Witness to Dolphin Drive at “The Cove”

by michael reppy


Ruth and I walked from the hotel near the Taiji whale Museum down the road to “the cove”.  It was deserted and very calm and peaceful on this Sunday morning. We went down to the beach and out on the rocks by the water, past the barricade with the keep out signs.  Ruth had brought three very special rosaries that were her grandfather’s, to honor and protect the dolphins. She threw one into the cove with words of blessing as I was recording on video.

We turned and began walking back and saw three policemen quickly heading toward us.  They were polite as usual and told us we could not go past the signs because it was “dangerous from falling rocks”!  We said OK, and they left.

We went into the bushes on the left side of the cove, and Ruth hung a rosary on a branch.  Then we walked across the beach to the other side, where there was steep concrete and rock wall with a few tree branches hanging down, where Ruth tied in the third rosary.

We walked back the beach and found a journalist there, who spoke English and was eager to talk about “The Cove” movie, and the perspective of the local people of Taiji.  He supported the usual argument of “traditional right” to kill dolphins. It was getting very hot, so we sat down in the shade and he went on about the 400 year tradition of Taiji dolphin hunts.  He said that Taiji is a small, isolated fishing village, that is now in the spotlight of the world, with westerners invading them, and that they are having a hard time dealing with this threat to their way of life.  He also said that he had heard that 40 Sea Shepherd activists were on their way to Taiji. I told him not to believe it!

We had to get back to the hotel and catch the 12 noon train to Tokyo, but just as we were walking back up to the road, Ruth looked out to sea and saw a line of boats moving down the coast, and said “look at that”.  We knew it could be a dolphin drive, and as they began to move toward the cove in a line, it became clear. Yes, this was the dolphin drive that we so hated, but were here to bear witness to, and immediately began filming.

Very strong emotions filled us as the boats came closer, and we could see a small group of dolphins being driven in front of the boats.  As the boats closed in on the cove, we began to hear the banging of the metal poles in the water, adding to the horror unfolding in our camera lenses.

There were about 8 to 10 boats, a few were larger and belching black smoke, and some smaller boats with piles of nets, which they began to deploy across the outer opening of the cove, with the dolphins trapped inside.  The dolphins were obviously totally panicked and staying tightly bunched together.

We turned around and saw a number of journalists and film crews had arrived and stood nearby filming.  They obviously had knowledge that the drive was taking place and told us there were 10 dolphins taken, and five were already agreed to go to the Taiji Whale Museum, which was the usual broker for the sale of dolphins captured in the drives.

At first we thought they were pilot whales, but later in the day, I returned to the cove and got a closer look and confirmed they were in fact bottlenose dolphins, the preferred type to be trained for dolphin shows.

The fishermen in the smaller boats tried to force the dolphins further into the cove so they could deploy more nets, but the dolphins eluded them, and they had to call back the larger boats to drive them in.  They strung out three nets across the cove, and all left by about 11 a.m.

Ruth had left after the first net was deployed, to call Mark Berman of Earth Island Institute, to report in that the drive was underway.  When she returned, she told me she had become very emotional and angry and tearful, but had settled her emotions down. She said she was ready to do her job of filming and reporting, which she did superbly with calm and clear-headedness.  She spoke with the media on camera expressing her opposition to the dolphin drive, captivity, and the selling of mercury toxic dolphin meat to the Japanese people.

I did not speak on camera or identify myself as with Earth Island, as we had decided to not represent ourselves as representing any organizations, just as concerned individuals.  Off camera, I did express my feelings of sadness and anger at seeing these dolphins driven into the cove, knowing their fate of living a life in a little concrete tank as a performing dolphin slaves, or being brutally slaughtered right here in the killing cove.

One journalist said, “it’s the same as a pet dog!” I said no way is it the same, dogs were not captured from the wild, kept in a concrete tank and treated this way.  The guy truly believed this about being like a pet dog, and went on to defend it as a traditional right. I responded that Americans had a whaling tradition too, but that did not make it right and have ended it.  And then I added, that it is proven you can make far more money from whale watching, than you ever could from whaling; that the potential for dolphin watching and eco-tourism is huge in Taiji.

It was so important for us to be there and witness and report on the drive, and make our statements to the media, which is covering the story like it never did before.  Several times, I turned to look at the TV cameras turned on Ruth and myself filming the drive. We were a big part of the story for the Japanese media. The “dirty little secret” in Taiji is beginning to get out in Japan, and “the world is watching”.

I felt we must have someone at the cove to follow-up on the fate of these dolphins, so I decided to stay.  Ruth and I grabbed a taxi and just made the train for her to return to Tokyo, and to make her plane. She has a 3 year boy and needed to get home.

 I was at the ticket window changing my train ticket, and three police and coast guard men pulled me aside to ask questions about my purpose there, my travel plans and check my passport, but again were polite and let me go.  A young American teacher from Pennsylvania, who happened to be in the train station, and was helping me translate and change my ticket, was also questioned and let go. He said he had been stopped several times by police in the past few days.

I took a taxi back to the hotel hoping I would run into Richard, from Los Angeles, who had come over to help the cause, and had plans to establish a scuba diving business in Taiji as part of developing eco-tourism.  Maybe he could take over and monitor the dolphins and fishermen in Taiji. I walked into the hotel, and there he was checking in! And, yes, he was definitely up to staying a few days and being our eyes and ears. And he had a rental car!

We immediately went to Tsunami Park, adjoining the cove, and hiked up the trail to the opening in the bushes, our vantage point looking down on the cove, and began filming the dolphins trapped behind the nets.  And right behind us, came a film crew with a friendly reporter we often talked to. He always wore red shoes, so I came to refer to him as “red shoes”! We showed him the good spot to film.

We all walked back down the hill, and Richard and I went for lunch and a beer, and ice cream – how good that was in the record extreme heat that had come over Japan during early September.  Then back up the trail we went, checking on the dolphins, but we didn’t see them. So we walked down to the beach and saw them still freaked out and swimming in tight circles very close together, now in closer to the beach.  Guards and a few other people were there keeping watch.

It hit me – this is the serene and peaceful cove we had swam in two days ago, and now is the death trap and the end of freedom for these beautiful beings who have done nothing to deserve such a fate!

It was clear they were bottlenose dolphins.  One guy there called them “bondo” which means bottlenose dolphin in Japanese.

Three boats showed up and herded the dolphins into the smaller “killing cove,” and ran another net across, for a total of three nets in place.  It all looked very secure, along with the guards on the shore. A Coast Guard guy I talked to, said he would probably be assigned to stay overnight as well.  It would be very difficult to cut these nets to free the dolphins, and I hoped Sea Shepherd or any others would not try it.

Richard and I jumped in his car for another dash to the train station.  I felt I could leave now, with Richard there. He is a very funny guy, always cracking jokes, and friendly with everyone, including the police, Coast Guard, and media.  He would keep it light, but at the same time would be serious about watching the cove and reporting back to us.

I am now in the train unwinding and writing this up.  What a whirlwind of constant activity, encounters, tension, feelings, and bonding with these great people who have come in common cause to help the dolphins!

I have to say, we always seem to be in the right place at the right time, especially Ruth and I.  I think it is some kind of destiny for us to see the drive and film it, and let it sink in that we are meant to be here and be a part of ending this horrific tragedy, and being agents of change.

I think we have been respectful and friendly to everyone, and had open dialogues with Japanese people we met along the way.  It’s hard to do when you see this first hand and feel the anger at what is being done to these dolphins. Ruth is really struggling with it.  I try to encourage her not to condemn all Japanese people. It is for the most part a small group of fishermen supported by government policy.  The Japanese people are not aware. That is part of our job.

Ruth has done such an excellent job of expressing herself and learning – her first time standing up for a cause like this in a foreign country with different customs.  She is a warrior and inspiration and I’m so lucky to have shared this time with her and all the others who saw “The Cove” and were so moved to take action and come to Japan for the dolphins.

I have just reread this and find myself sitting here on the train with tears in my eyes!

I make this attempt to write a Haiku:

Bang, bang, bang

Circling together in terror

The Cove