Tag Archives: The Cove

The Cove and its Implications as a Documentary

           In “Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking,” Bill Nichols writes that every film is a documentary; each film is either a documentary of wish-fulfillment (fiction) or a documentary of social representation (non-fiction) (Nichols).   Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009) embodies the latter category of what can simply be called a documentary film as it follows Ric O’Barry’s struggles to expose the slaughtering of dolphins in the waters of a remote lagoon located in Taiji, Japan.



            The Cove establishes Ric O’Barry as its main protagonist, and the documentary details not only his role in dolphin activism today but also his history with commercial dolphin captivity (Psihoyos).  The film first depicts Ric O’Barry’s earlier works with dolphins.  He once worked as a dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV series Flipper – a show that propelled dolphins into the mainstream (Psihoyos).  O’Barry’s past as a trainer for the popular Flipper series helped commercialize the capturing of dolphins (Psihoyos).  However, after production of the series ended, O’Barry adopted the life of an activist.  He believes that Kathy, the main dolphin that acted as “Flipper,” committed suicide by suffocating herself when she purposefully did not open her blowhole to take another breath (Psihoyos), and since that incident, he has worked to release captive dolphins back into the wild (Psihoyos).  The film almost appears to document O’Barry’s effort to rectify his past and what happened to Kathy.  By illustrating to the audience O’Barry’s past and current actions, the documentary personalizes Ric O’Barry’s life.   It becomes an appeal to the emotions of the viewer and an attempt to win the audience to O’Barry’s side. 



The documentary even depicts the commitment of Ric O’Barry.  He says, “I never planned on being an activist. One thing leads to another, and now if there’s a dolphin in trouble anywhere in the world, my phone will ring” (Psihoyos).  The statement by O’Barry demands the viewer to acknowledge the dedication he has to his cause; it is another passionate ploy to gain the viewer to the side of “the speaker” (Nichols).



            With O’Barry established as Nichols’ “speaker,” the documentary then portrays Taiji and its lagoon as the “them” that is spoken about – or against (Nichols).  Ric O’Barry is the speaker (the activist) who tries to convey to the viewer that Taiji is a “little town with a really big secret” (Psihoyos) – that is, dolphin slaughter by local fisherman and townsfolk occurs in an isolated cove in Taiji.



From the “helicopters” to the “drones” to the “thermal cameras” (Psihoyos), the documentary takes on a tone of espionage and covert operations under Ric O’Barry and his crew.  In what appears to be an attempt to place the viewer on the actual team, the documentary even displays to the viewer a map that details all the locations where the crew should not trespass.  This aspect in the film essentially translates into another (fun) appeal to the viewer to gain him or her onto the Ric O’Barry effort against dolphin slaughter.



Ethical issues also remain apparent in The Cove. Food becomes pertinent when the film attempts to document Japan’s “covering up” of the sale of dolphin meat in its markets (Psihoyos).  In the documentary, Scott Baker claims, “Dolphin meat is generally considered to be a less desirable commodity, and it would sell for far, far less, if it was properly labeled.  So the meat is distributed much more widely than…recognized” (Psihoyos).  The film portrays Japan’s government to be in cahoots with the slaughtering of dolphins in order to help the fishing industry, which sees dolphins and other whales as “pests” that hinder the size of the catch (Psihoyos).  But this is also where the film fails to depict to the viewer the other side; actual Japanese activists never make appearances in the film.  The viewer instead is shown obliviousness in the Japanese population when various native citizens display ignorance on the subject in front of the camera.  By dehumanizing the Japanese people into one group that seems to be either for dolphin slaughter or ignorant of it, The Cove makes yet another effort to win the viewer onto the side of the speaker.

            However, with all its endeavors to create a one-sided story of Ric O’Barry against the slaughtering of dolphins aside, the documentary still questions real ethical issues.  The documentary rightfully portrays dolphins as creative creatures with the ability to recognize self and capacity to learn and display intelligence at the level of humans (Psihoyos).  The main issue becomes not that of government corruption but that of the brutal slaughter of intelligent beings.  As humans, the ability to be conscious of being conscious remains remarkable – and this level of consciousness has been documented in dolphins (Psihoyos).  The documentary humanizes the dolphins in an effort to put the main issue at the forefront.  It allows the viewer to place him or herself into the dolphin’s flippers; it becomes an issue of right and wrong, a moral dilemma.  Separate species and mercury health side effects aside, humans and dolphins belong in the same category with regards to the ability to recognize oneself in the world.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. “Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking,” from Introduction to Documentary(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010), 42-66.

Psihoyos, Louie. The Cove. Lionsgate, 2009. Film.


The Cove-A Real Life Heist Movie

In the 2009 documentary film, The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos analyzes, questions, and exposes Japan’s dolphin hunting culture. The film serves as a call to action to bring an end to mass dolphin slaughter, to change Japanese fishing practices, and to inform the general public of the atrocities being committed to these animals and the health risks (particularly the increased hazard of mercury poising) associated with consuming dolphin meat. The filmmakers emphasized the secrecy involved in capturing the footage to establish a “spy movie” quality to the movie and, as a result, draw in a wider audience than the typical documentary film fan. However, this secret filming, in combination with the portrayal of the Japanese people, elicited great controversy surrounding The Cove’s release.

Louie Psihoyos undercover

Louie Psihoyos undercover

In the opening scene of the film (featured above) the film’s director, Louie Psihoyos, is featured in the passenger seat of a car driving through Japan. He is shown with a medical mask covering a good portion of his face. He then introduces the audience to the secrecy involved in dolphin hunting in Japan and that exposing the industry is illegal. In this way, a sense of civil-duty and urgency is established and Louie Psihoyos places himself and the crew in a position of importance and power. It is also important that Psihoyos addresses the illegal aspect of their mission in this light because it justifies their illegal actions and argues that illegal actions must be taken if the laws being broken are unjust. However, the opening scene is ironic because of the facemask covering Louie’s face; in attempting to expose the dolphin hunting industry, the filmmakers have to cover and hide themselves. The secrecy also establishes a “spy-like” quality to the documentary. The spy movie feeling is further pushed when the footage is presented in green light for night filming, negative effect, and secret-taping footage. This employment of spy genre movie techniques is vital to the success of the documentary because it is able to appeal to a wider audience and makes the dolphin slaughter appear even more corrupt through the establishing of the “forces of good vs. evil.” However, the film techniques used in the making of this movie, such as secret filming, led to much of the controversy that surrounded its release.

Ric O'Barry in an intimate embrace with a dolphin

Ric O’Barry in an intimate embrace with a dolphin

Another important aspect that led to the success of the film was the personal relationship established between dolphins and humans. The film’s main social actor, Ric O’Barry, discusses his experience with dolphins through his involvement with the Flipper television show. He states that he knows that dolphins are self-aware. This idea is crucial in separating dolphins from other animals like pigs and cows that are also slaughtered for food production. If dolphins are aware of themselves and their surroundings, then they can be viewed as more similar to humans than to other animals and it is then inhumane to slaughter them for meat. This idea is essential in drawing sympathy and compassion on behalf of the dolphins from the film’s audience. The above image of Ric O’Barry in loving embrace with a dolphin epitomizes this concept.

Blood from dolphin slaughter filling a cove in Japan

Blood from dolphin slaughter filling a cove in Japan

This image is taken from perhaps the most important moment in the film. In this screenshot the blood from the slaughter of dolphins is revealed for the first time. The dark red of the blood is significant because it is a visual reminder of just how many dolphins must have been slaughtered and because it is seen in direct contrast with the tranquil blue of the surrounding ocean. This serves as a metaphor that stresses that dolphin slaughter is in direct conflict with nature. It is also important because the presence of dolphin slaughter can no longer be ignored or swept under the rug. From this point forward, the audience is forced to decide to answer the film’s call for action and the Japanese people must face this aspect of their culture out in the open. In this way, consumers must consider what they are willing to look past or abandon morally in order to maintain a diet they are accustomed to.

In the creation of a modern day, real life “heist” film, director Louie Psihoyos turns The Cove into one of the most viewed documentary films released in the past 10 years. As a result, a wide audience of once ignorant viewers has been introduced to a serious travesty plaguing the dolphin hunting industry in Japan. The issue is magnified still through the humanization of the dolphins. As a result, the audience must face the harsh realities of dolphin meat consumption and remember the images of the blood-red cove in making future food purchases. In this way, despite the controversy sparked by the questions of morality sparked by secret filming, the film is effective in bringing awareness to a serious issue in today’s food industry and force the audience to serve as the driving force in creating serious change for both the future of the dolphins and of the human race.

The Cove and the Revealing of its Secrets

Documentary film making has always been one of the most effective methods for expressing the ideas and opinions of directors. Because of this, the popularity of the genre has grown tremendously over time. There are so many different types of documentary films that a genre can no longer be solely labeled as a documentary. As a result, there are now sub genres for documentaries that range from observational and expository to participatory and reflexive. In the shocking documentary titled The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos uses the participatory and expository methods of documentary filmmaking to show his journey to reveal the truth behind what happens within the confines of a small cove on the coast of Taiji, Japan. 

The Cove is a documentary about the capture and slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins that occurs annually in Taiji, Japan. The main purpose of the capturing of these highly intelligent mammals is to find dolphins that can be taken and trained to perform at various water theme parks. Not all of the dolphins that are captured are selected for these positions, however. Those who aren’t fortunate enough to be selected by dolphin trainers are viciously killed in the cove by fisherman so their meat can be sold. Acquiring footage of what went on inside the cove was a great challenge for Psihoyos and his his crew because everything was heavily guarded to prevent any of the secrets about what happens inside from ever being exposed. The only way they were able to finally acquire footage of what went on in the cove was with the use of highly sophisticated and disguised camera equipment that was strategically placed in places where it would go unnoticed such as underwater as well as among the rocks that served as the natural barrier that stopped any outside eyes from ever seeing what was going on. 


An aerial long shot of the blood red waters inside the cove, which are safely hidden away from any outside viewers


Louie Psihoyos prepares for an attempt to obtain video footage inside the cove

The participatory style of documentary filmmaking is when the director of a film is shown interacting with others. Psihoyos plays an important role in his documentary because he is  right there as a part of the spy-like team of camera men who take the risk of entering a highly secure, prohibited area to find the truth behind what is happening to the dolphins who are captured in the cove. One reason that Psihoyos chose to put himself in the film is because he was very passionate exposing to the world the horrors that have been committed by these dolphin fishermen and he felt that by putting himself in the documentary, people could see his concern regarding the matter and understand that it what was happening in Taiji was a very serious issue. The second screenshot shows Louie Psihoyos in one of the first scenes of the documentary where he discusses the legal danger in what they are about to do to try to obtain footage of the dolphin killings. The use of night vision as well as thermal cameras as shown in the close-up screenshot add to the mystery of the theme which brings viewers feel as if they are almost coming along for the suspenseful journey right alongside Psihoyos.


A scientist gives statistical information on the amount of mercury contained in dolphin meat

The expository documentary style is an equally effective method that is used for grasping the viewers attention in a film such as The Cove. Expository filmmaking is the dictating or revealing of truth of about an event with facts. This method is almost necessary in this film where facts regarding the health risks of eating dolphin meat are reviewed. The recommended total level of mercury in seafood in Japan is 0.4 parts per million. When compared to the third screenshot, it is obviously a much smaller amount than what is contained in dolphin meat. This  scene leads to a reference to the Minamata disease, that explains how mercury poisoning in humans first became an issue in 1956 when people became poisoned from the consumption of fish in Minamata, Japan because a factory was dumping its waste into the ocean which was affecting the fish in the area. People who were affected by the Minamata disease suffered many serious health issues. Pregnant women were at the highest level of risk because they would often give birth to children with developmental issues who weren’t able to speak or walk. 

Louie Psihoyos was able to make a very powerful and effective documentary about the issue behind the slaughtering and selling of dolphin meat in Taiji, Japan. He did this through the utilization of different documentary techniques including participatory and expository filmmaking. His film was very effective because it gained popularity worldwide and an issue that was once unknown to even the majority of the Japanese population outside of Taiji became a matter that was suddenly known to everyone. 

SeaWorld: The Cove’s Continuing Nightmare

SeaWorld is one of the premier aquatic theme parks in not only the United States but globally, as well. Opened in 1964, these theme parks make use of captive orcas, sea lions and dolphins in various types of shows and attractions. SeaWorld has also been known for its animal rescue and rehabilitation programs: programs that, since their inception, have saved around 22,000 animals from endangerment and extinction. However, these programs have brought a lot of criticism from wildlife groups all over the world such as Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project Inc. In the movie, The Cove, which showcases O’Barry and his followers’ attempts to stop the annual slaughter of almost 2, 000 dolphins in Taiji, Japan, the lives of dolphins in captivity are portrayed as sad and detrimental to the lives of one of the world’s smartest creatures. Confinement in captivity seriously compromises the welfare and survival of these animals by altering their behavior and causing extreme distress. From this movie, an example of participatory documentary, the world is able to see the truth behind dolphin slaughter as well as the secrets behind dolphinariums such as SeaWorld.

Ric O’Barry’s conviction throughout The Cove is that no dolphin can thrive in captivity, regardless of whether it was bred there, or caught in the wild in a drive. Dolphins are anatomically built for life in the open sea. They have very sensitive organs that detect small vibrations in the waves and can act like sonar, and it is sensitive enough to detect other sea life for miles away. It doesn’t make a difference where these animals come from – the wild or breeding centers – their bodies, sensory system, and nervous system are not built for small areas. They will never be able to be released in the wild. The Cove stresses that “dolphinariums”, such as SeaWorld, are responsible for buying live dolphins from the Japanese fishermen for use in their dolphin shows, aquariums, and swim-with-the-dolphin programs.




A typical dolphinarium show.


Though SeaWorld itself does not directly buy dolphins from Taiji distributers, O’Barry still believes that SeaWorld by keeping the dolphins in captivity, they are nevertheless killing them. Even though he was one of the founding fathers of the dolphin entertainment industry, he has changed his stance regarding their use and wants to end the use of dolphins, as well as other animals, in shows across the globe. He states, “I spent 10 years building that industry up, and I spent the last 35 trying to tear it down” when asked about his efforts to end the dolphinarium industry. He maintains throughout the film that it is not only the slaughter of the dolphins which he fights against but he also believes that “all of these captures help create the largest slaughter of dolphins on the planet” because whether dolphins are captured or not, their outlook is just as bleak being used as entertainment as being used for food.


Up until the 1980s, SeaWorld did in fact import whales from slaughter sites such as those in Taiji. It wasn’t until things like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and work by environmentalists in the early 1990s that finally curbed the importation of dolphins into the United States. However, as seen in The Cove, this has done little to curb the use of these animals in SeaWorld and other similar amusement parks in the US. Instead, dolphins are simply bred in captivity and never actually experience what it is like to be free and a real dolphin. “It’s the captivity industry that keeps this slaughter going by rewarding the fishermen for their bad behavior” and paying for the dolphins to be exported across the world as food and amusement. O’Barry shows through his film how SeaWorld and other aquatic entertainment centers refuse to criticize other facilities that buy animals from Taiji and have not taken any plans or moved in a direction to stop the hunts themselves.




A dolphin suffering from depression in captivity.


By using participatory documentary, we can see what it actually takes to make a dent in the capture and murder of dolphins. O’Barry’s chronicle of his groups attempt to be the first to document the slaughter of the dolphins in Taiji and document the outside forces which help continue these slaughters. We also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by his presence. He must disguise himself, shake the tails that companies put on him, and avoid pesky fishermen in order to achieve the goal of his film. The encounter between him and the subject becomes a critical element of the film and allows us to see into the actual battle that is being waged in Japan. He makes the film in a way that allows him to shape the issues according to his own sense of what is important, and controls how the audience sees the story as well. By participating and actually showing the changes that his persistence brings, he is able to better explain the predicament of the dolphins and allow for a larger backing of his cause by the audience. His admittance of his involvement in creating this problem and the pain that he feels for being a major cause of dolphin slaughter and capture, allows the audience to gain an emotional connection to the dolphins.


            Overall, SeaWorld continues practices that O’Barry and The Cove aim to stop. We see that though they don’t directly support Taiji, their lack of work towards the prevention of these acts is apparent. For a company that is at the forefront of marine entertainment and “rescue”, they have not used their global influence as much as they should. They don’t take action because it could potentially hurt the multi-million dollar profits that they make every year. People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes after hours. The best way to end dolphin captivity for entertainment and general slaughter is through the education of the public about the dark side of that captivity and what it does to the health and lives of these captive ‘entertainers’. Thankfully, The Cove does its best to portray these problems best they can because without documentaries like this one, our global wildlife will suffer greatly. As stated in the film, “If we can’t stop that [dolphin capture and slaughter], if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.” 


Ethnocentrism in The Cove

          The critically acclaimed film, The Cove, follows Ric O’Barry, the trainer and star of the television show, Flipper, who has since dedicated his life for the justice of dolphins around the world. The documentary’s premise is to expose the tragic dolphin hunt that happens annually in Taiji, Japan to bring the attention to this inhumane practice and act as a call to action to stop the slaughter. In this sense, the film has succeeded as the shock value of the film has resonated with the American public, and is portrayed as being brought the surface by the courageous efforts of the American film crew. Yet, the aim of the movie is to seemingly change a Japanese practice so it fails to stimulate change within the culture as the movie is targeted so far from a Japanese audience. The film, instead, takes a moralistic stance that tugs on the heartstrings of the American public to bring awareness towards this act. Though the film’s initial objective may have been to expose a small group of people on the shores of Wakayama, it clearly imposes Western standards on Japan’s policies, customs, and values, which is particularly evident in the coverage of Japan’s whaling policies. The film was successful in shedding light on the cruelty of Taiji’s dolphin slaughter and certainly is effective in capturing the tension and playing up the danger, but it has done so at the cost of the misunderstanding of the Japanese people’s food culture. By imposing the Western standards and values on Japanese culture, the film adopts an ethnocentric psyche that discredits the issue at hand.

          The problem with The Cove is that the issue is deeper than “greedy” Japanese fisherman killing dolphins and is instead an intrinsic culturally related problem. It is not stated that whaling and the consumption of dolphins has been a tradition that can be followed back to the Edo period of Japan in the film nor do the filmmakers demonstrate any understanding of the Japanese culture. That is not to say that this is a nation wide tradition, as is evident by the portrayal of the Tokyo citizens in the film, but a tradition that deserves a certain degree of respect nonetheless. Additionally, it is important to note that the idea of tradition not be used as an excuse to conduct inhumane practices but instead it demonstrates that had the cultural aspect of consuming dolphins as a form of food been addressed, the film could actually be effective in achieving their goal. By dismissing dolphin meat as food at all, Psihoyos dismisses the people of Taiji’s food culture altogether as an inhumane practice, and dehumanizes the people themselves by degrading their culture as being less civilized than that of the West. Furthermore, it was not too long ago that meat in Japan was addressed in the same manner as exemplified in Fuzukawa Yukichi’s, “On Meat Eating”, where he states, “There remain many people who blindly dislike [using meat], saying that meat eating is filthy, in accordance with the customs our nation has followed for many long centuries.” He goes on further saying, “This is a specious argument born out of ignorant blindness that demonstrates a lack of knowledge.” Ironically, Fukuzawa strengthens his argument for meat eating by expressing that cow meat is much easier to process than whale meat, as if the consumption of whale meat was an integral food group as cows are to the West, “People never express such misgivings when we catch whales and eat their meat.” This further illustrates the polarized cultural rift between the East and the West that demonstrates how easy it is to perpetuate this misunderstanding and dismissal of cultural practices.

One of the most prominent arguments that Psihoyo makes in his argument against the Japanese consumption of dolphins is the fact that they are high in the food chain, thus mercury levels are biomagnified to a toxic level in their meat. It is evident that by utilizing this platform, O’Barry’s is able to orient their animal rights agenda with a human rights violation that defends his stance against dolphin as a commodity. Regardless of whether O’Barry’s concern over mercury poisoning as a result of dolphin consumption is a byproduct of his initial aim, the fact that there is a prospect that the Japanese market contains possibilities of mercury food poising is still prominent. Clearly, this is the film’s strongest argument against the slaughter of dolphins and yet it seems to be contrived and dismissed instead of grasping the opportunity to be a real informational source for the citizens of Taiji. Although there is an older generation of Taiji who feel as though whaling and consuming dolphin meat is an intrinsic part of their culture, the only realistic approach to ending this dolphin hunt is to cut off the demand by informing and educating the younger generation about the real risks of consuming this meat. It is this generational difference that may be the only feasible act that may stop this dolphin hunt and the fact that the documentary did little to address the Japanese audience as a call to action is counterproductive in its cause.

The differences in food culture and its correlation with one’s values are evident in The Cove but it does little to make an ecological conservation argument. Instead, it underscores how dolphins have human-like qualities that should resonate with people emotionally. By humanizing dolphins and in turn dehumanizing the Japanese fisherman, turns an objective look at a cultural problem into an American versus Japanese story about how these cruel fishermen hunt innocent animals. This sets up a hegemonic role that is able to twist the message of the film into something manipulative that is more interested in enlisting foreign support than informing the perpetrators at hand and victims at risk. If the filmmakers could exhibit the sensibility and sensitivity to the culture they were scrutinizing, it could have had the potential to make a real impact on the cause.

Logical and Emotional Arguments in The Cove

The 2009 film The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos, documents the struggle to end the annual slaughter of dolphins for their meat that takes place in Taiji, Japan.  The documentary provides multiple pieces of evidence to highlight the multiple ways in which this slaughter is immoral.  Not only do the filmmakers argue that dolphins are intelligent creatures that should not be treated as common farm-stock, they also claim that the fisherman and others involved in the trade are immoral because the meat is highly contaminated with mercury, yet still they expose the general pubic to this poison.  The town of Taiji and supporters of the dolphin harvest argue that it is a longstanding Japanese tradition and an integral part of the culture’s heritage.

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Street art in Taiji proclaiming their love of dolphins.

When we as viewers are first introduced to the town of Taiji, it looks from the outside as though it is a town that loves dolphins. There are statues and murals and all kinds of art all over the city dedicated to marine mammals.  Numerous boats are constantly entering and exiting the harbor with their orca-shaped facades taking tourists out to sea to catch a glimpse of some amazing creature.  The city is hoe to the Taiji Whale Museum, where spectators can enjoy regular dolphin shows by trained dolphins in captivity (ironically while enjoying a dolphin meat snack).  All of this seems a bit over the top, almost as if the town is overcompensating for something.  It’s almost as if they know the annual slaughter they are famous for is inherently wrong, so they create this false appearance not only to show outsiders they really do love these beings, but also to try ease their own guilty conscience.

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A Tokyo resident reacts to learning of the slaughter.

The fisherman’s and Japan’s representative at the International Whaling Commission’s most used argument in favor of continuing this harvest is the notion that this slaughter is an integral and irreplaceable part of Japanese tradition and culture.  These people do not believe that they should be forced to change their ways just because the perceptions and the ideas of the rest of the world have changed over time.  They believe that it is perfectly ok to put dolphin meat on the mark despite the fact that it is contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury.  They even felt even felt it was such an integral part of the culture that a program was started to serve the contaminated meat in school lunches.  Despite the effort that the dolphin hunting industry goes to to try to convince itself that this is true, the filmmakers quickly prove them false.  In a group of interviews performed on the streets of Tokyo, people are shocked to find that not only are numerous dolphins killed in Taiji each year, they’re horrified to find that dolphin meat is consumed regularly.

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A wounded dolphin trying to escape its inevitable death.

The other argument used by the industry to defend the practice of dolphin slaughter is that it is done humanely by piercing the dolphin through the spine, resulting in an instantaneous death.  One of the ultimate goals of the filmmakers is to capture on film how the slaughter, which takes place in a hidden cove that is iaolated from the general public, is conducted.  The film culminates with the slaughter finally being caught on film, and it is made very clear that it is in no way humane no way humane.  The dolphins are shown to continue swimming even after being struck with long spears by the fisherman multiple and being left to slowly bleed out.  But perhaps the most moving moment in the film occurs before we are aware of exactly what takes place within the hidden cove.  At an earlier point in the film, one of the captured dolphins escapes from the cove after being struck by the fisherman. The wounded creature swims towards the shore where the film crew is standing, and struggles to stay afloat.  A large amount of blood is clearly visible pouring from a wound on the side of the animal, and the dolphin eventually sinks when it runs out of energy.  This is probably the most obvious rebuttal to the notion that the slaughter is in some way humane.

The goal of the filmmakers in The Cove is to show that the Taiji dolphin slaughter is wrong in numerous way, and they accomplish this by appealing to both the viewer’s sense of logic and emotion.  They communicate a clear view on their opinion of the slaughter and support their view in numerous ways.  The Cove presents a very convincing argument and effectively stirs a sense of action in the audience.

Culture Wars

The Cove, released in 2009, is an Academy Award-winning documentary directed by Louie Psihoyos. The film examines the issues surrounding the dolphin-hunting culture in the small town of Taiji, Japan. Psihoyos’s film takes a clear stance against the activities in Taiji, and he teams up with activist Ric O’Berry to produce an exposé piece. O’Berry is an eminent global dolphin activist, who was formerly a dolphin trainer for the popular TV show, Flipper. It was O’Berry’s friendship with Kathy, a dolphin who played Flipper on the show, that caused him to reevaluate the ethics behind dolphin captivity and prompted his transformation. The film discusses a variety of concerns: the cruelty of killing cetaceans, problems of overfishing, the dangers of consuming dolphin meat, and the inefficacy of the current bureaucratic forms of intervention. The film takes form as a kind of investigative journalism, while using personal anecdotes to heighten the emotional stakes, and heist-like action sequences to create suspense and drama. The raw footage of the dolphin slaughters are extremely provocative, and at the end of the film one is left feeling as though something must be done. In this sense, the film is extremely well-produced, for it has entertainment value, is deeply thought-provoking, and is rather convincing. But upon further consideration, the film has issues that it does not address. The film tackles the problem as a simple matter of universal ethics, but there is cultural relativism at play. In the case of the dolphin lovers vs. the dolphin hunters, trying to make the two sides see eye-to-eye is a monumental task that requires a lot of cultural understanding. Perhaps in the fervor of their own mission, the filmmakers failed to see the root of the problem. And thus the war remains a stalemate.

From the beginning, the film establishes itself from two main perspectives. The narrator is Psihoyos himself, and he helps unfold the process of making the film. We are then introduced O’Berry, who is the cardinal expert on dolphins. In one of the opening scenes, we see the two driving around in a car showcasing the landscapes of Taiji, Japan. In the shot below, a paranoid O’Berry is certain that some entity is following his car.  He states, “I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

“I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

 This shot, filmed at close range within the confines of a sedan, shows O’Berry clutching the wheel–which, interestingly enough–is on the opposite side of the car compared to the American standard. O’Berry is hunched over with his face mask on, pretending to be ‘some old Japanese guy’, trying to be discreet so not to reveal his identity. The tone of his statement, along with his hyperbolic gesture of wearing a face mask (without explicating the rationality behind it) suggests a rather ignorant, perhaps even derisive attitude he has towards the local culture.

One of the main tenets of The Cove is that it is immoral to kill dolphins because of their superior intelligence via self-awareness.

“And when you become conscious of this non-human intelligence, you realize after a while that they don’t belong in captivity.”

In the shot above, we see Kathy, a dolphin who played the role of Flipper on the TV show. She appears to enjoy herself as she watches TV. O’Berry explains how on friday nights when Flipper would come on, he would drag out his TV to the end of the dock with a long extension cord, and Kathy would watch herself on the show. According to O’Berry, she could even distinguish herself from Susie, another dolphin who played Flipper. It seems that the life-changing moment for O’Berry was when Kathy died in his arms, for O’Berry believes that she intentionally committed suicide due to a depression caused by her captivity. Through these highly personal accounts as well as allusions to various scientific research, the film show how intelligent and relatable dolphins are. From their perspective, the dolphins’ intelligence raises their status in the animal kingdom to a level almost equal to humans. It is on this assumption that they make the ethical statement that killing dolphins is wrong. But is it fair to place more value on certain animals over others? In the West, livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens have been the primary providers of food protein throughout history. Are we to consider the horrible living conditions and the daily massacres of these animals in slaughterhouses as somehow more ethical than dolphin hunting? Can we somehow prove that these animals suffer less than dolphins? Or that they are less relatable or lovable because of their ‘lower intelligence’? To say that there is a hierarchy in the animal kingdom based on intelligence is inherently mired in issues of relativism. However disturbing the footage of the dolphin slaughter was, would you not feel equally disturbed if the subject were pigs? This is the root of the ethnocentricity that is so problematic in the film. The bottomline is that Japan is traditionally a fishing culture, while the West is traditionally a farming culture. Now, if we are to consider the ethics of killing animals for our consumption, both sides are guilty. The dispute over the killing of dolphins ought to illuminate a greater problem of rampant human consumption. The fact that The Cove fails to even mention this larger ecological problem shows their shortsightedness.

There is a segment in the film dedicated to the dangers of eating dolphin meat because of the high levels of mercury contained in them. The film claims that dolphin meat contains mercury levels that are 20 times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends to be safe. O’Berry argues that the dolphin hunters are not only poisoning themselves, but also poisoning all those who they are distributing the meat to, including children. This is a valid point. The film claims that because of the general low desirability of dolphin meat in Japan, the distributors of dolphin meat often mislabel them as whale meats or other more desirable types of fish meat. If this were true, a large population of Japanese citizens may be consuming dolphin meat without even knowing, putting them at risk mercury poisoning. The film refers to the Minamata disease as a potential outcome of the long-term effects of eating dolphin meat. But curiously enough, we do not hear of a single person suffering from mercury-related health problems caused by consuming dolphin meat.

Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries

 The shot above was taken from the closing moments of the film. In it, we see Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries having his hair sample taken to test his mercury level. There are two people whose arms we see, carefully taking a piece of hair from Moronuki’s head. Moronuki himself has a disdainful smirk on his face, though we cannot know for sure what he is thinking. And in the background we see a chart of cetaceans of various sizes. As the caption states, his hair sample tested positive for mercury poisoning. But one must wonder what this test result even means, since the film doesn’t explain to us at all. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from any visible ailments, so what conclusions are we suppose to reach by the fact that he tested positive? If the risk of a Minamata-esque mercury poisoning are real, when will we start seeing the effects? Moronuki states that the health risks of eating dolphin meat are over-exaggerated, but from the perspective of the filmmakers, that is a blatant denial. Regardless, this issue remains inconclusive until we start seeing the effects. Some may say, “Well, is it right to continue doing something that is potentially harmful until it is too late?”. That is a legitimate question. In this regard, we see plenty of parallels in the Western world. Our modern world is overflowing with chemicals. Inside of us. Inside of our foods. In the water. It seems almost inescapable. In America, where there is an abnormally high use of pharmaceutical drugs, the question arises often. Many drugs are put out on the market and distributed to the masses, even before their long-term effects are known. Some drugs prove truly beneficial, but others introduce a plethora of side effects that ultimately makes the drug more harmful than helpful. Every culture takes health risks as an inevitable part of life, and there is no way of judging what is worse. The problem with The Cove is that it singles out a specific health risk that exists for dolphin meat eaters, yet does not address similar kind of health risks that exists in every corner of the modern world. In their eagerness to condemn dolphin hunting, they end up taking an extremely narrow viewpoint. For a person embedded in the dolphin hunting culture of Taiji, The Cove’s assertions may be deemed irrelevant due to these reasons.

Cultural relativism is important to address in our increasingly globalized world. As seen in The Cove, there is cultural relativism at play even within a country as small as Japan (in the case of people in Tokyo not knowing about Taiji’s dolphin eating tradition). If only the film had greater reflexivity and was more conscious of its particular cultural perspective, it could have made for a richer analysis of the issues surrounding dolphin-hunting in Taiji, and even explored ways of resolving this ethical conflict between two cultures. Without this awareness, it appears as an imperceptive affront to a culture that simply has a different way of life.

In his suffering, O’Berry can only seek redemption

The Cove is at its greatest when it acknowledges its highly personal nature. We cannot help but empathize with the pain of Ric O’Berry, who in essence, is just someone trying to protect something he profoundly cares about. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, for if we are to try to understand the root of the dolphin-hunting culture, we necessarily must consider the omnivore dilemma in its entirety.

Manipulating Food

Louis Psihoyos’ film The Cove uncovers the hidden act of slaughtering of dolphins in the town of Taiji,Japan which has been kept hidden from both the inhabitants of the town and the entire country of Japan. Ric O’Barry, renowned dolphin trainer and former trainer of one of America’s beloved dolphin’s Flipper, travels with Louis Psihoyos and a group of activists to Taiji to find evidence that exposes the severity and the atrocity of the dolphin hunt which the Japanese government tries desperately to conceal. Fisherman and police constantly keep them under surveillance because they do not want them to capture images of this horrific act making it more difficult for the crew to expose them. When O’Barry questions the local councilman of Taiji, Hisato Ryono, about what goes on in the cove, he responds by saying that it is a means of supplying food and the whole town knows about this. He refers to the killing as an act similar to killing cows in that it an unpleasant sight hinting at the idea of dolphins simply being common food products. It is claimed to be a Japanese tradition that does nothing except supply the population with more food to be consumed. The fisherman of Taiji and the Japanese government use the concept of food to maintain the business alive at all cost because although they make some profit from selling their meat, the real profit stems from selling these dolphins to aquariums around the world.

The chosen performance dolphins are sent to aquariums across the globe while the other dolphins are killed for meat at the cove in Taiji.

Ric O’Barry reaches out to Louis Psihoyos and the group to conduct a secret undercover mission to get footage of the killing because he wants people to understand the severity of this problem. He was the witness of seeing a dolphin commit suicide while working as the trainer for the Flipper show and feels it is his duty to help expose Taiji in order to help save the dophins. As he continued to train dolphins he established a connection with these creatures which allowed him to understand that dolphins are highly intelligent species that are meant to live in the wild and not in captivity since they exhibit human-like qualities. He not only wants to stop the hunt along with his team but desires to have people understand that these creatures who are not meant to entertain and be harassed by humans. Throughout the film, the fisherman and those opposed to stopping the hunts often dismiss these ideas of dolphins being conscious animals who have emotions like humans rather than decide to consider these views because the money made from this business is what is most important to them. This dismissal is portrayed through the various shots of the fisherman yelling at the camera crew to back away, interfering with filming by filming back at them with their own cameras, and constantly spying on the crew to ensure there is no filming. Nevertheless not all are ignorant to this problem because it is revealed that many commoners are forced to remain silent about the subject and accept this idea hence creating the “dolphin hunting tradition”.

The camera crew is harassed by a local resident (“Private Space”) attempting to prevent the crew from filming at the cove in Taiji.

The concept of food in Taiji fuels this industry because it is a justification that is difficult to argue against. According to the IWC Japanese delegate, Joji Morishita, the reason to allow this continuation of slaughtering is to reduce the number of dolphins which he believes to be the cause of the decline of consumable fish in the oceans. He creates various data charts to attempt to convince the other IWC delegates to support Japan but the data proves to be incorrect because the actual cause for this decline in fish is the increase in population size rather than dolphins. The dolphin population is being decreased because of these hunts therefore it is illogical for these creatures to consume more fish. The method that was intended for this argument is to make others believe that a shortage of fresh fish may be imminent calling for a possible increase in deaths due to starvation.  The notion of death  by hunger is something that all countries work hard to avoid therefore the Japanese delegate decided to attempt to gain sympathy from other delegates whom he knows will not allow the possibility of food shortages to exists. Food is vital to human life hence it is physiologically impossible for others to view a country suffer from starvation when there is a solution to the problem available. For this scenario, killing dolphins is the proposed solution but in reality the dolphins are not the cause for the fish shortages.

Only a small percentage of the dolphins caught are sold to aquariums and the ones deemed unfit for aquariums are killed and processed to be sold at markets. The film features the team as a group of spies and much like the classic spies in films such as 007, spies often tend to question all the evidence they collect thus far. In this case, after discovering that only certain dolphins are chosen for entertainment hence creating an increase in deceased dolphins, the question that was asked is where the meat goes when dolphin meat is not in high demand. At this stage, the typical spy would analyze data samples or any physical evidence therefore leading O’Barry and the team to analyze other meat samples. With the aid of a DNA tester, they discovered that Taiji has been secretly selling mercury poisoned dolphin meat in meat claimed to be healthy high quality whale meat. Nevertheless, these people are unaware of this fact and continue to be unaware up to this point. The Japanese are using the notion of food against its citizens both young and elderly and are harming their health in order to keep the dolphin business alive. Dolphin meat contains 2000 ppm of mercury which is highly toxic and is being fed to the people of Taiji with the consent of the government. Food is a basic necessity which allows the Japanese government to continue this operation because it is logical that people will trust the labels on the meat they purchase and as long as it is edible the people will eat it without having any doubt that what they eat might be in fact dolphin meat. Rather than creating more food for the people of Japan, a shortage of healthy food is secretly created and mercury poisoning continues to rise.

O’Barry and the crew take DNA samples to prove dolphin meat in mixed in with other meats.

In The Cove, food is used as a justification for the measures taken by the Japanese government in favor of the dolphin hunting in Taiji. As shown by the footage captured by O’Barry, Psihoyos and the team, killing dolphins is an inhumane act because are intellectual creatures who are meant to be free. Nevertheless, the profit that is being made by this business of selling and consuming dolphin drives the Japanese to protect it at all cost in order to further strengthen its economy because much money is made in selling one dolphin to an aquarium  with extra being made by selling the other dolphins for meat. It has reached a point where Japan has actually paid lower level countries to support their ideas because this has become a very profitable business. But, in order to conceal the horrors that take place at the cove, it is often argued that without the dolphins food will become scarce. Although this fact is not true, it enough to convince some people that they are just in their actions taken  and make it difficult for others to argue against Japan. Unfortunately, this concept is used against Japan’s own people and goes against the principle of killing dolphins for the sake of the population. Food can be used in different ways but in this case, food causes more harm than profit.

The Cove: Manipulation of Film as a Means of Persuasion

“The Cove”, a 2009 documentary directed by American photographer Louie Psihoyos, features the Japanese dolphin hunt in Taiji in an attempt to educate its audience about such happenings and the detrimental effects they bring upon the environment as well as humans. In 2010, it won numerous outstanding documentary awards, such as the Sundance Film Festival as well as an Academy Award.

What I found most notable about “The Cove” in terms of its identity as a documentary was the careful use of music and scene cut choices to really reach into the pathos of its viewers–aside from being informational, many scenes lacked dialogue, simply showing gruesome and inhumane moments of mass dolphin slaughter.

Another technique used by the filmmakers was beginning the documentary by demonstrating the friendliness, intelligence, and kindness of dolphins in order to create a kind of emotional connection with viewers before they witness their murders. In contrast, the Japanese dolphin hunters are portrayed as rude, heartless, and threatening; they are overgeneralized as a mass of money-hungry fishermen with no consideration or hesitance in slaughtering hundreds of dolphins at once or in separating baby dolphins as their parents are taken away and killed before their very eyes. In this sense, at times viewers may forget the documentary nature of the film as emotional drama is very much integrated into the storytelling, rather than fast hard facts. The documentary also begins with famed dolphin trainer turned dolphin rights activist Ric O’Barry recounting his experience with the suicide of one of the dolphins who played the role of Flipper, the namesake of a 1964 hit television series. O’Barry’s account of the incident is overtly dramatic, true as it may be, inciting a combination of sympathy and horror within its audience.

Ric O'Barry with Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper who became depressed to the point of suicide.

The filmmakers are careful, however, not to put all of the blame on Japan as a whole. The documentary also presents the Japanese public’s lack of knowledge of this underground operation, while also highlighting the Japanese government officials’ harsh attempts to hide the truth; oftentimes it was easy to view the officials and fishermen as uncivilized, stupid, and barbaric. For example, the filmmakers are given a map by the government, with specific sections circled and marked with an “X”, as they are told not to go to those places–naturally, they keep this paper as both evidence against the officials as well as their stupidity in simply handing them a map of places they need to go for their investigation.

The concept of dolphin meat as food is not so emphasized in “The Cove” as much as dolphins’ commercial use as show animals in amusement parks. Yet this makes the explanation that live dolphins are worth thousands more dolphins than dead ones all the more horrific; the dolphins appear to be viewed by the fishermen as a commodity, rather than a living, sentient being.

As films in the documentary genre go, I believe “The Cove”
was successful in convincing viewers of which “side” to take, yet also extremely biased. Controversy over inaccuracies did arise after its screening, but above all else I felt that the inaccuracy lay in not lies, but in hidden truths and a refusal to mention certain facts that may sway audience opinions.

Dolphin Meat a Controversial Food

When food is part of the main focus of a film, it is portrays in many different ways. Food can be a representation of a culture, identification of individuals, or use as a guide to narrate a story. In the documentary The Cove, which is a film that follows Ric O’Bary and a team of animal activists, free divers and film makers in their mission to expose the dolphin slaughter that takes place in Taiji, Japan, food is being portray as something controversial. From the film the main food in focus is dolphin meat, here the audience is not being ask to embrace the idea of dolphin meat, but instead the film is adding uncertainty to the idea of food by implying questions such as “is dolphin meat consumable food?” and “what can be define as food?” Thus, putting dolphin meat onto a controversial spotlight and posing the question of to eat or not to eat.

One of the most controversial points about dolphin meat that the film captures is the fact that they contain high levels of mercury. This fact shows that dolphin meat is not something that should be consume since it will cause severe health damage to those who eat it and lead to an epidemic if they do not stop soon. In order to make this point more controversial the film shrewdly use images from the mercury poisoning incidents from Minamata and of young children who are eating the dolphin meat to bring that emotional appeal to the audience. By putting the image of the boy who is eating side by side with the image of the boy who is suffering from the Minamata disease, the latter picture is a powerful statement of what can happen to the little innocent boy if something is not done soon. Moreover, since the picture of the normal boy is in colors and the one who has the disease is in black and white, it is like seeing the present and history. Thus, implying that Japan might step backward into a dark time of history where a large mass of people can die from simple task of eating dolphin meat. By comparing the current dolphin slaughter to that of the Minamata incident the film is raising the level of controversy over dolphin meat not just because dolphins are dying but that humans can have a fatal effect from it too. As a result, the fact that death of dolphins can be relate to death of humans, this argument enable more people to realize how disturbing it is to consume dolphin meat and consequently induce debates and action from them.

A young boy who might a victim to mercury poisoning if dolphin meat continues to be used in food.

A young boy suffering from the Minanmata Disease

Having a high level of mercury in food is already quite controversial, however, the documentary also imply another debatable point about dolphin meat and that point is whether dolphin meat is considered as food at all. In the film dolphins are portrays as intelligent beings. They have special ways of communicating with each other, they can recognize patterns and respond to it, or recognize themselves in the mirror or on TV. In the shot where a dolphin is playing with the bubble ring and be able to produce a new ring out of the previous one the camera follows the dolphin’s movement in a smooth fashion, thus making it looks very elegant, also the blue background from the water implies a sense of mystery regarding the dolphin. Putting all that together, the shot captures the dolphin not as an animal or fish but as a beautiful and mysterious being. Dolphins in this film are considered to be almost the same level as human and to use their meat as food is not acceptable. However, that is what the film view them as, not everyone may have the same view and some people may see dolphins as another fish in the sea. As a result, from the standpoint of the film one cannot help but ask if the fishermen are the bad ones since they do not have a chance to express their view much. Different cultures and different people have various ideas about what can be food. Hence the question of “is dolphin meat a type of food?” is never clearly answered in the film, and that just add more debate to the already controversial meat.

A dolphin playing with a bubble ring

From the way that the documentary was made, the film left a powerful message about dolphin slaughter and the fatal effects that can result from it. By relating the death of dolphins to death of humans, dolphin meat becomes a controversial issue that adds more uncertainty about what we considered as food and raising the questions regarding ethical issues in food production.