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The truth about dolphin trade

It’s one thing to voice opposition to the planned ‘Nemo’ dolphinarium already built near Phuket Zoo in Chalong, but it’s really something incredible to then actively seek out the truth behind the reasons why the dolphinarium is morally wrong.

Friday 13 February 2015, 04:16PM

Last week a group of Phuket residents made up of local business people, school children and parents made the long trip over to the small fishing village, Taiji in Japan, where the documentary The Cove was filmed. The film uncovered the daily atrocities inflicted on cetaceans in this sleepy community.

The objectives of the visit by the Phuket group was to witness first hand what happens to dolphins on a daily basis, to understand the captivity trade process and to see the drive hunt that leads to the slaughter of thousands of dolphins annually. The group also wanted to see Taiji and its people to try and understand their perspective. However, the main objective was to present a letter to the Major of Taiji and tell him that Phuket does not want the wild dolphins caught in Taiji in a Phuket dolphinarium.

Eight children aged six to 13-years-old, accompanied by a handful of parents and teachers from the Gecko Community School in Thalang, became ‘Mini Cove Monitors’ for the duration of their stay for Ric O’ Barry’s Dolphin Project. Ric’s group has a presence of volunteers on the ground in Taiji throughout the hunting season (September - March). The tasks of a cove monitor are to witness and communicate to the world in real time what is happening in Taiji. The Dolphin Project has a non-confrontational approach and are respectful to the people and authorities of Japan at all times.

Each day as a Cove Monitor feels like Groundhog Day, yet the drives can be so different from day to day. Each day starts early with a 5am wake up to get to Taiji harbour when the fishermen leave at daybreak. There are 12 hunting boats in total, so once they have left; we know that the day can pan out in several ways but mostly not in a good way.

The next stage is to relocate and find a high vantage point to watch the boats on the horizon with binoculars; sometimes for several hours. Once a formation of boats is spotted, it is highly likely that a pod of dolphins or whales has been seen and a drive hunt is almost imminent. There were a couple of days during my Cove Monitor stint when the fishermen came back empty handed, and we call these precious days a “blue cove” day.

Once the hunters have spotted a pod of dolphins they begin the ‘dolphin drive hunt’. The method is a highly effective way of locating, capturing and killing the dolphins, sometimes a hundred or more dolphins can lose their freedom this way in a single day.

When a pod of dolphins swims by, the fishermen position their boats one behind the other, perfectly evenly spaced. Then they lower several steel poles into the water, one on each side of each boat. The poles are flared out at the bottom like a bell, which amplifies the sound produced when the hunters repeatedly hit the poles with hammers. The noise creates a wall of sound underwater, and as dolphins are primarily sonic oriented beings they abruptly find themselves surrounded between this wall of sound and the shoreline.

From this point on there’s just an overwhelming feeling of hope and trepidation that takes over. You can see it all happening miles off the coast and that helps detach emotions from the job in hand, but then the next stage is to move down to the harbour wall and see the distressed, terrified pod being herded into the coast. This is when the day suddenly hits you. You can see the dolphins slowing down, they’ve been cruelly chased from several miles offshore and you clearly can see that they are exhausted.

From the harbour the infamous ‘Killing Cove’ is just minutes away. We now move around to the beach at The Cove so we can see the hunters chase the pod into the mouth of the cove. Once they are in, their fate is sealed with several layers of netting preventing the dolphins escaping.

From the beach at the cove you can’t see much. However, on one of the days the Gecko children and I did witness one fisherman in a ‘skiff’ (similar to a long tail boat) get really frustrated with the dolphins trying to escape and he literally ran over them with his propeller, this was shocking and a stark reminder that this is not a humane kill, not one bit of it is done with an ounce of compassion or regard for the dolphin and the torture it is enduring. This is what makes the slaughter so hard to watch. Writing this now is literally taking me hours because recounting it in my mind’s eye brings me to tears each time. My stomach is churning, my breath quickening and my head is pounding. The lump in my throat is getting bigger.

It’s impossible not to put yourself in the dolphin’s position. They are highly intelligent and emotionally responsive beings. They feel fear, confusion and pain. They long to be with their families, they are pod animals in closely-knit communities and have their own way of communicating. To see small calves torn away from their mothers and the sheer will and determination to survive is truly one of the most sickening things I have ever experienced.

Once the dolphins are pushed right into the shallows of the killing cove, plastic tarps are now pulled around so the activist groups and the Japanese tourists that come to Taiji can’t see the bloody mess that takes place. There’s the last look out point to get to, which is high enough to offer views down into the cove. From here we see the struggle. We see divers grab dolphins that are tangled in the nets trying to escape. It’s the end. The cove then runs red.

Some of you will be wondering what this has to do with dolphinariums. They don’t just kill dolphins at Taiji. The pretty and popular species such as the bottle nose and albino dolphins are captured and sold for large sums of money to the 50 or so dolphinariums in Japan and all around the world. Poignantly, my first impression of this town is that the locals celebrate cetaceans. From the moment you step off the train there are colourful murals of dolphins and whales, numerous statues and even a whale museum. This town simply must adore cetaceans. Wrong.

The whale museum holds captive dolphins for visitors’ amusement in the tiniest and dirtiest tanks I have ever seen. There is no stimulation for the dolphins at all. All they have in their lives is feeding times, for which they have to do tricks for the crowds to earn their food. You may think that witnessing the slaughter would be the most horrific thing to experience, but seeing these dolphins swimming around and around their tiny and filthy tanks and imploring us to help them is actually the saddest thing I have ever experienced.

The dolphin shows that happen throughout the day can be heard at exactly the same time as the noise of the engines, the banging poles and the dolphins thrashing for their lives, literally around the corner in the killing cove. There are tourists enjoying looking at cute dolphins a mere three-minute walk from the killing cove. It is this bittersweet irony that makes this whole place seem completely illogical.

I am convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that if Phuket opens a dolphinarium it will be a huge and damning message to the world. I certainly will not be able to sleep at night knowing that the Taiji dolphins are there. Will you?

If you’re asking yourself what you can do, it’s quite easy. Do not buy tickets to any dolphin shows or circuses, or ‘swim with dolphins’ programmes. Swimming with dolphins does not help cure ailments or mental illness anymore than petting a puppy. As Ric O’Barry says: “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy. I think this multi-billion dollar captivity industry is built on that optical illusion.”

Finally, Molly and Ashley from Gecko community wanted me to deliver these messages to you: “We are just kids trying to make a difference. You are adults and you have greater power than us to make a change”.

“Being a mini cove monitor I’ve seen for myself what horrible things the fishermen do to the dolphins, let’s stop it together.”

Words by Natasha Eldred and Gecko Community children
Photos courtesy of

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