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Ric O'Barry: Turning The Taiji Tide

Originally published on Meoko.

There’s an exciting energy felt when a widespread change in perception takes hold of the global population. We’re a static bunch usually, so comfortably entrenched in our ways and beliefs that it usually it takes tragedy, a lot of time and the significant efforts of a few passionate individuals to bring about that change in understanding - and then even more tragedy, time and individual effort before that understanding turns into action. MEOKO spoke with the world’s most prominent dolphin activist, Ric O’Barry, somewhere in the middle of this process - in the middle of the world waking up to the wrongfulness of keeping cetaceans in captivity, of the extreme intelligence - social and emotional - of dolphins in particular, and of the terrible tragedy occurring annually in Japan’s Taiji Cove.

Willingly or not, Ric O’Barry has become the main protagonist in the uphill struggle towards dolphin protection and freedom, and his own journey of awareness is quite the story. Beginning as a capturer and trainer of dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium for the popular 60s TV show ‘Flipper’, O’Barry has always loved and respected dolphins. His close relationship with the animals allowed him to appreciate their personality, intellect and emotions more fully than most, and the more he understood of dolphins the more barbaric it seemed to hold them in captivity.

“My relationship with dolphins went from one of great admiration to one of deep realisation,” Ric explains. “The more you get close to them, the more you realise what incredible creatures you're dealing with - and what a terrible plight has been inflicted upon them.”

It took the death of dolphin Kathy in his arms, who played the role of Flipper most frequently, to turn Ric’s gradual change of heart into a passionate resolution to act. In his book ‘Behind A Dolphin’s Smile’, he famously says “A dolphin's smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they're always happy.” Ric maintains that Kathy didn’t just die, she committed suicide.

Kathy’s death marked the start of Ric’s full 180-degree turn in his life’s work, and he instantly set about dismantling in any way possible the industry he had helped to create, landing himself in jail the very next day after anunsuccessful attempt to free a captive dolphin. On Earth Day, 1970, O’Barry launched The Dolphin Project, which has energetically worked to protect dolphins all over the world ever since. 

behind the dolphins smile

Rebekah on the Taiji Dolphin and Whale Slaughter and Captivity


On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a tiny cove in Taiji, Japan, had become the scene of terrible crimes against dolphins. In 2003 the marine conservation society Sea Shepherd released images of the now infamous ‘bloody cove’, revealing the epicentre of the annual murder of 20,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales which occurs in Japan every year between September and March. The footage was very, very upsetting. Large pods of dolphins were herded into nets set up in Taiji Cove. Then, by forceful and violent methods, the most attractive were selected, separated and transported off for a life in captivity – a life which we now know to be hardly a life at all. Of the many remaining dolphins, some were released, but the vast majority killed brutally and sold for their meat. It was a horrific scene of struggling, wailing and dying dolphins in a blood-red sea, which still replays itself every year.

Not only is this a terrible way to treat these clever, social animals, but it is also damaging to the Japanese people. Dolphin meat contains toxic levels of mercury which, when it finds its way onto the Japanese food market, can cause widespread ill-health and deformity to Japanese victims largely ignorant of the cause.

The situation was dire; Ric O’Barry got a call.


So began the activist’s long-term relationship with Taiji Cove. As Ric says, “I have been going there for the last 12 years and will keep showing up until they stop.”

In 2009 the documentary ‘The Cove’, featuring O’Barry, was released, raking in a very respectable collection of awards including an Oscar. ‘The Cove’ told the Taiji story simply and evocatively, opening up a widespread western audience to the problem and putting the groundwork for change truly in motion. It is important to note that at this time the truth about Taiji was not known to the vast majority of the Japanese population – ‘The Cove’ was not readily available in Japan and still isn’t. Ric estimates that there are 127 million people in Japan (that’s almost the entire population) who have never seen the documentary. In light of this, he explains an important distinction…

“There are 3300 people in the town of Taiji, Japan. A very small minority of these 3300 people  - about 50 men - are killing dolphins. Most Japanese people don't kill dolphins; don't eat dolphins and don't eat whale meat. Our protests are directed towards the Japanese Government, not the people and not their nation. The Japanese people are not guilty.”

“I have been lobbying the producers and directors of ‘The Cove’ for a couple of years to buy back the rights and make it available online for free. Fuck the money.”

In the face of international condemnation, the Japanese government maintains that Taiji is part of a cultural tradition, but the evidence is clear this is a commercially driven endeavour, the annual ‘round-up’ directly linked to the captivity entertainment industry. And that’s not the only commercial interest…

“I believe the Fisheries Agency is also very involved because they view dolphins as competition - and they want to kill the competition. The real problem is [human] overfishing, but they won't admit that, and so dolphins are a convenient scapegoat.”

Blaming dolphins for eating too many fish… the mind boggles.


Since the release of ‘The Cove’ progress has been on a slow but steady roll, which is now starting to gain serious global momentum. The role of social media and the Internet cannot be overstated in this process.

“The Internet and social media have changed everything. They represent incredible tools to educate, motivate and help people get involved... social media is also extremely important in empowering people who cannot travel; armchair activists are crucial, too.”

The Internet fast-tracks the educational process and, thanks to live updates and easily shared footage and images, brings an immediacy and sense of reality to viewers, resulting in more emotional responses.

“When people become empowered and believe they can make a difference, they become more emotionally involved and more apt to take a stance. The Internet is able to bring a "multi-dimensional" experience to the masses and hence, is an incredible motivator.”

Another incredible motivator is celebrity endorsement of a cause, and the impact is two-fold. Firstly, not everyone can be across every global issue all of the time, so for many, hearing about Taiji from the mouths of celebrities might be the only way they come across the information. Secondly, discovering that a creative and prominent figure of your generation that you both admire and relate to is taking action is a strong incentive for many to follow suit. Celebrity involvement turns issues like Taiji Cove from something that die-hard animal rights activists and Greenpeace ‘hippies’ care about, to something we should all care about. And that goes a long way. After ‘The Cove’ was released, the website TakePart put together a short film with an a-lister cast explaining and condemning the Taiji slaughter. Amongst those involved were Jennifer Aniston, Hayden Panettiere, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd and the late Robin Williams.

“I have never, ever approached a celebrity.” Ric assures me. “You cannot chase people around and force them to care. Matt Sorum, American musician and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee called me, bright and willing to help. Matt came to Taiji with us and is now on Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project Board of Directors. Another example of this is Harry Styles, English pop singer - a very polite individual whom we met with and has expressed interest in further helping the cause. Leilani Munter, race car driver, environmental activist and now, dear friend, made several trips to Taiji and is now an ambassador.”

Now, the focus has turned to social media, with celebrities posting photos and tweeting their reactions and fervent calls-to-arms. Huge support has been shown from our very own electronic music industry with DJs jumping onboard including Saytek, Rebekah, Geddes and Nastia, Chopstick and John John and MEOKO, World Champ surfer Jordy Smith, international model Lee-Ann Roberts and even music industry mogul Simon Cowell, Bryan Adams and English comedian Ricky Gervais.


Cruelty to animals almost always stirs up anger and emotion in all of us – mostly because we know animals to be innocent and largely helpless. But this cause is given further gravity and urgency by our increasing knowledge of the superior intelligence of dolphins compared to other animals. Some countries are further ahead in their thinking on this than others, for example India recently abolished the use of dolphins in aquatic theme parks, and in a statement from their government, mentioned that dolphins should be seen as "non-human persons" and should have their own specific rights. An important step, but one much belated…

“In my view, we don't need any government formally proclaiming what is already obvious. I have always seen dolphins demonstrating self-awareness; personhood and whether society acknowledges this or not isn't important to me… Dolphins are to the sea as what humans are to land. It's "us" that has to catch up with them.


Let’s not mince words, we all know what our own attention spans are like these days, and the collective media is even more hyperactive. There’s always the danger that the ephemeral media attention dies down, and Taiji Cove recedes into a seldom accessed corner of our memories before the goals of O’Barry and The Dolphin Project have been achieved.

So don’t let that happen.

Fight the Gen Y urge to be cynical yet complacent and get actively involved in ending the bloody cove. The next protest will be held on the 7th November outside the Japanese Embassy. It will be the biggest demonstration in history for the dolphins and whales of Japan, and Ric O’Barry is flying to the UK for the event. As Ric says,

“…the main thing is to SHOW UP! Bring your friends, colleagues, everyone! This is not just for animal welfare groups, this is for schools, rock and roll bands and ordinary people. People in the United Kingdom really love their gardens and animals. That's why there are so many gardening groups and animal welfare organisations who could inform their members and turn this demonstration into a huge success!”

“Remember, people want to help. The very best thing we can do is empower people with the tools to get involved. For those who cannot show up, they can still be helpful in supporting this cause. A great place to start for more information is my website, www.dolphinproject.net.”

Performer Maria Claudia Heidemann will be flying in from Ibiza to join the Demo 


Ahead of the BIG demo on the 7th, there will be a private screening of The Cove on the 6th of November at super cool bar and all round creativity centre, Number 90. After the screening, attendees will get the chance to ask questions to Ric O’Barry, as he will fly in from the states together with four Taiji Cove monitors for a special press conference. 

An event at Number 90, however, is not complete without music! Suso Flores will kick things off with an exclusive live set before the screening, then disco styling TBoy & Scott Dickie (Wildkats / You are we) will keep you dancing until closing time.  

Reform is within our reach, and the key is to educate and mobilise the Japanese people themselves. As you would expect, there has been a great deal of animosity between O’Barry and the small group of Japanese fisherman at Taiji Cove over the years, and I asked Ric if any of these fisherman had reformed their understanding and career the way Ric had himself.

“Back in 1969, one fisherman in particular from Futo, Japan, Izumi Ishii, actually taught Taiji fisherman how to conduct drive fisheries. Now, Mr. Ishii and I are best friends and working together to help stop the slaughter.”

The Dolphin Project calls a day when no dolphins die in Taiji a Blue Cove Day. Let’s just make that a normal Tuesday.

ric o barry1The Screening of the Cove and live Q&A

Protest against the Taiji dolphin slaughter

The Dolphin Project

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society 

What else can be done to help:

- Boycott Seaworld, buying a ticket is supporting and funding this crime.

- Call the Japanese Embassy

- Tweet to Caroline Kennedy or the Japanese Ambassador from your country, write to the President, sign petitions, tweet to celebrities, contact the news outlets.

- Host a Cove veiwing party

- Donate to Ric O’Barry Dolphin Project.