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Killing cove’s grisly secret

November 19, 2012 by Sarah Lucas  

The Australian

It is only 4.30am and the local police are already on our tail. We - myself and a handful of volunteers from different groups around the world - are driving in darkness up an empty road to an ocean lookout above the sleepy Japanese fishing village of Taiji. I am already nervous, having being detained for questioning at Osaka airport about why I was in the country.

At the entrance to the lookout a second patrol car pulls up and two officers take up positions on guard. Tall wire fences with "no trespassing" signs in English and Japanese obstruct access to coastal routes that only recently were public parks.

At the entrance to the town's nearby tsunami shelter a padlocked gate has been cemented in, blocking access to the safe ground and its views to the water beneath.

Great efforts have been made to keep outsiders' eyes from what we have come to see. Taiji, you see, is home to the starkly beautiful rocky inlet that came to global attention in 2010 with the release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. It is here that local fishermen still practise the oikomiryou, or "drive hunt", the only ones in Japan still to do so. Every year Taiji's hunters kill on average more than 2000 dolphins and small whales using this method.

I am in Taiji for the beginning of the drive hunting season, which extends every year from September to March.

During a drive hunt, "banger" boats kilometres off shore are used to surround a pod of dolphins. Fishermen then lower metal rods into the water and bang them. The banging creates what the dolphins' sonar perceives as an underwater wall of sound. Panicked and disoriented, they swim away from the encroaching "wall" and toward the shore.

Once closer to land, the pods, sometimes numbering more than 100, are corralled into a netted area inside the cove. After about two days in the netted area, they are speared to death with knives, the aim being to sever their spinal cords. Dolphins are substantial animals, and video evidence I have examined shows it can take up to seven minutes for them to die. After their spinal cords are severed they are dragged, some still alive and flapping, by their tails up on to boats for transport to the marine slaughterhouse.

In some cases, a fisherman's spear will have only partly damaged the spinal cord, leaving the half-paralysed dolphin hopelessly attempting to swim away using the mobile side of its body.

To reduce copious amounts of blood seeping into the water and being caught on film by small groups of foreign activists, the fishermen drive wooden chocks into the animals' wounded blowholes. The Cove contained footage covertly captured by camouflaging cameras as rocks in the cliffs, and most of the photographs on this page have been similarly captured.

Taiji is not well known in Australia (other than in Broome, the village's sister city, which briefly suspended the relationship after the screening of the documentary), but in fact more animals are killed there than in Japan's frequently reported Antarctic whaling expeditions. In the 2010-11 hunting season, which saw unusually low catches due in part to poor weather, the kill included an estimated 850 dolphins of various species, 20 false killer whales and 30 pilot whales.

In more productive seasons, an average 2000 dolphins and more than 200 pilot whales might be killed.

For comparison, according to Japan's Fisheries Agency, 266 minke whales and one fin whale were caught in the 2011-12 Antarctic season.

Dolphins and whales killed in Taiji do not "belong" to Japan, but pass through its territorial waters in migration.

It is my first trip to the lookout and I find myself hoping that the migration path has somehow diverted around Taiji. I am here with Save Japan Dolphins, the organisation that produced The Cove.

The bangers have not been out yet this season, but the first hunt of last year occurred on this day, September 7, and the clear weather is ideal for the fishermen.

"What we don't want to see is the banger boats make a formation," a Brazilian volunteer explains to me. "This means they've found some."

The boats are out of sight, but when they reappear on the horizon four hours later, we know they have a pod.

The 13 bangers are aligned with military precision in a semicircle, black smoke trailing behind them as they chase the pod for several kilometres at full throttle toward the cove. They do this at high speed to exhaust the animals, which makes corralling them easier.

In the middle of the semicircle is a pod of what looks to be large dolphins. They do not swim with the natural grace of dolphins at speed, but with hectic leaps that fire spray in every direction. As they come into clearer view, we see that the animals struggling to keep ahead of the charging banger boats are, in fact, pilot whales.

At the entrance to the cove, fishermen in skiffs reverse into the resistant pod, using the noise of the outboards to scare them into the inlet.

Once nets have been drawn behind them, a diver enters the water to search the seafloor for whales that might have died from stress-induced heart attack or drowned from exhaustion.

One of the main reasons Taiji fishermen practise drive hunting, as opposed to harpooning, is because of the captive entertainment industry. This industry has boomed since the Flipper television series in the 1970s introduced the world to the "smiling" personalities of dolphins, creating a market to replace waning demand for dolphin and whale meat.

When a pod is caught, a small number are selected for captivity and the others slaughtered for meat, much of it eaten locally. Dolphins and whales taken captive are sold to aquariums and swim-with programs in Japan, China, Korea, French Polynesia, Turkey and Egypt.

It has been estimated that half of the dolphins taken from the wild die within the first three months of captivity. The remainder become performing animals in countries with little regulation governing welfare standards.

For those involved in the Taiji trade the profits are substantial, with live dolphins selling for up to $US150,000 each ($145,000). The fishermen's co-operative will not disclose its earnings.

But the biggest winners are the brokers, which include global amusement park consultants and the Taiji Whale Museum, a dolphinarium owned by the town.

With the pod of pilot whales, the fishermen have stuck gold. Pilot whales are rare and highly coveted by aquariums. For two days I watch while trainers in fluoro-coloured wetsuits arrive by boat to inspect the trapped and presumably by now hungry whales. Several are loaded on to slings hanging off the sides of skiffs and motored to small pens at a training facility at Taiji's main harbour. The fishermen cover the slings with tarpaulins to prevent the whales being photographed, but we estimate that three are selected for live sale.

The rest are left in the cove. I notice on the second day that the behaviour of the whales has changed. When they were first brought into the cove, they swam around their enclosure. A male, considerably larger than the others, circled the pod, seemingly protective of the mothers and calves. But after two days they hang vertically and stationary in the water, their heads bobbing listlessly just above the surface. I am told that when striped dolphins are confined in the cove, they become hysterical and jump on to the rocks. In contrast, pilot whales, which may typically travel 80km in a day, appear to become listless.

The morning the pilot whales are slaughtered is a very sad one. Sightlines from every vantage point are blocked, but what cannot be kept so easily under wraps is the screeching of the whales. They are killed one by one, due to their size. I can hear the cries of each whale, one after the other. The process takes more than an hour.

The typical defence I hear from Taiji residents I speak to is that drive hunts are a "tradition of Japanese culture". Whaling in Japan dates back to at least the 7th century, but its nature was very different from that of today's drive hunts. Until the late 1800s, subsistence fishermen used non-powered vessels to catch a very small number of whales. Today, Taiji's fishermen hunt dolphins and whales in the hundreds. They also use hi-tech electronics, including sonar fish-finding equipment.

My attempts to speak with fishermen, to understand their perspectives, are hampered by the police, who seem to appear every time a foreigner goes near Taiji's main fishing wharves. The closest I am able to get to having a conversation with a fisherman is with a young man I meet in town who was born in Taiji and now works as a trader in Tokyo.

He tells me that one of his childhood friends, who must be only in his 20s, is a fisherman who has taken over his father's business. "I have talked to him about it," the young man explains. "But for him, it is the family business and it is a tradition of this area."

He adds that his friend's "hate" for the small number of foreign activists and their interference in his town's affairs prevents him from considering their animal welfare concerns, let alone conceding to their demand to stop drive hunting. While the 30 or so fishermen involved in the trade are, indeed, hostile to we foreigners, the police are invariably courteous, even friendly. Several officers confide that they personally consider the drive hunts cruel.

Taiji is a "dolphin city" and it baffles with its contradictions. It is a tourist destination boasting dolphin watching, dolphin resorts, dolphin museums and statues and ferries dressed up as giant dolphins. While the whole town benefits from the special appeal of dolphins, no one wants to talk about its very nasty secret.

Indeed, I speak to a father who is standing up at the cove, lovingly showing his giggling daughter the beautiful whales that are to die the next day.

It's September 10 and the banger boats are out again at sunrise. This time they catch a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Just as they are drawing the nets across the entrance to the cove, half of the pod turns back out to sea, making a desperate escape. The protesters cheer, but the boats turn 180 degrees and pursue the dolphins. After two hours of a high-speed chase we watch in horror from the lookout as the dolphins are finally cornered and encircled by nets.

I write this final paragraph from the cove at 5am the following morning. We arrive ahead of the fishermen. From the top of the cliffs the bottlenoses look to be quite calm, except for a tiny calf that intermittently jumps into the air and smacks its body down on the surface of the water.

The arrival of the fishermen in their motor boats sends the pod into a frenzy of panic. The calf is separated from its mother and moved to a larger netted area. It stays close to the net, frantically hopping along the line of buoys that separate it from its mother. All we can do is watch helplessly at what comes next. None of the small group of us watching sheds a tear. By now we are old hands at the horror. But we do hold hands.

Sarah Lucas is an Australian freelance journalist based in Paris. Since the start of the hunting season on September 7, observers estimate 400 dolphins and small whales have been captured in Taiji, including about 250 pilot whales.

This article is republished from The Australian.

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