Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 documentary, The Cove chronicles former Flipper actor Ric O’Barry and his crew as they try to expose the horrors of dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan. Taiji is shown to be a quieter area, that expresses love and interest in dolphins, but it harbors many hunters and tragic, bloody deaths. O’Barry and his team push the limits on legality and trespass into a brutal operation and business. At one point, O’Barry states that the dolphins’ smiles are the greatest deception, as images of SeaWorld and other attractions are flashed on-screen. He notes that after one of the Flipper dolphins died in his arms, that he needed to take on the task of saving them. The documentary juxtaposes that and the trials he and his crew go through in getting the message out to the public.
Dolphins, as explained in the movie, are killed in Taiji, and shown in explicit detail. They are also captured and sold off, and some are even sold to markets for consumers. At one point, it is mentioned that cheap whale meat at markets is actually only whale meat in name, and is actually dolphin meat. Dolphin meat is full of mercury and poses a potential health threat. We are given an example of the disasters of Minamata disease, which was also a result of mercury. We even see people picking up dolphin meat being sold in the museum in Taiji, where people may not know the potential dangers of consuming it.
The sympathy towards dolphins in the film is on another level, as O’Barry’s care for them is genuine. They’re portrayed as majestic and intelligent, as well as safe-aware. We watch the film and wonder “who would be so cruel enough as to kill something like this?” Big corporations and greed come to mind as a massacre occurs on-camera, for profit. Anger from the dolphin hunters themselves are expressed as they demand the camera crew leave their site.
The hunters see this dolphin slaughter as a type of pest control, and since it’s legal for the citizens of Japan to kill the dolphins, there is no illegality going on here. They can sell, even with the health risks of poisoning the waters and potentially people. We watch this documentary, completely portraying dolphins as beautiful creatures, and then sold as a potentially harmful food substance. We are told by O’Barry that they can communicate on a more human level and even commit a type of suicide. To the viewer, the dolphin itself feels like it’s a more humane creature than other fish or animals, and doesn’t hesitate to show us the beauty and magnificence of dolphins before showing us their brutal deaths.
The film is a call-to-action in more ways than one. First, along with the examples of mercury poisoning from Minamata, O’Barry and his crew discuss how people need to be made aware of how much risk comes with eating dolphin, and the fact that people may unknowingly be consuming dolphin meat simply labeled “whale meat.” It is seen as a shady business in which the government does not regulate and companies do not seem to care about putting citizens at risk. It also alerts people in Japan to the fact that these animals are being slaughtered in large numbers, and people are truly surprised in their reactions to this statement. The Cove does a good job at communicating with people in telling them just how problematic this dolphin hunt in Taiji is.
The fishermen in the movie appear to take joy in this, regardless of what the meat may do to people, what people may think of the hunt, or understand what they’re destroying in what they refer to as pests. They are insensitive and the cameras hidden away in the rocks do an excellent job of exposing that. O’Barry takes that to the public, in streets and meetings, with a screen strapped to his chest, showing just how heartbreaking the massacre is. The blue waters of the cove are stained red as the unsuspecting, smiling, and humane creatures are mercilessly taken down, one by one to be sold off and eaten.
The nightmarish tragedies of Minamata go through the viewers’ heads the whole time as yet another overarching corporation doesn’t regulate or interfere with what seems wrong. Greed is a driving force as the fishermen are paid handsomely for their murdering of copious amounts of dolphins. Children will continue to go to museums, aquariums, and shows at SeaWorld, and will not bat an eye at these almost majestic sea creatures. Few will know how unhappy they are with the blaring noises going on around them, and few will know what exactly brought them to that particular institution. The film and O’Barry’s message tries to change that and alert the masses to these horrors.
Food, a part of everyday life, shouldn’t be a danger to citizens as it was to the people living in Minamata. Fish, as described in both this and Minamata: The Victims and Their World, are an important cultural commodity in Japan, and consumed more there than in a lot of places. The documentary does not go against the killing of smaller, plentiful fish, but against what O’Barry views as an almost human-like companion animal. Still, those who oppose him fail to see this. The smile of a dolphin is nothing but a mask, when a group of them see the light for the last time, as they are poked relentlessly with rods, and their blood stains the water of a hidden cove in Taiji. They are blocked off from view, and sold for profit. People consume food that can hurt or impair them. Companies earn money. Protest groups rise, and only grow in number, but can these dolphins be saved, or will people continue to hunger for money and power? O’Barry and The Cove aim to end the issue and answer that question.