Director: Louie Psihoyos
Featuring: Richard O’Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, David Rastovich and Scott Baker
A common disclaimer at the end of feature films is that “No animals were harmed during the making of this movie…” It helps to reinforce that what you see on screen is strictly a work of fiction. However, The Cove cannot make such claims.
Richard O’Barry, at one time, captured and trained dolphins for the Miami Seaquarium. He was also the man in charge of training the five dolphins that were a part of the popular TV series Flipper. His work on the series proved so profitable he was able to buy a new Porsche each year. When one of the dolphins he trained for the show basically died in his arms, giving up on life – a voluntary suicide, if you want to call it that – O’Barry had a moment of clarity. No longer would he exploit dolphins for his own lucrative means. Now he is a Speaker for the Dolphin, and has spent the better part of thirty-five years preaching freedom for those highly intelligent mammals.
Right now, a small coastal village in Japan tops the list for dolphin exploitation.
Taiji, Japan, has a national park that celebrates sea mammals, and its harbor has boats that are in the shape of whales and dolphins. But while the coastal village may look quaint, it’s a “little town with a big secret.”
The tiny community attracts dolphin trainers from around the world to corral the “smiling creatures” for their seaquariums. And at a price of $150,000 per dolphin, the residents reap the benefits. But what becomes of the dolphins that are not selected as performers? They are herded into a small cove, away from snooping eyes, where they are harpooned to death. An average of 23,000 dolphins are killed annually. O’Barry knows this and he’s spent decades trying to obtain documented proof that the killings occur in that coastal cul-de-sac.
Louie Psihoyos, who once photographed for National Geographic, knows how to get the most out of a single shot. Working with O’Barry, together they document the local government officials, double-speaking spokesmen, and interesting figures like “Private Space.” That’s the name given to a cove emissary who tells O’Barry repeatedly that this is “private space.”
The segment of the documentary of most interest is the footage culled from the dolphin massacre, where the water once calm and blue turns choppy and red. But the lead up is a skillful sequence that evokes caper films like Ocean’s Eleven. Psihoyos and O’Barry assemble a team of world-class divers, special effects technicians (from Industrial Light Magic), and deep seas experts, all of who risk certain imprisonment if caught in order to plant the cameras so the truth can be exposed.
Defenders of the eradication of dolphins see it as a form of self-preservation for Japanese residents, as the high concentration of dolphins in the Pacific has led to a decrease of fish in the ocean. That’s one point of view. Another is remembering that the Japanese have a diet that’s rich in fish and rice – emphasis on the fish.
The senseless dolphin killings, though, lack thoughtful reason. Dolphin flesh has a high concentration of mercury, making the meat a hazard to ingest. To circumvent this, the meat is mixed with whale meat, which is more sought after, and sold at a profit. The mercury rich meat is also required eating in the Taiji school system; children have to eat the mandated school lunches served to them, even those where dolphin meat is clearly mislabeled.
Psihoyos explores this angle to help broaden the documentary so that it isn’t all about animal rights. When mercury rich meat starts to infect the food supply in supermarkets and schools, then you begin to realize that there’s more at stake than just Flipper.
The Cove is advocacy filmmaking that speaks of the ethical relationship we have currently with the most intelligent mammals on the planet. Richard O’Barry, weathered but remorseful since his days training dolphins, is the humanity in a picture of inhumane actions. This is a documentary that aims to thrill, and it succeeds.