Imagine walking to your nearest supermarket or grocer, browsing the frozen meats aisle, to find a strange prepackaged meat, labeled as “whale meat”. However, quite deceptively, it is actually a chunk of dolphin meat, harvested from a distant fishing village known as Taiji, Japan. This chunk of meat is possibly teeming with more than enough mercury to permanently paralyze or hospitalize one unfortunate enough to consume it. Despite the enormous health hazards this bizarre meat poses to people regrettably curious enough to try a “whale meat” dish, this dolphin meat continues to be shipped in from this strange place as Taiji, and continues to be in constant circulation. While a situation like this seems to be unlikely in a modern society with FDA and a home Ministry of Health and Welfare presence and inspections in Japan, along with an existing international body for whale protection, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), supposedly protecting the rights of whales and related sea cetaceans, such a situation is a reality in Taichi, Japan.
Such is the focus of the documentary, The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos. Through means of a surprisingly ingenious “covert-infiltration” mission, a team of passionate activists uncover the secrets of a mass dolphin capture and slaughter in Taichi that has been kept covered up for too long. The film employs tactics such as the aforementioned covert mission as well as appeals to emotion to not only bring public awareness to the situation but to also encourage the mass to take action against the cruel treatment of dolphins. The manner in which they accomplish this is extreme but effective. How does food tie into all of this? As mentioned earlier, it’s quite grotesque; the dolphins not fit for performance are slaughtered and sold to the meat industry to be consumed.
The manner of which this documentary was filmed really differentiates itself from other activism documentary films. Throughout the entirety of the film, we see the distinct variety of characters that bring life and fire to the activism movement for dolphin protection. This is strongly personified by the very face and figurehead of the movement, Ric O’Barry, once a dolphin trainer, now the singlehandedly most outspoken and passionate individual for the movement. In fact, through his direct methods of saving dolphins, this very man has looked eye to eye with legal issues, multiple arrests, the contempt of members of the IWC, and not to mention the bitter disdain of the native fisherman of Taiji as well as the police force and locals. His presence in Taiji, and essentially any aquatic location, can usually be inferred as a symbol of trouble. We are also introduced to other members of the “operation”, including director Louie Psihoyos, freedivers Kirk and Mandy, “clandestine operator” Charles Hambleton, as well as other technicians, production managers, cinematographers, and scientists, all sympathetic to the cause. Together they form the “OPS Team”, whose goal is to infiltrate this cove in Taiji, film what occurs there, and spread global awareness about the situation with this evidence. Because outsiders are not allowed to access these coves where the dolphins are harvested, the OPS team must use more clandestine means to gain footage of what occurs there. Using rather sophisticated technology, such as deep sea cameras embedded in prop rocks, the OPS team accomplishes gaining this evidence. Despite the momentum of the movement, we must also consider whether the methods the OPS team used are proper and legitimate, realizing that they had trespassed on private property and had lied to public officials about their intentions. One could argue that such methods were necessary evil in order to prevent the larger issue at hand, but one cannot deny the fact that deception was used to accomplish the means of the OPS team.
It is evident that the documentary uses a variety of emotional appeals to sway the audience to sympathize with the cause. Images of happy, free, smiling dolphins are contrasted to the frantic dolphins in Taiji, literally swimming for their lives to escape the “wall of sound” tactic used by the fisherman, and an even more repulsive imagine, a sea of red from the blood of dead dolphins. We further see emotional ploys through O’Barry sharing his experience with training dolphins and him having witnessed a show dolphin supposedly “committing suicide”, which had since lit the flames of his desire to free the dolphins. The documentary goes on to provide evidence that this situation affects more than just the dolphins, by displaying statistics of how much mercury is contained in dolphin meat for those in Japan who consume it, mistaking it for whale meat. This is further developed as the documentary describes the Minimata Disease, a pandemic caused by the consumption of mercury in fish in Japan, that has rendered many individuals paralyzed and even dead. The documentary uses the medium of food as a call to action for individuals to pay their respects to the cause, as one can fall victim to the illness through consumption of the meat. This creates a sense of impending morbidity which the documentary uses to its advantage to further antagonize the corrupt system of dolphin harvesting.