REVIEW: The Cove

The Cove movie poser (and all film images) ©2009 Lionsgate Pictures

The Cove movie poser (and all film images) ©2009 Lionsgate Pictures

One of our most exciting continuing projects here at is our “It’s Not Easy Being Green” series of articles, highlighting the environmental and green issues and technology solutions facing our time (see our recent Blog Action Day post). Dedicated to bringing you more in-depth and frequent green content, we are thrilled to add a new ScriptPhD contributor, CaptainPlanet, who will write exclusive movie reviews and issues for “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” He joins us with a review of The Cove, a recent documentary garnering Oscar buzz, about the secret dolphin-hunting industry in Japan and its environmental and emotional impact. If you hadn’t previously known about how majestic and advanced dolphins really are, and how deleterious the depletion of fish is across the oceanic biosphere, watch this film. review, discussion, and ways to get involved, under the “continue reading” jump.

REVIEW: The Cove Grade: A

The biggest problem with The Cove, a 2009 documentary in serious contention for the Oscar, is how to describe the film in one sentence to someone without dampening their enthusiasm for wanting to see it. “It’s a movie about dolphin slaughter,” summarized director Louie Psihoyos at a recent screening in Los Angeles. The Cove is about so much more than dolphin slaughter, the filmmaker went on to say, but when you try to sum it up to someone, you’ll find yourself saying that phrase again; dolphin slaughter. Try persuading your friends and co-workers to go see a truly great film about, say, puppy murder, and you’ll soon discover the problems inherent in generating good word-of-mouth for The Cove. The good news is that the Cove is a breathtakingly good film; a suspenseful adventure in the vein of Ocean’s 11 about a small group of concerned individuals who literally risk their lives to blow the lid off of Japan’s black market of dolphin capture, killing and consumption.

The story of The Cove must be traced all the way back to 1963 with the mother of all dolphin movies, Flipper. NBC created an eponymous television series that aired from 1964 to 1967. The part of “Flipper” was played by five live female dolphins, under the supervision of one of the world’s first dolphin trainers, Richard O’Barry. One of the lead dolphins, Kathy, was sold to a major American aquarium after the series wrapped. Years later when O’Barry went to visit Kathy in her tank, he could tell that she was depressed. Kathy swam up to him, gave him a “hug,” and then turned around and committed suicide. As The Cove explains, human beings breathe automatically, but dolphins must consciously choose every breath, giving them the ability to end their own life if their conditions become unbearable. O’Barry watched Kathy’s body sink to the bottom of the tank, stunned by what he had just seen while also feeling guilty that he had not done more to lobby for her return to the wild. The next day, O’Barry was arrested at an adjacent aquarium while attempting to free another captive dolphin. Thus, an activist was born. To present day, O’Barry has dedicated his life (and sometimes risked it) to freeing captive and distressed dolphins in locations around the world, including a deceptively beautiful looking cove in the small fishing town of Taiji, Japan. He is the author of two books on dolphins, To Free a Dolphin and Behind the Dolphin Smile. For his lifetime of activism and environmental contributions, O’Barry has been a previous recipient the Environmental Achievement Award presented by the United States Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program.

The impossibly and deceptively gorgeous cove of the remote fishing village Taiji, Japan.  The setting of the worlds most vicious dolphin slaughter.

The impossibly and deceptively gorgeous cove of the remote fishing village Taiji, Japan. The setting of the world's most vicious dolphin slaughter.

Every year from September through March, tens of thousands of dolphins migrate past Taiji, Japan, where fishermen force the animals into a cove using nets and loud noises produced by banging on underwater pipes with hammers (since dolphins’ primary communication is by sonar, they are hypersensitive to noise). To escape the noise, the dolphins swim into the cove where they are trapped. From that point, the dolphins face two scenarios: being sold into captivity or being killed for lunch meat. Each year 23,000 dolphins are killed in Taiji alone. Japan is a nation that relies heavily on seafood as a food source, and it is not uncommon to see whale and dolphin meat for sale in Japanese food markets. In one scene, the filmmakers visit the seafood section of a Japanese market. They pick up pieces of meat cushioned in white Styrofoam wrapped in cellophane from a refrigerated bin. Upon closer inspection, we see that the meat in the container is an exotic dark purple color, and when the camera zooms in to capture the label, we see that the food in hand is a piece of dolphin flank. Other meats masquerading as expensive, rare seafood were analyzed by the filmmakers in a makeshift DNA lab and also found to be dolphin. A 2006 US Geological Survey report showed that oceanic mercury levels were 30% higher than in the mid-90s. Because of this, mercury levels have been steadily rising in fish meat, but some fish contain higher levels than others. Fish that are predatory (eat other fish) are large and at the top of the food chain, and so tend to contain more mercury. Dolphins fit into this category.

For years the ignominious fate of dolphins at Taiji has gone unnoticed because there is no documented footage of the capture and slaughter, mostly due to a carefully orchestrated media blackout. Most Japanese citizens in major urban centers, as The Cove is quick to point out, are not even aware that their country participates in harvesting dolphin meat for consumption. O’Barry discovered the cove at Taiji years ago and has since spent many years trying to save the dolphins from capture or death. His efforts have been thwarted time and time again by the local Taiji government, intense security surrounding the cove and blatant hostility (including bodily harm) from the Taiji fishermen. The Cove conveys beautifully how much being an environmental activist like O’Barry is dangerous work. One of O’Barry’s colleagues, Jane Tipson was mysteriously shot to death while protesting the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia for its lucrative swim-with-dolphins program. The stakes are high for dolphin activists because the dolphin trade is a billion dollar industry. A live dolphin sold from the cove in Taiji brings in a six-figure sum for the fishermen.

Black ops undercover filmmakers surge the cove deep in the night to set up cameras and underwater sensors that will capture the first-ever imagery of dolphins being murdered at Taijis cove.

Black ops undercover filmmakers surge the cove deep in the night to set up cameras and underwater sensors that will capture the first-ever imagery of dolphins being murdered at Taiji's cove.

O’Barry realized that the only way to stop the dolphin slaughter in Taiji was to somehow capture video footage of the killings in order to create a public relations nightmare for Japan in the hopes of bringing an end to the practice, which, after an informative primer into the dolphin hunting practice, is where the movie’s plot really takes off. The makers of The Cove assembled a crack team of marine, surveillance and security experts to break into the cove and capture the grizzly footage that would ultimately be the dolphin’s best hope of survival. How and if they were able to pull it off is one of the film’s most delightful and suspense-filled elements. In the screening that attended, audience members were actually yelling at the screen as they would at a character in a scary movie for being so dumb as to go outside to investigate a mysterious noise.

It is true that The Cove is about so much more than dolphin slaughter. It’s also about the thrill and hardship of environmental activism, the politics of the corrupt international whaling society, the impact of Western imperialism on Japan’s identity as a nation-state, the growing threat of mercury poisoning due to contaminated seafood and the general demise of Earth’s oceans at the hands of humans. But most of all, The Cove is about human’s fascination with the dolphin, a highly intelligent, arguably self-aware creature that can defy the laws of physics for its speed and grace in the water. A surfer (turned dolphin activist) describes being saved from a tiger shark by an altruistic dolphin off the coast of Australia. Reports of dolphins saving humans from sharks and drownings are very common throughout modern history. In a stunning, harrowing 2007 tale of survival, surfer Todd Endris, badly mauled by a great white shark, was saved by an insulating ring of bottlenose dolphins until the shark went away. In ancient Greece, it was actually a crime punishable by death to harm a dolphin. Why there are humans that insist on brutally killing these otherworldly creatures and why concerned citizens the world over have been unable to prevent the slaughter is an intriguing issue that The Cove explores with insight and compassion.

Like many good documentaries of recent years, The Cove was financed and made by activists. This year, the very popular Food, Inc. combined compelling storytelling with an urgent message about the need to reform an existing infrastructure. The Cove demonstrates that the judicious application of restraint goes a long way in changing hearts and minds. In one memorable scene, while interviewing a Japanese bureaucrat who defends the practice of killing dolphins, the filmmakers ask to take a sample of his hair to test it for mercury poisoning (some samples of dolphin meat have shown mercury at more than 1000 times the maximum allowable levels). It’s hard to imagine an audacious filmmaker like Michael Moore putting his opponent in checkmate in a way that doesn’t feel like a body slam, but the makers of The Cove manage it quite well throughout the film. And whereas Food, Inc. stopped short of showing graphic footage of animal slaughter, even though if such imagery would have done more to expose the ugly underbelly of factory farming, The Cove offers no such palliative censorship. By the end of the film, having brutally witnessed the process of how dolphins are trapped and killed, there is literally blood in the water.

A hit on the festival circuit this year, The Cove has already achieved some key milestones in putting an end to the dolphin business in Japan. This year in Taiji, due to pressure on the town from the film’s success, bottlenose dolphins were spared from being slaughtered. But the less popular spinner dolphins were not. The town members of Taiji are now undergoing mandatory mercury testing, and the media blackout of the dolphin killings has come to an end. Where the film will go from here is anyone’s guess. Its imminent release on DVD will help the issue resonate with wider audiences. An Academy Award nomination or win could take the film to a whole new level of exposure worldwide. As the filmmakers slyly reminded us during their Q&A, the Oscars are one of the most watched television programs in Japan.

The Cove is out on DVD and Blu-Ray December 08, 2009.


What can you do? First and foremost, watch the movie. Buy or the DVD, and contact the film’s press department to schedule educational, campus, museum, church, and group screenings. Nothing can match the emotional impact of witnessing the dolphin slaughter and learning the cold facts surrounding the environmentally catastrophic seafood depletion and escalating mercury poisoning. Secondly, inform yourself. Visit one of these sites to explore the issues and what you can do about them:

Mercury poisoning facts Learn the facts about fish and mercury levels
Article on fish depletion and a recent Science paper that posits near-total seafood depletion by 2048.
Save Japan Dolphins, Ric O’Barry’s organization
Oceanic Preservation Society, established by director and former world-renowned National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos
The Cove Social Action Site, with links to write to leaders and other steps you can take

Finally, spread word and donate your time or money. It can make a huge difference. Take a look at this brief video by dolphin activist Rick O’Barry, along with some of the links we have provided above, and please take action today!

CaptainPlanet is an LA-based, Northwestern University-educated eco-charged sustainability guru who loves film, psychology and saving the planet, one waterless urinal at a time…

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