Movie Reviews

The Cove

Directed by Louie Psihoyos

There’s something about the title “The Cove” that makes me think of a teen horror movie. But “The Cove” is a horror movie of an entirely different kind – a documentary about routine dolphin slaughters in Taiji, a small coastal town in Japan, and the degree of cover up and misinformation that keeps the practice from becoming common knowledge. This is a tough movie to watch, with brutal and graphic footage, but that’s also a large part of why the film exists – to capture on video what the local industry has tried to keep hidden.

This is a message movie, made to get the word out. It’s the kind of movie that demands that a reviewer actually divulge the content.

This is unusual for me and if you intend to watch the film, you might want to stop reading this column.  But most of you won’t watch it (judging by the fact that I was the only viewer at a recent screening) and the message is too important to skirt around.

The film makes its central point, that there is a hidden cove where thousands of dolphins are captured or killed, in the opening minutes. The rest of the project is an unveiling of the background to this issue and essentially a “making of” film documenting the team of assorted experts who stealthily infiltrate the barricaded area around the cove to videotape the killing.  

This team coalesces around Ric O’Barry, one of the most prominent dolphin activists in the world. Ironically, he’s famous for being the guy who captured and trained all five of the dolphins used in the “Flipper” TV series – the show credited for making everybody dolphin-crazy in the first place. But as he himself says, he spent 10 years buying a new Porsche every year off the dorsal fins of dolphins, and has spent the last 35 trying to free dolphins from captivity. He was arrested for attempting to free his first dolphin the day after Kathy, the lead “Flipper” dolphin, died in his arms – or as he describes it, committed suicide. There is a earnestness to O’Barry and his cause that isn’t present when Michael Vick condemns dog-fighting or when Bristol Palin promotes abstinence.

Taiji is the world’s largest source of dolphins for aquariums and dolphinariums around the world. A healthy trained female bottlenose dolphin (just like the ones in “Flipper”) can bring in $150,000. But all the others, herded by fleets of boats into Taiji, are sold for whatever their meat is worth (approx. $6,000 apiece). Japan is the world’s holdout nation when it comes to whaling in general, a trade supposedly controlled by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but the IWC exempts dolphins and porpoises from regulation.

The film details how the Japanese have managed to manipulate the IWC not only with dubious data and reports (“we have to kill the dolphins because they’re eating all the fish”) but also by essentially buying the votes of small countries that wouldn’t otherwise care about whaling or even be members of the IWC. The film shows IWC delegates who can’t name a whale species and, for example, several Eastern Caribbean island nations who have expensive Japanese-funded fishing centers that aren’t even used.

Additionally, as apex predators in a food chain, dolphins are now illustrating our own worst fears regarding fish consumption and mercury poisoning. The US Food and Drug Administration allows 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury contamination in seafood and the Japanese allow 4 ppm. In the film, a Japanese University Professor finds 2000 ppm in a sample of dolphin meat from Taiji. Mercury poisoning is a tricky subject in Japan, where there is a history of death and birth defects, most notably in the case of Minimata disease in the 1950’s, where methyl mercury was released in industrial wastewater and poisoned the local fish and seafood around the city of Minimata.

While whale meat is somewhat accepted in Japan, dolphin meat is not – at least not as much and not outside of these smaller communities. In Taiji itself, at the whaling museum that also controls the dolphin trade, one can actually watch a dolphin show while eating dolphin. Elsewhere, as the film shows, dolphin meat from Taiji is sold and packaged as other species of whale – not only inaccurately labeled but also masking the contamination risk to consumers. In another attempt to get rid of the excess dolphin meat, local officials actually proposed supplying the school lunch program.

The assembled team is comprised of an odd mix of adventurers, free divers, and special effects and tech experts – the kinds of people who can hide video cameras in fake rocks. Amid close scrutiny from the local ‘fishing’ community and town officials, they proceed to document the slaughter in the cove that runs red from the blood of dolphins who are repeatedly stabbed until they drown. At one point, both a local official and the IWC delegate are seen proclaiming the newly adopted humane killing techniques as they are each confronted by video taken by the team.

This is a powerful and shocking film and a topic that is sadly under-exposed.  For more information about the film and the problem visit

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