The Cove’s Richard O’Barry on Secret Dolphin Slaughter — and Flipper’s Suicide

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Liz Renay's Adam and Eve (1961). Photo: Courtesy of Diamond Docs

Sure to be one of the most talked-about documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove is part heist movie, part environmental exposé. The cove in question is a secluded and naturally fortified lagoon in the small Japanese town of Taiji, where every year for six months thousands of dolphins are brutally slaughtered. The film is in part about the efforts of a group of activists to infiltrate the cove and to actually film what goes on there. Leading the charge is Richard O’Barry, a longtime activist who was responsible for training the dolphins on the sixties TV show Flipper. Indeed, The Cove is also the story of O’Barry’s journey, documenting how he came to be a self-described “abolitionist” for dolphins. He spoke to Vulture about his new film, watching TV with Flipper, and the increasingly elaborate disguises he has to wear when he goes to Taiji.

You know, when I was a kid, I always wanted to live in the Flipper house.
I used to live in that house! It was right in the Miami Seaquarium there. I have such wonderful halcyon memories of those days. There wasn’t even a fence around the Seaquarium. It was like magic. Until the wheels fell off.

You had captured the dolphins on Flipper, right?
I captured the five dolphins that collectively played the part of Flipper. I trained all of them, from the very beginning of the first show to the last show. I lived with all five of them in the Seaquarium. And on Friday nights, at 7:30, I would take the TV set, with a long extension cord, out to the end of the dock, so Flipper could watch Flipper on television. And that’s when I knew they were self-aware. I could tell when the dolphins recognized themselves and each other. Cathy, for example, would recognize the shots she was in, Suzy would recognize her shots, and so on. Dolphins are hard to read, because you have to look at body language. Almost all other animals you can read by looking at their faces. But dolphins have this built-in “smile” that makes it look like they’re always happy.

How did your ideas about captivity turn around?
Cathy died in my arms, of suicide. It was just before Earth Day, 1970. The next day, I found myself in a Bimini jail, trying to free a dolphin for the first time. I completely lost it.

How do you know it was suicide?
You have to understand, dolphins are not automatic air breathers like we are. Every breath for them is a conscious effort. She looked me right in the eye, took a breath, held it — and she didn’t take another one. She just sank to the bottom of the water. That had a profound effect on me.

The footage of the dolphin slaughter you filmed in The Cove is pretty staggering. Has anyone else seen it yet?
The world will see it Sunday, at Sundance. Even the Japanese don’t know about this. I went onto the street in Tokyo, and I showed the footage to a hundred people walking down the sidewalk, and none of them knew this was happening. That’s the only hope, to expose this to the world. It won’t be easy. The film will probably be banned in Japan. I’m hoping Jim Clark, who is our partner on this, can figure out a way to get it seen there. If he can invent Netscape, he can figure that out, as well. In the meantime, we also have our website, SaveJapanDolphins.org, where people can learn more about this issue.

But killing dolphins is actually legal in Japan.
Yes, but let’s not forget that the place in question here is a national park. They’re killing the wildlife in a national park. They don’t have jurisdiction there. They’re just a bunch of thugs. As for the broader issue of legality: One percent of the Japanese population eats whale meat, and a very small percentage of that one percent eats dolphin or even knows that people eat dolphin. That’s one of the reasons I’m opposed to a boycott of Japan. In the seventies and eighties, there was a big effort to stop whaling by taking out full-page ads in newspapers that said, “Save the Whales. Boycott Japan.” Japanese people are not guilty of this. They don’t know it’s happening. Japanese papers and networks do not cover this story.

So if nobody is eating dolphin meat, why is this slaughter happening?
I think it’s really about over-fishing. It’s a worldwide problem. Basically, they’re killing the competition, because each of those dolphins eats 25 to 30 pounds of fish. As for the dolphin meat, nobody really knows where it goes. They kill 23,000 dolphins a year: I have no idea where that meat goes. You can’t really even buy it in Taiji. I’m thinking it might be exported to places that have a protein shortage. We had this meat tested, and the mercury levels on it is through the roof. It’s contaminated.

Have you been back to Taiji since you shot this footage?
I go five or six times a year, during the killing season, which is six months. I’m constantly there. I’ll go anytime anybody will go with me — CNN, BBC, you name it. It’s gotten so dangerous now that I have to wear disguises when I first get there. The last time, I was wearing a long black wig, sunglasses, my Michael Jackson mask over my mouth, a dress, and lipstick. I had to dress as a woman because they’re looking for a man.

What will they do if they catch you?
The biggest danger is not so much the fishermen, although they are angry and some of the younger ones have said they would kill us if they could get away with it. But it’s really the yakuza, who are very connected to the whaling and fishing industries. In Japan, that’s how problems like me are solved, how people who cause trouble are often dealt with. Especially in a lot of these small towns, you don’t call the police, you call the yakuza.

What about people who say that, while the footage in The Cove is quite grisly, a regular slaughterhouse would also look pretty horrific to people if they could see it?
They’re absolutely correct. The one difference is that the dolphins are terrorized for days, as the fishermen intrude on their migration patterns and then chase them into the lagoon with loud noises. But yes, the slaughterhouse is an absolute horror show. It’s a separate issue, and some of us are working on that as well. But that doesn’t justify what they’re doing to the dolphins.