December 9, 2009 -- “The Cove” is one of the year's best documentary films, a stirring call to action against the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. With all the suspense of a good caper movie, the film follows an inventive team of activists who expose the slaughter of dolphins in a cove near a small Japanese village. The film argues convincingly that the mass killing of dolphins in Japan is a cruel and unnecessary action against a friendly marine species. It also convincingly argues that the International Whaling Commission should grow a pair and put an end to this barbaric practice. The film is less convincing in its argument that dolphins should not be captured for exhibit in aquariums, zoos and other marine attractions.
The core of the film is built around the planning and execution of a sneaky plan to document the killing of dolphins in a fenced-off, guarded cove near Taiji, Japan. The plan involves some Hollywood special effects people, some experienced divers, an extremely committed dolphin advocate and, of course, a film crew to capture the caper. The town of Taiji, Japan is the site of a massive harvest of both live and dead dolphins. Many live are sold to aquariums, marine shows, dolphin petting programs and other maine show businesses for very lucrative prices. The film's main activist, Richard O'Barry, the onetime dolphin trainer on the “Flipper” TV show, is opposed to the capture of dolphins. He says dolphins in captivity are stressed out. The film offers virtually no proof of this claim other than O'Barry's word and a film clip of dolphins being fed some medicine allegedly related to stress.
The film does have proof of the killing of dolphins near Taiji, however, brutal, graphic, incontrovertible proof. How the filmmakers got this proof is at the heart of the film. Elaborate planning and subterfuge go into the operation. In the dead of night, the team sneaks in cameras hidden inside fake rocks and sets them up to record what happens the next day. The team scrambles over and around fences and past various no trespassing and warning signs. They elude night patrols and police who try to follow them. Underwater cameras are also deployed by the team. O'Barry says that other dolphin and whale activists have been killed in the past and says his own life is in danger. He says that in Japan, police can arrest you and keep you locked up for nearly a month before you have to be released if no charges are pending.
The video obtained by the team is very graphic and disturbing. The film also covers a related topic, the human consumption of dolphin meat in Japan. Dolphin meat contains toxic levels of mercury, a residue of coal-fired power plants. There is some chemical and DNA testing done in the film to prove that dolphin meat is being sold to humans. One expert says that he tested dolphin meat purchased in Taiji that had 2,000 parts per million mercury contamination. In Japan, the recommended level of mercury in fish is .4 parts per million or less. Another expert on the film analyzed the DNA of meat being sold as expensive, safe cuts of whale meat in Japan and found it was actually cheap, mercury contaminated dolphin meat. The film argues that dolphins, porpoises and other animals at the top of the food chain suffer from more mercury contamination than do fish and plants at the bottom of the food chain. Whales and fish that feed on plankton, rather than other fish, would presumably have far less mercury in their systems.
The film thus offers two powerful arguments against killing dolphins for meat. One, that it is cruel, unnecessary and inhumane, and two, that the meat is poison and shouldn't be sold anyway. The film's other argument, advanced mainly by O'Barry, who seems to be a kind of fringe character, that dolphins should not be captured for exhibition is less convincing. For many animals, it is getting to the point that there are only two choices left, captivity or extinction. Call me anthropocentric, but I think captivity beats extinction every time. The joy of living in the wild fades when your habitat is gone or you are starving to death or hunted to extinction. Zoos and other artificial habitats are not as good as living in the wild, but they are far better than complete annihilation. It may come to that for dolphins someday.
One theory advanced in the film is that the Japanese government views dolphins as a pest because they compete for the same fish as humans eat. If it has really come to the point where people are wantonly killing dolphins and other predators so they can have more fish for themselves, it is yet another sign of the pending collapse of the world fisheries. The ocean's resources are not infinite, as was once thought. The international whaling commission and other governing bodies need to step up to the plate to save the fisheries as well as the whales. The film argues that governments accomplish nothing, that it takes committed activists like O'Barry to get anything done. That has the ring of truth to it. The film also argue that the old Baby Boom generation of activists like O'Barry are passing on and a new generation needs to take over. That also has the ring of truth. This film rates an A.
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