A reflection on Taiji

A reflection on Taiji

It was around 9:35 a.m. Japanese time on Sept. 11, when a young Risso’s dolphin attempted to evade Taiji dolphin hunters. Having been driven in towards shore for miles by high-speed boats, the distressed female slipped under an enclosing net only to find herself nearer to the shore instead of out to sea.

She landed at the feet of Ric O’Barry who at the cove documenting the horrifying drives. As he looked on, helpless to intervene, the Risso’s pushed itself onto the rocks and exhausted, gave up the will to live. Despite attempts by dolphin hunters to refloat the marine mammal, she took a final breath and sank to the bottom of Taiji cove, never to be seen again.

This is the fate of thousands of dolphins each year in Taiji. This dolphin was only the first of many lives to be lost this season and in death, she highlighted the extreme cruelty of the drive process. One of twelve dolphins who lost their lives that day, at least she was recognized. Others, those lost at sea or aborted through the stress of the drive, remain unknown.

So why do these drives continue? Why is there not outrage from other nations or those in power with influence? Why, aside from dedicated activists, is this issue largely going unnoticed, despite dolphinariums worldwide, opening up daily?

It isn’t, as Taiji would like you to believe, culture. Demand for live dolphins for aquaria are at an all-time high. There are several nations that hunt and slaughter dolphins in the name of tradition, yet Taiji is one of the rare few that capture and sell live dolphins into captivity. Already this season (Sept. through Feb.), the Fisheries Cooperative has received more than 150 orders for live dolphins. These dolphins, when trained, are worth thousands of dollars.

Taiji also slaughters dolphins for meat consumption, despite toxins such as mercury and PCBs. In this article published yesterday at The Japan Times, the Fisheries Cooperative admitted that local Taiji residents tested high for levels of mercury which can lead to chronic illness.

‘The Cove’

I watched, The Cove, for the first time in Feb. 2015, and I was sick to my stomach. Taiji is an irony. As it celebrates the history of whaling, the Taiji Whale Museum is the only facility where one can both watch dolphins and eat dolphin at the same time. Closely situated to the cove, the Taiji Whale Museum brokers many of the deals for the sale of dolphins, and the majority of its animals are sourced directly from the captures.

Recently, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) stipulated to JAZA -- the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums that its members must not acquire live dolphins from Taiji. Many Japanese-based marine parks duly complied, but not the Taiji Whale Museum who chose instead to leave JAZA.

Ric O’Barry, star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, is an ex-dolphin trainer who has committed the last 40 years of his life to saving and freeing dolphins all around the world. His organization, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project (www.dolphinproject.net), enlists volunteers to maintain a presence in the cove as Cove Monitors.

These volunteers document the daily dolphin drive hunts and raise awareness among the public (both locally and internationally), in the hope of ending these brutal drives for both consumption and captivity.

Cove Monitors also work within their own areas to address captivity. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of visiting SeaWorld Orlando. Now, I simply feel betrayed knowing that the captivity of large cetaceans leads to loss and suffering for these intelligent mammals.

We all try to do our part. I recently jumped at the opportunity to join the, “Phuket Says No To Dolphin Shows campaign.” With dolphins sourced from Taiji, the campaign team believes it is crucial that Thai residents and tourists be made aware of the exploitation of dolphins so we can help end this outdated practice.

Life as a Cove Monitor

Our trip to Taiji was a spur of the moment decision. Dolphin Project’s Cove Monitors from Phuket and local volunteers, had begun to push hard on fundraising and awareness raising in Phuket in July 2015. To help Thai residents understand Taiji, we decided to travel there on a personally funded trip. We would arrive on Japan Dolphins Day, Sept. 1, the first day of the drive hunt season.

Japan is beautiful. The jagged rocks and hillside cliffs meet the sparkling ocean for some breathtaking views. The Kii mountain range loomed in the background high above the hills, coated in fog in the early morning, the mist floated across the valleys imitating the gentle swells of the sea below.

Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan, is mystical with its three grand shrines. Kumani Hongu Taisha in Hongu, Kumano Hayatama Taisha in Shingu, and Kumano Nachi Taisha and Nachisan Seigantoji temple in Nachikatsuura, are famous for being unique sacred religious and cultural sites in Japan.

In 2004, the grand shrines were named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nachikatsuura, famous for its onsens and spas, offers the Urashima Hotel, which boasts more than 40 onsens alone. The area is special with its abundant natural beauty. It appears perfect, until you consider the dark secret in the nearby town of Taiji.

As foreigners in Taiji, we are required to check in with the police. The ‘Police Box’ located on the opposite side of the road from Taiji Cove, copies our passports and requests details of our affiliation and travel plans. You are thoroughly questioned for an hour and from this point onwards; your every action is observed.

Taiji has adapted and changed with the presence of outside observers. More than a dozen surveillance cameras have been installed around Taiji town. Any infraction, even simply stopping over the line at a stoplight could mean revoked licenses. Being there is now as inconvenient and limiting as possible.

We are followed as we drive around town, unmarked vehicles belonging to local police, state police, and even riot police. Japanese reporters, others unidentifiable, tail us. Police officers were waiting for us to cross the line, and yet, they were also there to protect us from anti-activist groups, for which we are grateful.

A Cove Monitor’s day begins at 4.45am with a 15-minute drive from Nachikatsuura to Taiji Harbour. We observe and document the twelve drive hunting boats leaving the harbor before sunrise. At Tomyozaki lookout point -- the tip of Taiji village, we scan the horizon. We watch for returning boats and determine if they are in drive formation.

When the boats locate a pod, we head directly to the cove to film and livestream the process. The Cove Monitor’s work is vital to the campaigning process. It is the only third-party source of information on the drive hunts available. Without Cove Monitor reporting, no one would ever know about Taiji and what goes on there.

I was fortunate enough not to have witnessed a single slaughter of dolphins while in Taiji, but it was still depressing. The constant harassment we received from police officers and reporters reminded us every minute that Taiji has something to hide.

A visit to the Taiji Whale Museum to assess the dolphins summed up everything that is wrong with dolphin captivity. The more than 40 dolphins in their “collection” are held in shamefully small tanks and shallow sea pens.

Many of these marine mammals are transient dolphins – not resident dolphins. They normally swim hundreds of kilometers a day in the wild. There were as many as six dolphins of mixed species living together in any single pen, which were no bigger than the fishing baskets we have in Thailand.

Forced to perform for tourists and rewarded with dead fish, between shows, they float listlessly or swim frantically in circles. Some tried to throw themselves onto the platforms, often calling out to visitors for attention.

These behaviors are completely unnatural and result from stress and depression. Many die within a few years of captivity, but these dolphins are disposable and easily replaced. It is virtually impossible for Cove Monitors to keep track of them.

Intelligent and self-aware, dolphins suffer pain, both emotional and physical. Ripped from their families, they remember and mourn. The Whale Museum often chooses young, reproductive females and their offspring, or juvenile dolphins. The remaining pod – if released, consists of elderly dolphins or males. Many suffer shock from the drive process and can die days or weeks later.

Taiji leaves a heavy feeling, but one we needed to experience. We return to Thailand equipped with knowledge to share. On Sept. 11, 2015, we spoke to 60 students from Baan Maireab School in Kathu District. We hope this is the first of many local schools we will get to visit.

We hope to fundraise and sponsor a Taiji trip later on this season for student and community representatives. We believe these people are key drivers in raising awareness locally and helping to bring about change in Thailand.

Phuket Says No to Dolphin Shows is a group of volunteers working toward keeping dolphins free in the ocean. We strive to share useful information and facts with government departments and relevant parties to end the import of dolphins into Thailand for entertainment purposes.

We push for laws to ban dolphin shows in Thailand and we are translating the script of, The Cove documentary for Thai audiences. We work with local students, community members, and tourists via social media campaigns and face-to-face informational sessions and creative activities.

The single most effective action that anyone can do to help Taiji dolphins, is never buy a ticket to a dolphin show.

Take the pledge to not support dolphin shows and the needless cruelty in Japan now.

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