A Sticker on the Heart: Family Taiji Dolphin Protest at The Cove
Would you ever take action for what you believe in? What if that action may have consequences? And your children are there to witness, or even join in? While on holiday in Japan this summer we watched ‘The Cove’, a documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese Town of Taiji and felt we had to do something. But what? And how far could we or should we go with three kids in tow…
It all begins in a beautiful bay
We sit on a rock. Behind us, coils of barbed wire and signs tell us to keep out. In front of us, a beach with dozens of families swimming. Parents and kids, all splashing about in a bay that has habitually been stained red with blood. I assumed this bay would be eerie and deserted; weighed down with the ghosts of dolphin mothers and babies. Instead it is normal. Beyond normal; it is a happy holiday resort. My kids look on in disbelief. For once they aren’t asking to go swimming. And then Hannah points to a platform in the centre of the pretty bay. “Is that…is that a dolphin over there?”
It starts on social media
Our Dolphin Story begins on social media, when a follower comments on one of our Instagram posts half way through our Japan trip. “Have you noticed the slaughter of dolphins? If you are going to be near these places try to act against it.” We haven’t. But then to be honest we haven’t even ventured into a sushi bar. We ask her where it is practiced. Taiji, she replies. Then she sends us a picture about the Taiji dolphin protest. It is blood red and shocking.
It’s all about The Cove
A little online research reveals that the fishermen of Taiji not only capture, imprison and kill dolphins, in 2009 they were recorded doing so in an Oscar winning documentary. On a stormy night in Hiroshima we download and watch ‘The Cove.’ We aren’t expecting Flipper but we are unprepared for how shocking the footage is. The popcorn and coke we have bought for our cinema night remains untouched as we all watch in silence as quite a few flippers are either butchered or sentenced to life imprisonment in aquariums.
Spooked into action
It is midnight by the time the closing titles run. But no one is ready for bed. Hannah is worried about night terrors and Cameron has questions. Many questions. I am spooked too, by the thunder outside, by the graphic images in the film and the cruelty of human beings. I wonder briefly if showing the children this film was irresponsible.
“The Cove was shot five years ago. Maybe things have changed.” I try to reassure them, and myself. Of course one of them then immediately googles Taiji. Things haven’t changed. In fact the Taiji fishermen are about to ramp up for a new season.
The helpless morning after
Hannah joins me in bed in the early hours whispering, “I nearly had nightmares.” That’s a big confession for an eight year old who wants to be an explorer. As the sun streams through our hotel room window, I bite my lip and consider the day ahead. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen and I can’t just carry on having a holiday and forget about it. I have to do something. But what can someone like me do? I could sign a petition with half a million others. I could tweet my support to the conservation campaigners #tweet4taiji. Or we could do something as a family. These people are doing terrible things to intelligent creatures just down the coast from where we are. We have a car and could drive to the town. But what would we do when we got there?
I need help with this and call a family meeting. For a change everyone sits on the bed without moaning and gets stuck in to brainstorming. Could we turn up at the town hall and demand to speak to the mayor? But we are barely managing to order a coffee in Japanese so how would that work? Could we protest? But the hunts don’t start for another ten days and we’d likely just be Billy No Mates by-the-sea. We could stop people from entering the Taiji Whale Museum. But the staff there currently already do that to many westerners.
I am something of a control freak as a parent and rarely short of a plan. But this morning I feel helpless. I’d be lying to the kids if I told them we could halt a practice that an Academy award winning film and five years of environmental campaigns couldn’t derail. But as a parent it is my responsibility to set an example. If I do nothing then what does that teach my children? That they have no influence or impact on the world. That bad stuff can’t be stopped. That if you don’t think you can change the world you might as well not bother trying.
I’m not sure we can change things but surely we have to try? We resolve to go to Taiji to do something. We just don’t know what.
Down at Dolphin bay
In the movie ‘The Cove’ looks a forbidding place. In reality this bay, in Wakayama Prefecture in Southern Japan is set in an idyllic, rocky coastline. And today it is packed with families having a good time. Although we are sqeamish about putting a foot into the water, we plan to investigate the dolphin pen that Hannah has spotted. Are these townspeople really keeping a live dolphin penned in the middle of the bay that is being internationally criticised for its inhumane treatment of dolphins? Isn’t that a rather bizarre and public admission of guilt?
In fact, we find there are two dolphins locked in to a very small pen. It is feeding time and they are doing tricks for fish. It becomes clear from the T-shirts worn by the staff on the platforms that the pen is owned by the nearby Taiji Whale Museum. According to conservation groups like Sea Shepherd, marine theme parks and aquariums play a big part in this negative ecosytem. A report in the Japan Times in 2013 stated that aquariums and dolphinariums are growing in popularity in Japan and China, although they are on the decline in the USA, despite the popularity of the Seaworld parks (in spite of the film Blackfish), and in the UK the last dolphinarium closed in 1973.
Following the dolphins dollars
The drive in Taiji goes like this: migrating dolphins are lured from open sea by local fishermen. They bang poles carried on their boats to confuse the sonar of the animals, who move away from the noise towards the bay where other small boats drive them further in towards the shore. The dolphins are then trapped in nets in the shallow bay and often left overnight or for several days, confused and hungry. A beauty contest is then held where trainers select dolphins for their aquariums. The (mostly) young and trainable dolphins are then lifted out of the water and shipped to their new homes. Environmental campaigner Ric O’Barry claims they can fetch up to around 150,000 US dollars for each dolphin. The rest are taken into a nearby cove. Many are killed for meat, which is sold around Japan. The remaining dolphins are sent back into the ocean, stripped of the support of their family and community.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group, the government of Japan allows up to 22,000 “small cetaceans” to be legally killed each year in hunts. According to Ceta fisheries data 1450 dolphins from six species were driven into the bay last year (2013), 834 of which were slaughtered.
Watched over by Cove Guardians
The secluded area in Taiji where the killing is done is now known around the world as The Cove. It’s not a local secret any more thanks to the film and the subsequent Taiji dolphin protests of animal rights supporters and the Sea Shepherd organisation whose Cove Guardians put Taiji in the international spotlight throughout the drive season each year by monitoring, tweeting about and live streaming the drives online. These days when the hunt takes place, it is often surrounded by police, coastguards, cove guardians and the media. But today there are only families like us in the bay. And two captive dolphins. We watch these seemingly lonely creatures spinning eternally around the pen, with the wide ocean only metres away and I wonder momentarily if the dead ones are the lucky ones. It is a thought that will occur to me later in the museum.
Shocked by the Taiji Whale museum
Some websites say Westerners are banned from entering the Taiji Whale Museum but we get in without any trouble. Staff point us towards the dolphin show, and then we wander around to the building that houses the indoor tanks. Cramped, dirty tanks with different species of dolphin listlessly shooting around. I press my fingers against the glass to make contact with an albino baby bottlenose. Cameron opens the portholes in the outside wall nearest to the tank as a gesture to let the dolphins know he wants them to be free. Ironically the window jams half way.
We wander down a wooden jetty where Japanese tourists are feeding more of the marine animals. I am taken aback by once graceful pilot whales begging for food like dogs. And next to them, packed into small pens, more dolphins. Bagsied from the cove no doubt, by museum authorities. And it is here I feel most conflicted. We have had pods of dolphins following us while sailing in the open sea and I have seen whales in the wild in Iceland. But I’ve never been close enough to touch one. It’s amazing and extraordinary to look into their eyes, see their jagged teeth and smooth, shiny backs. I feel privileged and happy to be with them. Yet this place is miserable and unnatural. An animal that can travel 40 miles in the open sea is hemmed into a small space with five or six others. They are clearly very hungry. They have scars too. And while the famous ‘dolphin smile’ keeps the dolphins looking perky, the whales just look sad.
We hatch a cunning plan
It is in the museum that we come up with a plan. It’s not the world’s best plan but it is a stab at doing something. Cameron finds dolphin Post-It notepads in the gift shop and Hannah spots cute dolphin stickers. We call up a Japanese phrase on Camerons i-Pod using Google translate. Tourists could help stop this. The locals could stop this. Do Japanese families like ours know what is going on under their noses? Just in case they don’t we are going to sticker bomb the town with our very own protest campaign.
End of the summer
On the way back to our hotel we watch the dolphin we saw earlier in the bay being lifted out of the water by a crane. It is lowered onto the back of a lorry. Presumably it is being moved to the museum to clear the bay for other activities. It’s a depressing and surreal sight; a fin and tail poking out of the cloth; the dolphin still and docile. Our mission somehow now seems even more important. Summer season is over. The air is warm yet winter is coming to Taiji. In just ten days time the drives will begin and last until March. Dolphins will be lifted out of the cove like this on a regular basis bound for aquariums. The only creatures swimming in this bay will be frightened, captive dolphins, and whalers. And they’ll all be swimming in blood.
Time for our own Taiji Dolphin protest
I’d like to say we begin our action at first light but have you tried to get a thirteen year old out of bed on his holiday? By the time we are ready the cove is busy with museum staff dismantling the dolphin pen. But we can’t hang around. We have decided to sticker selected sites that tourists and locals will use. Our first target is the tourist map of Taiji. We copy out ‘Watch the movie ‘The Cove,’ in Japanese characters onto our pink dolphin Post-It hearts. We will get to the heart of this issue with pretty pastel stickers.
It might be just children putting stickers on walls but I’m aware our actions are not without risk. Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m slightly terrified of what I have got us all into. In Japan graffiti has been heard to spark a media frenzy and can be punished harshly. On top of this I know from ‘The Cove’ film that trouble makers in Taiji can be harassed by police and fishermen. And followed. And arrested? It’s no coincidence that the police station is immediately opposite the cove. We leave Matthew in the driving seat to keep the getaway car running. Even though he can’t drive.
Getting stuck into the action
Our first target is successfully stickered. We take a moment to admire our work and then leg it. Hannah and I then do the girls toilets next to the beach. We figure most of the whalers are men so the stickers will stay up longer on the female toilet walls. We press a sticker onto the map opposite the Whaling Museum in the relevant place. Then on the advert for the Dolphin Resort hotel. We make a stop outside the slaughterhouse. What can we do here? We decide to put a sticker on the vending machine opposite in case we can convert a fisherman who isn’t involved in the hunt. We then target a whale mural, and pop a Post-It on the propellor of a docked research boat.And finally we put a dolphin heart sticker on a statue of a whaler with a spear. Right on his heart. We run away, back to the car, and watch as people stop to pose for pictures. A few of them glance up at his heart. That is exactly what we wanted. Normal people reading ‘Watch the movie The Cove.’ And then hopefully going away and doing it.
Watch our movie to see how we put a sticker on the heart of Taiji.
I leave with a guilty conscience
This all sounds fairly trivial I know. Putting stickers on statues. But to me it’s not. I wrestle with my conscience. I like dolphins but I love my kids. I just have encouraged them to watch a violent movie, then take direct action. We are not a family of activists. We are a conventional family living in a rural English village. I don’t actually do this kind of thing, I read about it in The Guardian.
I’m aware that I am also hypocritical. We are not vegetarians, and I’ve never given much thought to the horrors of meat production. I have never taken part in a protest before. Yet here I am encouraging my eight year old to do it. I am worried we might be caught. There’s CCTV all over the place and they could trace us via our hired car number plate. But on the upside, we are only placing cute dolphin stickers on cute dolphin monuments. Where’s the harm in that? We might not even have got the letters right. We might be writing the Japanese equivalent of The Cat in the Hat.
Thankfully, we leave the country without being arrested.
Back at home and the slaughter continues
As I write this, back in England, my Twitter feed tells me that fishing boats have just left the harbour in Taiji. Again. It is 5.30am in Japan. A quota has been set by the Taiji Fishermans Union for the season’s catch at 1938 dolphins. Since September 1st they have already had several successful hunts, catching, killing and capturing dolphins. The bay is watched over by Cove Guardians. Unsurprisingly our stickers didn’t change the world. They probably blew away with the next wind. I am still haunted by this happy summer bay that cries in winter and I often think about the albino dolphin calf in its prison. Hannah meanwhile is talking about her birthday party. It is how it should be. Do I regret involving my family? Not at all. In fact it’s time they engaged more with some of the world’s injustice. Would I do it again? In a dolphin’s heartbeat.
But what can you do?
If you’d like to help the dolphins at Taiji then watch our movie about our trip to The Cove. See for yourself this beautiful bay that becomes a killing field for half of the year. Show your children the Oscar Winning Movie ‘The Cove’ and then show them Blackfish. Not toddlers maybe, but the over eights can probably deal with both.
Avoid marine parks and dolphinariums. Sign the petition. Talk with the children individually about what you see together on screen. Widen it out to some of the world’s other injustices. Brainstorm what you can do to help. If you want to borrow our stickers you are very welcome.
Over to you
What do you think? Did we do the right thing by going to Taiji and involving our kids? What would you do? Have you ever taken action against an injustice? With or without the family? Do leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.