Taiji town, in Wakayama prefecture, is a sleepy little fishing village on the eastern coast of Japan about four driving hours from Osaka (Kansai) international airport. Taiji is considered the birthplace of traditional whale hunting in Japan, with a history that dates back to the 1600s.
Travelling down and around the coast from Osaka to Taiji, you will see that the entire coastline is dotted with similar small towns – all with the same style of harbours and small fishing boats.
What sets Taiji apart from other towns is the refusal to accept that there are alternatives to this long held custom of slaughtering small cetaceans. Most of the world was not aware that this was happening until Ric O’Barry brought it to the world’s attention through the making and screening of his award-winning documentary “The Cove”.
“The Cove” was not the first time that the practices had attracted attention here; in 2003 Sea Shepherd activists Alex Cornelissen and Allison Lance were arrested for cutting the nets in the notorious cove and were detained for four weeks before being evicted from Japan.
Arriving in Taiji on 31 August 2010, with a small but select group of Sea Shepherd volunteer activists – all from Brisbane, Australia – we discovered the town was not what we expected. The fleet of fishing boats used in the Dolphin drives, known to us from information readily available on the internet, were sitting lazily in the main harbour. An initial drive past The Cove on our first day in Taiji, the last guaranteed day of safety until April 2011 for the dolphins, yielded no confrontations with pro-hunting militants and no other opposition. In fact, the town was all but deserted.
After checking into our accommodation, one other scuba diver, two scouts, and I headed back to the town to ascertain what preparations were underway for the start of a possible six-month slaughter. We were able to casually walk down to the beach at The Cove, which is visible from the road into town. There was no scrutiny or surveillance from the adjacent car park as we had expected. We donned our snorkelling gear and swam around to the secluded killing cove – this was an unsettling experience – swimming in waters where up to 2,000 Bottlenose and Risso dolphins, False Killer and Pilot whales have been butchered on an annual basis just did not feel right.
Our swim into and out of the killing cove was uneventful, save for the attention it received from a couple that began filming and conducted a short interview with us. This action swiftly brought us to the attention of the local Police. With snorkelling gear in hand, we attempted to walk from The Cove but did not get very far before being questioned by two local [Shingu] Police officers. After some playful banter, and surprisingly no questions as to why we were snorkelling in the cove, we shook hands and left to return to our traditional-style guesthouse in a nearby town.
That night, two of us again headed for the town under cover of darkness, armed with equipment to document any activity either into or out of the harbour and around The Cove, including the secluded killing cove. We nestled into position undetected for the duration of our surveillance activities, and at 3:00am lights started appearing around the town as fishermen woke for their daily routines. At 3:45am, the fishermen started leaving the harbour under the light of the half moon and a star-lit sky. It was not until 5:30am that a procession of the boats involved in the dolphin drives left the sanctity of the main harbour and headed due east under the rising sun.
Shortly before 8:00am the boats returned back from the same easterly direction. This time not in single file but in a long arc of eight evenly spaced boats, slowly driving forward, herding a pod of terrified dolphins or small whales toward their doom. The only noise was the droning of the engines from the distance. Two of the larger boats in the fleet charged ahead to set up positions near the entrance to The Cove, ready to ensure that their quarry did not escape. The dolphins must have gone deep and shifted direction, because within a few minutes all boats broke formation and headed back out to sea. This was a great day for the dolphins with none being caught. A press release was quickly penned to inform the world that the hunts had again resumed with the first one being unsuccessful.
It was not only the world that listened to this first report, but also the fishermen and those holding higher office in the Institute for Cetacean Research, the organisation that ultimately profits from the sales of dolphins for captivity and the annual illegal Antarctic whaling operation. They now knew that representatives of their nemesis, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, were in town – watching and waiting!
A pod of bottlenose dolphins were captured the following morning and witnessed in The Cove. The town’s fisheries agency confirmed that twenty had been captured and a number of them had been kept for sale with the remainder released.
Our photographic evidence confirmed this statement. The captured dolphins were manually moved using small boats and hand-held stretchers to the holding pens in the main harbour on Friday, 3 September where they wait for slave owners from aquariums and other captive dolphin enterprises to collect them; they are destined for a life of misery and will be forced to endure an unnatural diet of dead fish laced with antibiotics and anti-depressants in order to survive.
The knowledge that their activities were being closely monitored prompted an immediate heightening of security over the holding pens and around the town by a team of eleven police and two Japanese Coastguard employees. They were growing anxious over the possibility of a rescue attempt on the dolphins. Sea Shepherd did it in 2003, and could do it in 2010!
Throughout our time in Taiji, we were stopped several times by the police, never admitting our true intentions or affiliations. We also encountered the Japanese Coastguard personnel who knew I was leading this charge into their territory and wanted to warn me that if I attempted a second Sea Shepherd action on the nets then I would be charged – the others in my group were warned not to associate with me!
The Coastguard let us leave, but ensured that we were constantly followed by both Police and Coastguard vehicles until we lost them in a series of manoeuvres in the back streets of Kushimoto. They have not found us since, despite attempts to pose as media for bogus interviews and always calling us within minutes of us escaping their surveillance attempts.
To the fishermen of Taiji, the dolphins and small whales are merely big fish to be captured, sold and forced into an unnatural life in dolphin shows and aquariums for the amusement of humans — or slaughtered inhumanely for their significantly lesser value as meat. These animals are laden with toxic chemicals including PCB’s and methyl-mercury that have permeated the oceanic food chain since the start of the industrial revolution.
Despite scientific evidence highlighting levels of contaminants in the meat that exceed the recommended levels safe for human consumption, it is still sold in supermarkets and served in school lunches. Local Taiji townspeople, and those of neighbouring areas, are being exposed to chemicals that were linked to catastrophic neurological problems (known as Minamata disease) endured by people in Minamata as mercury from industrial waste contaminated their drinking water with poison.
The mayor of Taiji has commented publicly that as long as he holds office the killing of dolphins and other cetaceans will continue. He argues that tradition and custom warrant the continuation of the dolphin drives and refuses to acknowledge that profiteering from these mammals in the name of human entertainment is only a recent phenomenon.
The world must know what is happening in Taiji. We direct no malice towards anyone in Taiji or wider Japan except those involved in these cruel and barbaric slaughters, those capturing dolphins for exploitation, and those that profit from both practices.
We have met and shared laughter with many wonderful locals during our short time in this beautiful, culturally rich area. We have been offered help whenever we have needed it, above and beyond that ever experienced in any other country I have visited or lived. It is unfortunate that a small handful of people continue to bloody these waters and do not seek to find an alternative as many other towns both in Japan and around the world have already chosen to do.
Taiji is not a town prospering from the sale and slaughter of dolphins; instead it too is slowly dying. The lifeblood ebbing slowly out of it by the refusal of younger fishermen to participate in the killings and the profits going to those in higher authority who know only greed without compassion.
Tangalooma Resort, on Brisbane’s Moreton Island, was once the home of one of Australia’s most notorious whaling stations, responsible for decimating the population of humpback whales over such a short period of time that, had they not ceased whaling operations when they did, the humpbacks may have never recovered.
Instead of hiding its 400 years of whaling, Taiji, like Tangalooma Resort, or even Futo in Japan, could be prospering from eco-tourism. After all – who wants to go to a town responsible for the ritualistic murder of cetaceans?
And finally, to those organisations like the Whale Museum in Taiji, the dolphinariums and the Sea World’s of this ocean planet – shame on you! Your greed is the driving force behind the exploitation of these magnificent creatures and the reason that the dolphin hunts continue in places like Taiji. This greed and total disregard for these mammals denies them the freedom of the oceans and forces them into shallow artificial waters where they must perform in order to eat – and where they are denied the opportunity to exhibit natural swimming, hunting, mating and social behaviour.
It is time for people to realise that visiting dolphins and small whales in captivity is directly correlated to the deaths of more than 20,000 cetaceans in Japan every year!
MICHAEL DALTON is Taiji campaign director for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.