'm connected by, you know, by walkie-talkies with headsets to my team and, you know, I'm really protected. But I've been back in America and it's 5:30 the morning back at the cove and Ric's there by himself. You know, a dolphin is the only wild animal known to come out and rescue a human being. Ric is the only person I know that he'll risk his life to save a dolphin.

You know, it's sort of ironic, too, that the, you know, the only way that we can - you know, Ric can save a dolphin now is to prove that humans are putting so much garbage into the water right now that they're contaminated, so you can't eat them. There's an amazing irony going on here, that…

GROSS: Ric O'Barry, you've been - you started working with dolphins in the early '60s?

Mr. O'BARRY: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you become a dolphin trainer?

Mr. O'BARRY: Well, my first day on the job…

GROSS: Did you train dolphins before training Flipper?

Mr. O'BARRY: No. I was in the Navy before I went to work at the Miami Seaquarium. Actually, the first - I had a 14-day leave when I got out of boot camp in the Navy. And it was on Christmas day, 1955, that was opening day of the Miami Seaquarium. And I was there with my family. And I looked inside the tank - there was a big main tank, they call it -500,000 gallons, full of dolphins and jewfish and turtles and sawfish. And there was a guy walking around with a canvas suit and a helmet on and a Miller-Dunn helmet. And I thought, wow, when I get out of Navy, I going to come back and get that guy's job. And I did.

GROSS: What changed you? What changed you from the dolphin trainer, the highly paid dolphin trainer for "Flipper" into someone who is kind of risking your life doing a protest, freeing captive dolphins, sneaking into areas you're not supposed to be, and so on? I mean, was there like an a-ha moment where you suddenly changed, or was there a slow evolution?

Mr. O'BARRY: Well, I was as ignorant as I could be for as long as I could be. And, you know, you put your blinders on. They - it's what they call it in the industry, and you go to work. And, you know, I was getting paid a lot of money and buying a new Porsche every year. And it's very easy to lull yourself into complacency. So, yeah, I knew they didn't belong in captivity, but I didn't do anything about it. And, you know, one of the things, one of the reasons I left that industry - and I walked away from it, incidentally. I didn't - you know, I could have stayed with it. But I got tired of being a professional liar, hypocrite. To be successful and to stay there doing that, I thought, I'm going to have to continue lying to the public. I'm going to have to lie to the media. And I'm going to have to lie to myself every day.

GROSS: In the movie, in the documentary "The Cove," you describe that one of the dolphins, Kathy, who you trained for the "Flipper" series died in your arms, and that was a real turning point for you. Do you want to tell us what happened?

Mr. O'BARRY: Well, I knew at that point dolphins didn't belong in captivity, but I didn't do anything about it. It wasn't until Kathy -the one I thought of as Flipper, at least - died in my arms at the Miami Seaquarium a suicide. And I use that word suicide with some reservation, but I don't know another word in the English language which describes what is, indeed, self-induced asphyxiation. And so your listeners need to understand that dolphins are not automatic air breathers like we are, and every breath is a conscious effort and they can end their life anytime they want to by not taking the next breath.

And I have seen that since Kathy committed suicide many times. I see it in the cove, in Taiji, almost every day, from September through March. And somebody's standing next me, maybe they don't see it because they can't read the dolphins' body language like I can. But I'm watching them commit suicide. And I've seen it happened many times in strandings, and I think it happens in captivity more than it's recorded.

GROSS: Before Kathy did what you described as suicide, did you sense that she was unhappy in captivity?

Mr. O'BARRY: Yes, extremely depressed.

GROSS: How - what were the signs?

Mr. O'BARRY: The sign is - and this is what I call captive dolphin depression syndrome. They will simply lay on the surface of the water with their head up against the wall and lay there like a log. You know, they don't do that in a wild. And it's so depressing, you can feel it. And that's one of the reasons, you know, at the Miami Seaquarium, there's an orca, Lolita, in captivity that does that in between every show. And that's the reason they get everybody out of the theater as soon as the show is over. They don't want people to see that. And I must say also - because you used the word zealot, and the industry does that a lot.

But I must tell you, if you were to come with me - and I would like to invite you - to Taiji in September and stand there at that cove and experience the extreme violence and cruelty - you know, when that kind of extreme violence is absolute, one should oppose it absolutely. And that's what I do. If that's a zealot, then I'm guilty.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Thank you.

Mr. O'BARRY: Thank you, yeah.

GROSS: Louie Psihoyos directed the new documentary, "The Cove." Ric O'Barry is the activist the film follows.

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