OSAKA — Renowned American dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry has dedicated his life to freeing captured dolphins worldwide. In a new documentary, he hopes to educate both Japanese and international audiences about the slaughter of the mammals in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, and the hazards of eating dolphin meat with high levels of mercury.
O’Barry gained fame as the trainer of captured dolphins for the popular 1960s U.S. TV series “Flipper.” But when one died in his arms, he had an epiphany and chose to dedicate his life to freeing dolphins.
“I spent 10 years building up the dolphin training industry and 30 years trying to change it. Wherever there’s a dolphin in trouble, I’ll be there,” O’Barry said.
Taiji’s dolphin and whale hunts have gained international notoriety over the past few years, and O’Barry has the gruesome hunts on film. In an operation that involved placing hidden cameras along the beaches and angry confrontations with local fishermen, O’Barry and other activists secretly filmed the killings.
The documentary is expected to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January. O’Barry hopes it will do for dolphin protection what Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change.
Each year, about 20,000 dolphins are killed in Japanese waters, and Taiji accounts for between a fifth and a quarter of the kills, O’Barry said. The Taiji fishermen claim it’s part of their culture, but O’Barry said the cultural excuse ignores the health risks.
“It’s not just about the brutality of the killings. It’s a health issue for Japan. Dolphin meat, which is commercially available in Japan, has extremely high levels of mercury,” he said.
Dolphin meat purchased by O’Barry and other activists in Taiji has been tested on behalf of The Japan Times, and in one case mercury levels 37 times above the safety level were found.
“This is a scandal that could be even more tragic than the Minamata mercury poisonings. Yet ordinary Japanese know nothing about the Taiji whale hunts or the health hazards of eating dolphin meat, which is often labeled as whale meat,” O’Barry said.
Thanks to these efforts to emphasize the safety hazards, Taiji eventually did its own research and pulled dolphin meat from school lunches last year. However, O’Barry said Taiji continues to ship the meat to other parts of Japan, especially Kyushu.
As O’Barry’s film shows, the dolphins are driven into a secluded cove where they are stabbed and clubbed. The shocking footage, which came from cameras in fake rocks near the beach, shows the waters turning red with blood and the microphone picks up the sound of the screaming mammals. But not all dolphins are killed. A live one can fetch up to $200,000 from an aquarium.
O’Barry is quick to stress, however, that he does not condemn the Japanese or even the majority of people in Taiji, for the dolphin slaughter.
“Taiji is a gorgeous fishing village and the vast majority of the people there are warm and friendly. It’s really only a small group of 26 whalers in 13 boats who are driving the dolphins into an isolated cove and slaughtering them, and giving the residents of Taiji and all of Japan a bad name,” O’Barry said.
International condemnation of the Taiji killings has led many people around the world to call for a variety of boycotts of Japanese products. But O’Barry said that’s not fair to the vast majority of Japanese who have nothing to do with the slaughter, and the real solution is educating the public about what’s going on in Taiji and encouraging them to take action.
In mid-October, O’Barry met with Osaka high school students, explained what was going on and encouraged them to write letters to the government to get the hunts stopped. He visits Japan four to five times a year and hopes other teachers will invite him to speak on the issue as well.
But O’Barry also heavily criticized the Japanese media for ignoring the issue. While the Taiji slaughter has received a lot of international media coverage, and will likely receive even more after the footage is shown at Sundance, few in the Japanese media report on the dangers.
“The Japanese media has done lots of stories about tainted foods from China. But they ignore a tainted food scandal in their own country. The Japanese people don’t need an international boycott. They need access to the information. If they knew the truth about the dolphin slaughter, they would help abolish it,” he said.