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A meeting of minds

Last month, dolphin-welfare campaigner Ric O'Barry visited me in the Nagano hills, where we discussed the Taiji dolphin cull and what's happening to marine mammals worldwide

by C.W. Nicol

In 1958, just before my 18th birthday, I went along on an Inuit hunt for seals in the Canadian Arctic. That was the first time I tasted that rich, dark red — almost black — meat, and it was like nothing else I had eaten before. I loved it.

Inuit hunters still used kayaks back then (and so did I) and I felt nothing but admiration for those men who went out into icy waters in such a flimsy craft, risking their lives to bring back food, fuel and the raw material for boots and clothing. In the many trips I have made to the Arctic since then, that feeling has never changed.

Then, in 1966, I first sailed aboard a whale-catcher, with a mixed Canadian and Japanese crew, hunting for sei and sperm whales off the west coast of Canada. Whale meat was on sale in pretty well every fish shop in Tokyo in the early 1960s when I first came to this country, so I had already come to appreciate its taste. Since then I have been on many marine mammal hunts — for seals, beluga, walrus and whales — and I retain enormous respect for the courage, skill and seamanship of those who take food from the sea.

That, however, is a stance that has made me unpopular with many antiwhaling folk around the world.

Nonetheless, in October 1978 I went to Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture to live in the town for a year and research the history and culture of Japanese whaling for a book I aimed to write — a book that turned out to be my novel, “Harpoon.” The anti-whaling movement was beginning to display some nasty anti-Japanese tendencies just then, and I thought it might be mollified by some understanding, through my book, of the whalers’ long background. As well, in some small way, I wanted to repay the friendship that Japanese whalers had shown me over the years.

Like many who have spent time at sea, I have a special feeling for dolphins, and would never think of trying to harm one. Anybody who has been on a ship, especially a sailing ship, and who has seen them race toward you to ride the bow waves must have felt a kind of elation and wonder. So, when the American television series “Flipper” was running during the 1960s, with a dolphin outsmarting the bad guys and invariably saving the day, I watched every episode I could, both awestruck and fascinated at the notion of people working and playing with those marvelous mammals of the sea.

As I sat glued to my black-and-white TV back then, though, I had no idea that the trainer of those dolphin stars, Richard “Ric” O’Barry, was to have something so tragic happen to him as to change his whole life. As he explained to me last month while we sat chatting in our Afan woods in the hills outside Kurohime, one of his dolphins swam into his arms, then deliberately stopped breathing and died. (Cetaceans do not breath involuntarily like us humans and most other mammals; they decide when and when not to breathe.) By not breathing, as Ric said, the desperate captive animal consciously committed suicide.

Since that terrible event more than three decades ago, Ric has devoted his life to the welfare and freedom of dolphins — making himself a lot of friends, and enemies, along the way.

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Taiji in 1968 that I witnessed my first dolphin drive there, and it profoundly shocked and horrified me. Not that I was against the capture of dolphins for aquariums — I was a “Flipper” fan, right? As for killing them for food, well that was logically no different from taking seals or beluga.

What horrified me in Taiji was that the dolphins were not harpooned, and thus secured to be quickly dispatched. Instead, the hunters were simply throwing spears into a melee of the animals swimming in a small inlet they had sealed off from the sea, hitting them here and there. Then they’d retrieve the spear by hauling in a rope tied to it and hurl it again or use it close up to stab with. This was a far cry from the efficiency — and respect for life, and death — of an Inuit hunter or a whaler at sea.

That first time I witnessed the Taiji killings, I saw a dolphin take 25 minutes to die, while on another hunt I saw one that thrashed and bled for a horrible 45 minutes before it succumbed to its wounds. Killing, if justified and necessary, should surely be merciful and quick — yet I even saw an old grandmother laughing at a dolphin’s death throes and pointing out the animal to the small child with her as if it was some kind of joke. That really hurt and shook my belief in people.

In addition to this catalog of horrors, though, as a former marine mammal research technician in Canada, it shocked me that all those dolphins were being captured and killed with no government inspector or fisheries biologist on hand to take data and monitor the kill. I protested about what was going on to the fishermen, and to Town Hall officials in Taiji. I even went to Tokyo and protested to a senior official in the Fisheries Agency, but he just sneered and said, “What does it matter, they die anyway.”

I have written and spoken about this many, many times and a few years ago I personally warned the governor of Wakayama Prefecture that the world was now very aware of this dolphin hunt and the cruel way it is carried out. Surely, I argued, something at least should be done to monitor the number of dolphins taken and the methods of the kill. The only reaction was to try to shield everything from sight by closing off public footpaths and putting up those ugly blue sheets used all over Japan to shroud construction sites and crimes scenes.

Now we have the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove,” in which Ric stars. In Japan, many rightwingers and nationalists are in a furor over the film, and they are doing their best to stop it being shown in this country. However, as the old Japanese saying goes, “You cannot keep the lid on a smelly pot.”

The debate must be brought into the open, and preferably by people who have witnessed what’s going on, felt their own reactions and thought about whether or not it is right to use marine mammals for human food. It’s also necessary to consider the cruelty involved — and how cruelty can change the way a person views the world. For me, the old Japanese justifications citing tradition and culture don’t cut much ice when the tradition involved is inhumane — like burning eccentric old ladies at the stake or binding up young girls’ feet.

The other great question on my mind is whether the meat of dolphins, whales and large, older sea creatures is so badly polluted as to be toxic for human consumption.

When Ric came to spend a day with me at my home in Kurohime, we talked quietly for several hours about all these and other issues. We found that we agreed about most things, most emphatically about cruelty, but, understandably, he does not want to see any cetaceans killed or captured or harmed in any way, while I still tend to support traditional hunting. Whatever, the most important thing is that we could talk to each other; we could debate without rancor and seek a middle ground. Indeed, I am confident we have begun a friendship, and that Ric — who has been betrayed and deceived all too many times over the years of his campaigning — could truly trust me.

Ric feels no animosity toward the people of Taiji and sincerely wants to help the town to prosper without those awful dolphin drive hunts. Indeed, our talks in Kurohime — which were taped for the record — ranged all over the topics of marine mammals and humans, as we together tried to seek a fitting future for us all on this planet.

Despite all our talk of of history, tradition, culture and the need for humans to take food from the sea, though, the one deadly nail that consistently stood out above the rest was the question of pollution. If cetacean meat, and especially the meat and blubber of dolphins taken off the coasts of Japan, is as seriously contaminated with mercury and other harmful chemicals as the evidence indicates, then surely the Japanese government must address this issue and bring it out into the open — either banning sales altogether or insisting on warning labels, depending on the degree of danger to humans.

As for me, having talked to Ric and read his book “To Free a Dolphin,” I am convinced enough to never watch a captive dolphin show again, and I will also avoid aquariums where they are kept. If I want to see dolphins I shall go to sea.

My old dad, James Nelson Nicol, who served many years in the Royal Navy, once said to me: “They talk about ‘the seven seas,’ but I think that’s wrong. There is only one sea. They all join up.”

Indeed, and so do all our futures.