The Cove: dolphin slaughter and toxic meat

The Cove
Freediver Mandy-Rae Cruickshank was recruited to help the team placed hidden underwater cameras in the cove
It's the eco-documentary everyone is talking about. Shot in the style of an espionage thriller, The Cove is exposing the secret annual slaughter of 2000 dolphins in Japan. Watch it in UK cinemas from 23rd October


In horror movies at least you have the comfort of knowing the massacre scenes use fake blood. In The Cove you know it's real. There is so much of it turns the seawater red.

This is no work of fiction but the true story of how director Louie Psihoyos and Richard O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer-turned-activist manage to penetrate the defences around a hidden cove in Japan in the fishing town of Taiji.

Here, every year between September and March, fishermen 'drive' wild dolphins towards the secret cove of the film's title by banging sticks on the side of their boats (which confuses the dolphins' sonar).

Once coaxed into the cove and trapped by nets, some are sold on to marine parks and dolphinaria. The remainder are brutally slaughtered by the fishermen using spears and knives in a stomach-churning bloodbath. 

2,000 dolphins are killed like this every year and sold either as dolphin meat but more often as 'whale' meat. Yet, as the film reveals, dolphin meat can be contaminated with mercury at levels far exceeding Japan's own safety standards.

As access to the Cove itself is strictly forbidden, Psihoyos enlists the help of an Ocean's Eleven-style team, including world famous freedivers to set up underwater cameras and cameramen dressed in camouflage and facepaint. The most shocking scene was shot by hidden, specially designed cameras disguised as rocks.

Much of the work happens in the middle of the night with the police on their tail. There is always the sense that they're about to be caught and arrested.

Friend of the dolphins

Richard O'Barry is undoubtedly the film's hero. In the 1960s he was famous for being the dolphin trainer for the Flipper TV series. Watching it, the world realised how intelligent - and entertaining - dophins are.

The success of the show kicked off what is now a multi-billion dollar performing dolphin business. A changed man, O'Barry has since spent 35 years trying to tear down the business he once helped to build up.

For six years he has fought to halt the drive at Taiji, much to the annoyance of the local fishermen.

O'Barry's passionate campaigning on behalf of dolphins comes through strongly in the film. We learn that dolphins are highly sentient beings, as well as intelligent, and why they should not be kept in captivity. We witness the ineffectiveness of the International Whaling Commission and discover why dolphin meat is so 'toxic'.

The resulting film, a blend of activism with action-thriller makes for gripping, albeit uncomfortable, viewing.

The aftermath

Since The Cove has been made there have been some successes. It's had rave reviews and won many awards including the Audience Award at Sundance.

Dolphin meat has been taken off the school lunch menu in Taiji. And, whilst it still doesn't have a distributor in Japan, the film was recently screened at the International Film Festival in Tokyo.

There's been a small impact on the dolphin hunt. Of the 100 dolphins caught on this year's first catch on 9th September, 70 were released.

That said, the hunt is still happening right now and there's plenty of campaigning still to be done. To find out what you can do click here.

The Cove is now showing in UK cinemas. Find a screening near you by clicking here.

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living editor

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