“The memory of getting to Japan is hazy. One day I was an animal rights activist in Los Angeles, and the next I was on my way to Taiji to help save dolphins. But I believe I was meant to be here.”
Editor’s note: This week we have a guest post from Simone Reyes, who many Americans might know from the Oxygen Network’s “Running Russell Simmons.” She is currently an animal rights activist with Sea Shepherd, documenting the dolphin-hunting industry in Taiji, Japan. Last year, our post On Hunting Whales in Japan, tried to explain the Japanese perspective on its whaling industry. It seemed fair to show another perspective, so when Simone asked me to publish a piece on what she’d seen, I took the opportunity. While I didn’t attempt to independently verify any of her claims, the situation she describes in Taiji is well-documented, albeit controversially. Do your own research, and, as always, please be respectful in the comments. Now, on to Simone…
On Watching a Dolphin Massacre in Japan
The engagement period was rushed, but my marriage to Taiji seems to be forever. I arrived, like any bride to be, with something old: My Canon SureShot camera – my most powerful weapon. Something new: Sea Shepherd gear, which we’re encouraged to wear every day. Something borrowed: A coat from a close friend, the lingering scent of her familiar perfume helping me feel safe so far away from home. And something blue: The ocean, which I loved since my childhood. But it would not remain blue for long.
My pal Melissa Sehgal is a long time Sea Shepherd Cove Guardian and the leader of the Taiji campaign. She met me at Osaka airport, holding a defiant Sea Shepherd flag with her friend Scott. We had dinner at a quaint vegetarian/vegan restaurant and then made our three-hour drive back to the site known as “The Cove.”
The Cove is an eerie pocket of water made famous in the Academy Award winning film of the same name. Police were aware of my arrival, and as we approached the hotel a white van with two uniformed police officers began to trail us. These faces, and the faces of other riot police, have since become a normal part of our daily lives. We literally can’t get a soda from a vending machine without having a police officer trail us, noting whether we preferred Coke or Pepsi. Perched on our lookout locations around Taiji they stand close, sometimes within three feet of us.
The police are a reminder that we are under constant surveillance. Perhaps they hope to intimidate us. We have that in common, I suppose, because our message as the Sea Shepherd Cove Guardians is that those behind the Taiji dolphin slaughter are under constant surveillance as well. And we certainly hope to intimidate the killers. While we cannot physically “guard” the dolphins and whales against their brutal murders at The Cove, we are able to guard the truth. And we can deliver it, in all its bloody, greedy glory, to the rest of the world.
Police followed us everywhere. There were 16 Cove Guardians staying in my hotel. When we first made our way to the Taiji Dolphin Resort, I was immediately exposed to the sight of three bottlenose dolphins, scared and alone, being transferred in slings from holding pens in the harbor into the above-ground tanks at this prison. Female trainers in wet suits scurried around as police kept us at a distance. The dolphin’s small fins poked through their slings as they were submerged into a life of enslavement.
Cove Guardians at the lookout post sent word that the killing boats had lined up in formation and were moving quickly toward the Cove. That meant they had located a pod and were going to steer them from their ocean homes into the Cove for slaughter. The Cove Guardians are strategically positioned all over the town of Taiji, documenting every step of the dolphin’s ordeal, down to the sale of their meat and their long lonely road to enslavement at a marine park.
Ascending onto higher ground for a bird’s eye view of The Cove, we watched as twelve banger boats – named for the banging sound they use to drive dolphins into the Cove – chasing a pod of Risso dolphins. As the boats came closer hoped that the pod would lose them. It has happened before, but the boats bang and disorient the pod relentlessly, pushing them toward the killing Cove. This battle sometimes lasts for hours, and sometimes the pod wins. Today would not be that day.
The family of Risso dolphins resisted, but many were young babies, and mothers and fathers stayed close to protect their young. We saw them clinging together as nets dragged them into the killing cove. One, entangled in a net, desperately tried to escape, but men in wet suits swam towards him, forcing him back into the Cove with brutal force. The mothers and juveniles swam close to one another, almost attached, desperate to stay with each other. At one point the entire family were moving as one to stay together in their last moments of life.
We watched in horror, documenting and live streaming, but first of all, watching, as our eyes settled on two babies, tiny fins beside their protective, panicked mothers. I knew then my heart would never leave this Cove. Babies were ripped from their families and thrown onto a skiff under tarps. Our cameras caught the terrified shaking fin of a baby under a tarp, stepped on by the killers to keep them still. That boat left to dump the babies out to sea, leaving them to suffer prolonged deaths by starvation or predators. These babies are too small to be worth any money, but are counted as part of the fisherman’s quota, so they drop them, helpless, back into the sea to die. Days later a baby was washed to shore, we know even without confirmation it was one of these babies. It broke our hearts.
Those left in the Cove were killed under tarps, and soon the cove turned red. Their bodies were butchered and will be sold for a pretty penny as high mercury food for the Japanese people. The body of one Russo dolphin floated for a moment, her face bloody and her body still. Some shook and twitched under the tarps on the way to the butcher house, slowly dying of multiple stab wounds and suffocation.
The Live Dolphin Industry
According to the Cove Guardians, “The dolphin drive hunts in Taiji do not just end in the killing of the dolphins. Taiji is ‘ground zero’ for international trade in live dolphins. There is money – big money – in the captive dolphin entertainment industry. Without the money the Fisherman’s Union (FU) makes from the live trade business, it is doubtful that they would be able to sustain the killing of dolphins.” The Union is said to make about $32,000 USD for each live dolphin it captures. Trained dolphins sell for much, much more. “There is a direct link between the captive dolphin entertainment industry and the bloody waters of the Cove in Taiji.” Supporting a live dolphin show or participating in a confined swim-with-dolphin program anywhere in the world supports slicing open other dolphins in Taiji. The dolphin entertainment industry really pays for the hunt. Well-intentioned marine mammal trainers and the dolphin-show-viewing public all have the blood of innocent dolphins on their hands. The Cove Guardians explain:
For the dolphins pulled from their families and sold into captivity, life is beyond horrible. Even those dolphins born in captivity exist in prison-like conditions. It is now illegal in the United States to import a dolphin which has been caught in the wild, so there is a big business in captive-bred dolphins. One wonders though how many of the so-called captive bred dolphins imported into the US each year are actually wild-caught. Even the captive-bred dolphins most likely have ancestors who were captured in Taiji. The link to the killing in Taiji is undeniable, and unavoidable.
Blue and Red
The next day was what we called a Blue Cove Day. The banger boats didn’t find a pod. There would be no fresh killing, and the water would stay its natural blue, rather than stained red. But Taiji is always filled with the pain of captive dolphins. And the water never stays blue for long.
Another day, another formation. We knew that the killers would do everything they could to corner and drive this family into the killing cove. A family of pilot whales swam together, chased to the point of exhaustion, terrorized in their ocean home. The matriarch of the pod was surrounded by her family. They look to her as they do in the wild for help, guidance and protection. She could offer nothing. The pod was kept overnight in the Cove, trapped and left to swim in panicked circles, sometimes crying out in confusion before a dawn slaughter.
At nightfall we went, along with our convoy of trailing police officers, to sit silently with them. The family was frantic, confused and disorientated. When morning came we stood by them the only way we could, as allies documenting their pain. After standing witnesses to everything they had endured, it was personal. We couldn’t stop this atrocity, but we could guarantee their deaths weren’t in vain, that they were not alone in their darkest hour.
The following morning we live-streamed every moment of the family being netted into smaller and smaller enclosures. The world watched as they were bullied, intimidated and driven by the deafening sounds and aggressive moves of the killing boats. The world watched boats driving over their splashing bodies as they swam in confused, terrified circles. The world saw the family clinging together surrounding the matriarch, powerless to save her beloved family. The world saw her violently wrapped in a yellow tarp when the divers bound her fin with a large robe, dragging her into the Cove where they saw her struggle, grunt in pain, and heave in panic.
The killers tethered her large body with rope, separating her from her family, dragging her into the killing Cove. For more than two hours, the pod endured a slaughter and yet, never strayed far from their matriarch. Beneath the tarps, the cove ran red again. A sound echoed through the cove- the killers shouting in unison. The sound of a struggle. A sound as loud as thunder seemed to shake and pulsate the Cove. I grabbed Melissa, asking what the sound was. She knew.
“It’s the matriarch,” she said. All the Cove Guardians were struck silent, holding our breath and cringing as the sounds ran through our souls.
She is the large, most dominant member, whom the family looks to for everything. The dedicated mother, many of whom nurse their young for as long as ten years. On this day, she fought to survive. We heard her fight through our tears. Even seasoned Cove Guardians said the sound was like nothing they had heard. It will haunt me forever. One by one we could hear the family thrashing in the water being killed. After hours of torture, the sounds of struggle stopped. Thirteen orphaned and confused juveniles remained in the cove, swimming in the blood of their family. They swam tightly together, and after a few hours we saw them driven out to sea – too small and “worthless” to be counted in the killer’s quota. The small whales’ chance of survival are slim to none without their family as we learned later when the body was washed up on shore.
It was a restless night of sleep. I thought of those babies dumped out to sea, alone, terrified and sure to suffer and die without their mother’s protection and care.
Nothing prepared me for what happens in Taiji, the slaughters or the captives. My heart has been broken as I looked into the eyes of a dolphin or whale, once swimming in her ocean home to be kidnapped, ripped from her family and made to do tricks for humans under stress. The pens at the Dolphin Resort Hotel, the harbor and the Whale Museum are the equivalent of a human living in a phone booth with four or more stingers for eternity. I have seen all the dolphins pained, lonely, hopeless and crazed from this life of modern day slavery. Another day, a hunt for 25 Risso dolphins. Risso’s dolphins are protected in the United States under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1992. The only country known to actively hunt Risso’s dolphin is Japan.
I will be returning often to volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Cove Guardian campaign, Operation Infinite Patience, because the dolphins need our voices. We simply must deliver their message. We must have patience and continue to make our presence known. As Captain Paul Watson said, “What we have adapted here is a long-term strategy of daily harassment, over a 6 month period, which last year resulted in the cutting of the kill quota by over half.” That will keep me coming back- results.
We are hitting Japan with a public relations crisis in Taiji. Sea Shepherd is doing amazing work here. If you are moved by what I’ve described, I urge you to never buy tickets to marine parks or zoos. Don’t swim with dolphins. Write to the Japanese consulate, organize protests and join the Cove Guardian team. Taiji has forever changed me. I will never stop fighting for the dolphins and whales here until every tank is empty. That day is on the horizon. I just pray it comes soon.
You can find out more from Simone Reyes by following her on Twitter or Instagram. If you are interested in Sea Shepherd, find out more at their Website or find them on Facebook. You may also be interested in our posts detailing Japan’s perspective on whaling, or about being vegetarian in Japan.
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