This month, dolphin hunters taint the waters of Taiji, Japan, as men launched a gruesome annual ritual: driving hundreds of dolphins ashore so a small number can be sold to entertainment parks and the rest butchered for meat right there in the water. The event was chronicled and presented before the world in Louie Psihoyos’ disturbing, critically acclaimed documentary, The Cove. The film won an HSUS Genesis Award, but more importantly it won the coveted Oscar – a landmark in the history of animal protection filmmaking. I spoke with Louie about the activism his film inspired since it was released in 2009, the state of dolphin hunting in Japan today, his next film that he says is a bit like a real-life The Avengers, and why he won’t stop until he has ended this barbaric practice.
Q: How did the dolphin drive fishery in Taiji, Japan, come to your attention, and what compelled you to make a documentary?
Louie Psihoyos received The HSUS' Genesis Award in 2010 for his documentary, The Cove. Photo: Tim Long/Long Photography
I started the Oceanic Preservation Society with my dive buddy Jim Clark who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape. We started our non-profit with the intent of using film to change the disasters we saw happening as divers. I've been all over the world on his sailboats and whenever dolphins would swim on the bow everyone would come up from whatever they were doing and just watch. They are mesmerizing to behold—it felt like you were watching one of the most amazing animals on Earth. There is something magical about watching dolphins, everybody loves them, or so I thought.
I first found about the so-called Taiji dolphin drive when I was at a marine mammal conference in San Diego and Ric O' Barry was supposed to speak. Ric captured and trained the five female dolphins that collectively played the part of Flipper in the popular 1960's television series that I used to watch when I was a child. At the last minute, the sponsor of the conference, the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, banned him from speaking. I found out it was because he was going to speak about a dolphin slaughter and I was just floored. I couldn't imagine anyone killing a dolphin, and why at a seminar of 2,000 of the top marine scientists, Ric wouldn't be allowed to speak. I used to be a photographer for National Geographic magazine and I always was on the lookout for an interesting story. This one seemed like a Hollywood script: an ex-dolphin trainer becomes their biggest defender. The problem was, I had never made a film before, which was probably a good thing. I think an experienced filmmaker wouldn't have made this film. It would be too difficult for someone that thought too much about the practicalities and obstacles of making a film where your subjects want to kill you.
Right before we made The Cove, Steven Spielberg and his family came to visit Jim Clark and our families on Jim's boat. Spielberg made Jurassic Park with the Silicon Graphics computers Jim invented. When I asked the great director if he had any advice for a first-time filmmaker, he advised me to never make a film involving boats or animals. I was lucky enough to have a crew, really just a group of friends who were all water people and wanted to help put an end to the madness. We didn't need filmmakers to make The Cove, we needed pirates with a conscience. People who were passionate about exposing a dark truth.
Q: It’s difficult to fathom how these fishermen could take part in an activity that is so demonstrably cruel. Could you believe your eyes when you witnessed it firsthand?
The first time I saw a slaughter, I was hiding across the cove, hanging from a rope on a cliff in full camouflage and face paint. I was shaking from fear and rage. I had seen the dolphins swimming in circles around their young to protect them. Even during the slaughter dolphins were swimming through the blood in the cove to rescue their family members. The cruelty was so unbelievable I thought that if the world saw what was going on it would certainly stop. My team has been working almost 10 years on the issue and we won't stop until this barbarism of captivity and slaughter has stopped.
Q: The meat from the dolphins and other small whales killed in Taiji is sold in local stores and even on online marketplaces like Yahoo! Japan. There have also been reports on mercury contamination of the meat from these animals. How does this industry remain viable?
Pantropical spotted dolphins like these are butchered in Taiji, Japan. Photo: Vanessa Mignon
When Ric and I do interviews with the Japanese press we try to use the word mercury in every sentence so they can't edit out our core message. It's hard to argue animal cruelty in another culture when our own eats other sentient animals like pigs and cows, so we speak about the health consequences. Mercury is the most toxic non-radioactive element in the world. All dolphin meat is toxic! Dolphin meat has anywhere from 5-5,000 times more mercury than allowed by Japanese health laws. I personally don't eat animal products but if our farm animals were that toxic, or broccoli for that matter, I would hope someone from any culture would have the courage to speak out. Through the success of The Cove, along with the work of the Dolphin Project, the Humane Society [of the United States], Sea Shepherd, EIA [the Environmental Investigation Agency], and many other groups, we've managed to break through a media blackout on the subject. Dolphin consumption has been reduced by some two-thirds in Japan. We managed to stop the distribution of dolphin meat in mandatory school lunch programs while we were filming, and currently the Japanese dolphin hunters are having trouble selling dolphin meat.
Q: Some of these dolphins are captured alive and regularly sold to aquarium facilities in Japan and overseas. Do you believe the captive dolphin industry also plays a role in perpetuating this practice?
The single most powerful driver of the slaughter is the captive dolphin industry. If it weren't for the captive dolphin industry, the dolphin hunters couldn't afford to go out—it just wouldn't pay. The hunters can get $150,000 for a trained show dolphin. A dead one only makes them about $600.
Q: Since The Cove blew the lid off of the dolphin drive fishing in Taiji, thousands upon thousands of activists, concerned citizens, celebrities and officials have spoken out against the cruel practice, including the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. Despite this, dolphin fishermen and government officials in Japan continue to defend the hunts. What drives their defense of this disgraceful spectacle?
I believe the Japanese government would love to end this embarrassing chapter, but there is a very small yet powerful group of nationalists using misplaced pride to defend what they claim is their tradition. However, a Japanese researcher recently discovered that this so-called "tradition" really only started in 1969 after the demand for dolphins for dolphin shows. That's one reason why Ric is so adamant about stopping this. He feels guilty for helping start the demand for dolphin shows by popularizing Flipper. There is an incredible amount of pressure to end the practice, so it's important to stay motivated and apply pressure where one can.
Q: The Cove and Blackfish have both been cultural phenomena. It’s rare for documentaries to break through and capture such attention and inspire such activism. Why did two marine mammal docs have such resonance?
Movies like Blackfish, about an orca whale, and The Cove have turned the spotlight on marine mammals in captivity and inspired change. Photo: iStock
There is a growing animal rights community and it's becoming a very powerful force for social change. Recent research shows that nothing motivates someone to action more than animal rights and food issues. A film becomes the rallying cry to organize those people who want to focus their own voice for the good of animals. In this context, a film can become much more than a way to spend 90 minutes. It also becomes a weapon of mass construction. Once you see a film like Blackfish or The Cove you can't unsee it—it becomes part of your growing consciousness and propagates throughout the world, spreading compassion. You never really know how much effect your film will have and how it may change someone. Judy Bart is the executive producer of Blackfish, and she told me that she became vegetarian after seeing The Cove and then shortly after became vegan. She had never financed a film before but loved our film, and then director Gabriela Cowperthwaithe approached her about the idea for Blackfish. When I saw the premiere at Sundance, I told the creators of Blackfish that our organization has an army of activists that are ready to help them get their message out. Never ever underestimate the power of the individual when we raise our voice together for collective action. SeaWorld has lost half of their value since we began working with other organizations to close down their dolphin shows. They lost a third of their value in one day after earnings came out last quarter. It probably helped that we sent copies of Blackfish and The Cove to every single board member of the 10 top investment firms holding SeaWorld Stock. We also sent a copy to every home in Taiji and every Japanese embassy and consulate in the world with the idea that change needs to happen from the bottom up and from the top down. To me, a film is not great when it earns a shelf full awards, but instead when it significantly changes the hearts and minds of the people that watch it.
There's so many injustices being done to animals we need to break through and get people active. Scientists say we're entering a new era where man's impact on nature is so great, we're causing a geological epoch they named The Anthropocene, "The Age of Man." Some claim we're now losing species so fast, 1,000 times the background rate, that by century-end we're on track to lose half the species on Earth. This is the biggest story on Earth, bar none, and we need to galvanize all NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to work together to mitigate a planetary disaster. Our next film is about not just creating awareness about the issue but inspiring the audience to create change.
I'm very aware of that if you want to get somebody to spend hard-earned money and 90 minutes watching a film on date night about mass extinction, you better make sure it's entertaining. So our next film is a little bit like The Avengers - but it's real.