Dolphins Clandestinely Killed In 'The Cove' Every year, thousands of dolphins are secretly killed in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji. National Geographic photographer-turned-filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and a covert team documented the slaughter for the film, The Cove.
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Dolphins Clandestinely Killed In 'The Cove'

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Dolphins Clandestinely Killed In 'The Cove'

Dolphins Clandestinely Killed In 'The Cove'

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Today, we continue our look at the films nominated for this year's Academy Award for best documentary. We've already featured "The Most Dangerous Man in America," and yesterday "Food, Inc." And today, a film that focuses on the clandestine slaughter of dolphins in the picturesque Japanese fishing town of Taiji, in a secluded spot that came to be known simply as The Cove.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Cove")

Mr. RIC O'BARRY: It's the dolphins' worst nightmare right there. Hundreds of thousands of dolphins have died there. You see the signs, keep out, danger. There are fishermen walking around these hills with knives. This is a national park. The fishermen told me, they said if the world finds out what goes on here, we'll be shut down. Can you imagine that? They actually told us that. We need to get in there and film exactly what happens. We need to know the truth.

CONAN: That's Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer-turned-activist. In 2005, photographer and now filmmaker Louie Psihoyos teamed up with O'Barry and put together a covert operations team that used thermal cameras, deep-sea divers, hi-def cameras hidden inside rocks and an unmanned helicopter to document the slaughter of those dolphins.

If you'd like to talk with Louis Psihoyos about the film, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Louis Psihoyos joins us now from member station KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks for being with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. LOUIE PSIHOYOS (Filmmaker): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you showed up in Taiji with tons of equipment and lots of black boxes. And the making of this film turned into quite a clandestine operation. Was that your idea from the start?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: No, not really. We were doing a making-of video, because the police were tailing us 24/7, and we had to make it look like we were doing sort of a, I don't know, like a travelogue to make, you know, sort of - most of our real filming was done in the middle of the night.

So we were just filming B-roll for making-of for DVD extras and we decided to combine them. You know, after we got back to Boulder we decided put the two stories together, you know, trying to get into The Cove because it was like an "Ocean's Eleven" film, but real.

CONAN: "Ocean's Eleven" meets "Flipper." And I used that advisedly. Ric O'Barry was the dolphin trainer for "Flipper," the TV show back in the early '60s and he says, I'm the one who made, you know, captive dolphins so popular. I'm the one responsible.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah, he feels responsible because he captured and trained the five female dolphins that collectively played the part of Flipper for the '60s TV series. And, you know, now it's a multi-billion dollar industry. So now you have, you know, arguably, you know, one of the biggest-brained animals in world now being forced to do, you know, stupid tricks for human amusement, and he feels responsible for them.

CONAN: And indeed, part of the operation there in that Japanese city is to capture dolphins who look like Flipper to provide them for the various sea worlds of the various aquariums around the world.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Exactly.

CONAN: But yet, only a few are used for those purposes. Those few are worth a lot of money - $150,000 each, you say. There are thousands of others who don't qualify.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah. Those they take around to the secret cove and they use those for meat and for fertilizer and for pet food.

CONAN: And that's what they didnt want you to see.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Exactly. I think that's why the mayor of - we tried to do the story legally at first. We went to visit the mayor and the Dolphin Hunting Union and tried to negotiate a truce where we would, you know, wouldn't try to get in The Cove, we'll just try to tell their side of the story.

And when they wouldnt tell their side of the story to us, you know, they started to threaten us, say it was going to be too dangerous to stay in town, it would get really violent, and that was a little bit like catnip for me. I felt like, what are they hiding that they don't want us to see?

CONAN: And so then the extra-legal measures, if you will, the fancy technology and the team of experts.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Those people are quite extraordinary, the free divers who placed the hydrophones to pick up the sound of the dolphins there. Well, I mean, we imagine - I can't, I know nothing about interpreting the sounds of dolphins, but they certainly sounded agitated at the very least.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: You know, there's actually a scientific paper that came out this last weekend about the sounds from The Cove. You know, those are very distinct distress signals.

So the animals are obviously being, you know, harassed and tortured before they do the dirty deed on them.

CONAN: And one thing we don't see in the movie that I read about in an interview that you did was that in fact after you were placing those cameras, those high-def cameras hidden inside rocks that were built for you by Industrial Light and Magic so that nobody would spot them, that in fact, you were climbing down the cliff after placing one of them and found yourself frozen there for hours.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Fifteen and a half hours. Yeah. Well, it was - they weren't supposed to kill them that day. That was a Sunday. And we were just doing a dry run. And then they killed them. And I realized that I couldn't leave the cove so I hung out on this cliff for 15 and a half hours before - until nightfall, then my crew could extract me.

CONAN: And why did you have to wait on that cliff all that time?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Well, because it's in a national park and there's people in the fringes. If they saw, basically, a Westerner coming out of there, they would have notified the police and - because nobody is allowed to be back there, not even Japanese people. And, you know, the whole team - would've jeopardized the whole operation if I would've got caught.

CONAN: So you were sitting there very - pretty frustrated, I suspect.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah. And I was, you know, you just saw this big pod of dolphins get, you know, killed right in front of me and you know, felt sort of, you know, like, I needed to get out of there and get this footage shown. And what had happened is we had these fake rocks that were set in the cove across the lagoon from me and my crew went back to sleep, you know. So they were up for about 48 hours and I stayed up another 15 and a half hours. And the rock cameras that were not operated by anybody did a much better job than me and I -you know, I would for National Geographic over the course of 18 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PSIHOYOS: And they shot the Citizen Kane of environmental films while they were sleeping.

CONAN: Makes you feel proud of your camerawork, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah. It makes feel like I should start a new career.

CONAN: We're talking with Louie Psihoyos. He is director of "The Cove," nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 800-989-8255; email Let's get Josh(ph) on the line. Josh calling from Sacramento.

JOSH (Caller): Yeah. First of all, I just want to say I loved the film...

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Thank you.

JOSH: ...and was terrified by it at the same time. But I just had one question, and I don't remember this being covered in the film or not: As far as the, you know, financially, I would imagine this was quite an undertaking getting over there and getting - smuggling all the equipment over there. And I was just wondering if - was this all independently financed or did you have one large financier or several different people financing?

CONAN: Or does National Geographic pay better than we think it does?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PSIHOYOS: No. It was primarily my dive buddy that did the bulk of it - Jim Clark. He's the guy that started Netscape, Silicon Graphics and WebMD. He's been my dive buddy for over 10 years. And we, you know, we wanted to make a film that would basically give the oceans a voice. And he's the main backer. There's another friend of mine that put up the money for the P&A, the prints and advertising. And I have my son's college fund invested in this, too.

JOSH: I'm assuming it paid itself back then.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Why would you do that? It is the film business. We're going to lose money on this.

CONAN: You're going to lose money on this. This is a film that's played all over this country, at least, in first-run theaters and now it's out on DVD and doing pretty well.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Boy, you have different reports than I do. No, we're - I mean, listen, it's a very popular film in terms of people that see it love it. I mean, we've won, you know, just about every award you can get in the doc business this year. But still, it's - people have - it has this fear component. People are afraid to see it, even though it's a PG-13. You know, you'll see more violence in a television cop show than you're going to see in "The Cove." But it has a stigma attached to it, like your going to see dolphins get hurt.

And, you know, we have some of the most interesting scenes like, you know, some of the scenes that are rated the top scenes in, you know, of "Avatar" and any film that's been done this year, feature or documentary. But the scenes are -they're so well-done like in a horror film it's really your imagination that takes over. You think you're seeing a horror film, but you're not.

You know, you see the underwater camera where it goes from green to red and hear the boats coming and the dolphins screaming. And it's - you know, visually and aurally, it's not that, you know, amazing. But you put the two together and you have this scene that's like out of Hitchcock.

JOSH: Well, I think it's a movie that everyone should see, so I'll continue to tell everybody that I know to watch it.

CONAN: Josh, thank you very much.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Thank you. We didn't rehearse that, by the way.

CONAN: Okay. Your cousin, Josh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But I assume your son is still going to be able to go to college.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: I told him that there's a lot of value in manual labor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Indeed, there is. It's good for him to earn his own way. One of the ironies, there are many in this film, indeed the look of the town itself is ironic. Nevertheless, one of the ironies of the film is that this dolphin meat is collected for sale, some of it, as you document in the film, sold fraudulently as whale meat. Nevertheless, it is loaded with toxic chemicals and metals.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Yeah. That's kind of the endgame for this movie. You have the dolphin as a, you know, the only wild animal throughout history to save the life of a human being. You know, from the time of Aristotle and Pliny, these animals are legendary for saving the lives of sailors. The only way we could save their life now is to prove that we've made their environment so toxic that we shouldn't be eating them. It's, you know, we've lost respect for them and the environment that they come from.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the conversation. This is Marcy(ph). Marcy calling from San Rafael in California.

MARCY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I want to say first, that was one of the most shocking, saddest films we've probably seen ever. And thank you for making the film.

CONAN: Marcy, you're supposed to say the first 80 minutes of the film were a laugh riot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARCY: Oh, yeah. I know - as the tears were streaming down our eyes. Even my husband who doesn't cry very much was crying. So, I understand that...

Mr. PSIHOYOS: It's the ultimate date movie, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARCY: Yeah. Locally, you weren't much - you weren't very successful. I'm wondering what's happened legislatively now that the film has been exposed. Any successes on that end?

CONAN: Yeah, that's interesting. Go ahead.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: There were quite a few successes. Well, you know, the first one -you know, the film was already a success before it came out. We stopped the spread of toxic dolphin meat to school systems all over Wakayama Prefecture. The mayor of Taiji and his cronies there had a scheme to spread it all over Japan. And that's not happening anymore. That scheme has been stopped. You know, there's hundreds of thousands of kids that won't be poisoned with toxic dolphin meat anymore.

The early report - I just read a report two days ago that they shut down the cove. But they're still killing them outside the cove in nets, but I think it's becoming more and more difficult for them to use this national park, this nature preserve, to kill them. That just happened in the last two days, so we need some more information. The information is pretty sketchy coming out of there.

We're coming out in Japan. You know, this movie is going to be released in Japan in April. That's huge news. Because, you know, our technique so far is to use what's called gaiatsu. It's an outside pressure to create inside pressure for change. The only way to get that change to happen is to get the film, you know, shown in Japan. And there's a very bold distributor in Japan called Medallion. They're going to release in about 40 theaters, and then will come out on DVD in the summer. And hopefully, by the time the killing season starts up, September 1st, we can shut this down.

I do want to say, though, that it is - there's a three-minute section in the movie that's terrifying. You can hold your - you know, close your eyes or, you know, look through your fingers. It's not that gruesome, I swear to God. I don't want to make a horror film. But the film, to me, is really - it's quite empowering. You see that one person can make a difference, and a few people together can change the world. That's the real message of this film.

You see Ric O'Barry at the end - I don't want to ruin the ending frame, but it's a real - it's a revenge movie. He gets his revenge. It's a redemption story. It's - to me, it's very hopeful. And it's empowering.

CONAN: Marcy, thanks very much for the call.

MARCY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with...

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Thank you.

CONAN: ...Louie Psihoyos, who is the director of "The Cove."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And if you would, I wanted to ask you a little bit of question about the process. Once you've made the film, how do you go about marketing a documentary film that's been made by independents? This is your first movie.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: It is, yeah. Oh, we tried to market the team aspect, you know, like an unlikely team of activists gets together to...

CONAN: The "Ocean's Eleven" part, yeah.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: ...penetrate a secret cove - yeah, exactly. I mean, it's a thriller from the first - you know, for the - the first line of the movie is me saying I just want to say we tried to do the story legally.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: I mean, you're in. You're not going to shut the movie off after you hear that. And it's a thriller. And, you know, you know what's going to happen at the end. And - but it does have this other surprise ending to it that's really, really redemptive and restorative, I think, for the human soul. Go on.

CONAN: How important is it - and I hear your message - but how important is it to then take it to these festivals, like Sundance or other places, and into those competitions? How important are they?

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Oh, for an independent film, it's essential. I mean, it's the only way that you can get legs for a film like this. I've been pimping this movie for 14 months since we won Sundance last year. And it's a - you know, we don't have millions of dollars for P&A, the prints and advertising, to pepper the billboards and bus stops and, you know, do the massive amounts of talk shows. So we just have to rely on this, you know, starting at Sundance to build a buzz. And it's incredible. It's taken a year to get it going, but it feels like, you know, people are discovering it now on DVD. And, you know, it's got this insane following. There's almost a million people now that have signed up to, you know, to help on the problem, not just this issue but, you know, many other ocean issues.

So it's, you know, one of the outcomes is not just to put, you know, butts in seats, as they say. It's just I wanted to create a legion of activists to help solve these environmental issues that we're facing. That's the real point of the movie. The words to me are the collateral of the real mission, which is trying to save the oceans and trying to save ourselves, really. You know, we're doing what no wild animal will do we're following our own nest here. I found out through the making this of movie I had mercury poisoning.

CONAN: Mm-hmm

Mr. PSIHOYOS: I was a pescaterian. When I went to visit some of these doctors down in Minamata, where they had this huge mercury outbreak back in the 1950s, I took these doctors out for sushi and none of them were eating it, not one single person. There was six doctors, researchers and scientists. And I said, what's with these Japanese people eat more fish than anybody on the planet? Sixty-six kilos per person per year - that's - they're basically eating their weight in fish. And they said, well, you should know the six of us around this table did this experiment. We called it the super-size-me experiment but Japanese-style.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: They each ate 200 grams of tuna every day for a month and measured their mercury content at the end of each week. Now, 200 grams of tuna is less than half a can of tuna fish. That's what I would put on a couple of crackers. And their levels of - they were buying the cheapest cut of tuna they could though, a bonito, a very small short-lived fish. And their levels doubled at the end of two weeks.

They decided to spring for a little bit more money and get the sushi-grade tuna, the good stuff, right, the stuff that you pay a lot of money for. And their average level went up eight times. They were - in a one-month period, they went down into the levels of the victims that they had been studying. And they said to me, do you eat a lot of fish? And I said, that's all I eat for animal protein. And I had the, you know, the highest levels of mercury my doctor had ever seen in Colorado.

So, you know, this film changed my life. You know, my son's a fisherman down in the Caribbean. He had higher levels than me. He can even eat the fish that he catches. That's the cautionary tale for everybody that's, you know, if you're not Japanese and you're eating...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PSIHOYOS:, you should be very, very careful about what kinds of fish you eat.

CONAN: Louie Psihoyos, good luck with the Oscar.

Mr. PSIHOYOS: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Louie Psihoyos, an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He directed "The Cove," currently up for the Best Documentary Feature. And he joined us from member station KGNU in Boulder.

Tomorrow, we wrap up the 2010 Olympic Games. Tom Goldman and Howard Berkes join us from Vancouver. Plus, our crossword puzzle challenge. We've posted the final puzzle from the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on our Web site. Mike Shenk, the puzzle's constructor, will join us tomorrow. In the meantime, print out the puzzles and take your best shot. You can find the link at Join us tomorrow with Mike Shenk.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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