A Cove Guardian’s Personal Account of What It's Like in Taiji

Commentary by Cove Guardian Aaron Hall

The pod of 250+ Bottlenose dolphins, including the rare albino dolphin, drew the attention of the worldThe pod of 250+ Bottlenose dolphins that was captured, including a rare albino dolphin, drew the attention of the world
Photo: Aaron Hall / Sea Shepherd
It seems like the number one question that I get now that I've been to Japan is “How was it?” To be quite honest, Japan is great. The people are wonderful, the cuisine is delicious, and the history and architecture are enthralling. One thing I immediately noticed is that, generally, people are extremely helpful and are willing to go out of their way to assist you with any questions you have, and do so with a smile. Overall, as a foreigner, I felt extremely comfortable and welcome in their country. I didn't go to sightsee or to visit historical temples, however; I went because dolphins are dying by the thousands in a little fishing town located on the coast in the Wakayama Prefecture. That town is called Taiji.

Each year, from September through March, dolphins are corralled from the wild into what is now known as the infamous “Cove” in Taiji town. Knowing this, the irony in the town of Taiji is absolutely incredulous. A whale windmill is the first thing you see, as you get ready to turn into the town. Statues of dolphins line the bridge and an enormous pair of humpback whales greets you as you turn towards the main street leading into the town. After you come up over the hill, you're greeted with the view of one of Japan’s retired “research” whaling ships, the Kyo Maru No. 1, complete with a statue of a man hoisting a whaling harpoon over his head. You round the corner, and there is the Taiji Whale Museum which houses several captive dolphins, including Shoujo, the rare albino dolphin calf that was selected for captivity from the last pod of dolphins I saw in Taiji. That pod of 250+ Bottlenose dolphins drew the attention of the world to Taiji’s hunt, which has continued after the last of those Bottlenose were taken captive, slaughtered or driven back out to sea to fend for themselves.

Taiji could be one of the most beautiful eco-tourist destinations on the face of the planet, but this town is marred by the deep and bloody stain of the dolphin drive hunts. Each morning, the banger boats go out to sea just before sunrise with the intent of locating a pod of dolphins and driving them in to be selected for a lifetime of captivity or to be slaughtered for human consumption. They are called banger boats because, after a pod has been located, the killers will arrange the boats into their straight line drive formation, lower poles into the water and use hammers to bang on the poles. This creates a “wall of sound” which disorients and confuses the sound-sensitive dolphins and sends them into a panic, causing them to attempt to swim as fast as they can away from the sound. The boats use this to their advantage by adjusting their formation and positioning themselves so that the dolphins are continuously pushed in towards their impending doom. Depending on how far out the pod is when it is located and what species of dolphin it is, this drive process can take a half hour to several hours to fully complete.

As the boats get closer to the harbor, several skiffs filled with more killers are often deployed to help drive the dolphins by using “slap paddles”, which add to the already deafening wall of sound. Because of their smaller size and quicker speed, they are able to more efficiently keep the dolphins moving in the desired direction than the larger boats. By the time the skiffs are deployed, the dolphins are close enough to the shore that they are individually recognizable as they hurriedly attempt to flee from the killers.

Once the dolphins have been driven in past the mouth of the cove, the skiffs start to deploy the nets around the outer edge to keep the dolphins from escaping back out into the open water. This ultimately seals the fate of the dolphins, as they have nowhere to go but towards the killing shores.

The skiffs operate as a well-oiled death machine, taking turns using their outboard motors to frighten and shove the dolphins closer to the shore, sometimes running them over, as they deploy smaller and smaller nets as a means of controlling the pod. Usually after the third net is deployed, they are in extremely shallow water and are crowded into such a small area that they panic and start getting entangled in the nets, where some ultimately drown. Because of the nature of the drive, captive selection process, and slaughter, the terrified dolphins, seemingly aware of their fate, will sometimes try to throw themselves against the rocks that outline the killing shore. The killers will often add additional tarps to the rockiest portions of the shore in order to prevent further injury to the dolphins before they are picked over, in an attempt to protect their potential payday.

A bottlenose dolphin is transferred via sling to a tank at Dolphin ResortA bottlenose dolphin is transferred via sling to a tank at Dolphin Resort
Photo: Aaron Hall / Sea Shepherd
Depending on the species in the cove, killers and trainers donned in wetsuits will jump into the water and manhandle the dolphins as they select the prettiest or most trainable dolphins. These individuals will ultimately be selected to be sold off to aquariums and marine parks around the world. The captive selection process is just as, if not more, brutal than the actual slaughter itself, and often times is carried out as the family members of the captives are being mercilessly slaughtered on the shore. Captive dolphins have been pulled out in slings through the blood of their own family members as they are transported to the pens in the harbor. The rest are slain underneath the tarps that block the supposed “culture and tradition” of the killers.

There is nothing that quite prepares you for this process. To go from watching one of the most beautiful and intelligent creatures on the planet swimming for their lives, to the sounds of the killers laughing as you hear the pithing process and the hammering of stakes into their spines, to the violent thrashing of the dolphins' death throes and, ultimately, the complete and eerie silence - it is something that you can never forget. Once you've experienced the horror and seen and smelled the blood from the very same dolphins you just watched swimming freely, you feel your heart break and every emotion hits you all at once.

The dolphins are then loaded onto the skiffs and covered by tarps, further hiding the “tradition and culture” that the killers claim they are so proud of. They are dragged back through the harbor and past the captive pens to the butcherhouse, where they will be chopped up and processed to be auctioned off to the different meat buyers in the area. There are no words that can accurately describe the smells emanating from the butcher house as the meat buyers line up and joke with each other. It is one of those smells that you will never forget.

Captive dolphins frantically jump out of the water whenever the trainers would walk byCaptive dolphins frantically jump out of the water whenever the trainers would walk by
Photo: Aaron Hall / Sea Shepherd
Despite all of these horrors, the most horrible aspect of Taiji, for me, was not the slaughter process itself, but witnessing the slave pens at Dolphin Base. Dolphin Base is where the trainers “work” with the dolphins by training them to perform tricks in preparation for entertaining humans. The dolphins are “trained” through the use of starvation and forced feeding of dead, frozen fish. The most horrific thing to experience was the trainers walking from pen to pen, and the dolphins becoming frantic as a result, often jumping over and over in corners and spy-hopping in the hopes of eating. Often times, the trainers would continue on past a particular pen, and the frantic excitement would turn to extreme agitation and the dolphins would begin to perform their tricks in order to finally get fed. This is the reason that the drive hunts happen in the first place. The captive industry is a lucrative business and each trained dolphin can often be sold off for several hundred thousand dollars.

Often times, I see questions asking why the Cove Guardians don't cut the nets or don't intervene directly against the fishermen. There are two answers to this question: One is that even if the nets were cut, the dolphins are such a family-oriented society that even if the way to freedom was open, they would cling together and search for the rest of their pod. It would be like if someone put up walls around you and your family. Would your first instinct be to dig beneath the wall? Or would it be to make sure that you knew where each family member was?

The second, and most important, is that the Cove Guardians must operate within the boundaries of Japanese law. If we were to cut the nets, that would be grounds for an immediate arrest, possible lengthy jail terms, definite deportation from the country, and likely a permanent ban for yourself and possible future volunteers. If nobody were able to be there to be the voice for the dolphins, this brutal hunt would go on unabated and unseen by the world. If it were to go on uninterrupted, we would very likely see the extinction of multiple species of dolphins in a short period of time.

One of the dolphin trainers feeds several bottlenose dolphins dead, frozen fishOne of the dolphin trainers feeds several bottlenose dolphins dead, frozen fish
Photo: Aaron Hall / Sea Shepherd
It's hard enough to operate within the confines of Japanese law when you know what the law is. It's even more difficult when the law changes right before your very eyes. This happens on a daily basis in Taiji, as the police change the laws in order to create difficulties for the Cove Guardians or to protect the dolphin killers. For example, Cove Guardians are restricted from taking pictures in certain areas because it is considered an act of voyeurism. However, there are security cameras in the public bathrooms across the street from the Taiji Whale Museum. The one in the men’s room is pointed directly at the urinals and the one in the women’s room is positioned so that it can see the entire bathroom. When asked about this, the police claim this is legal and that the cameras are there for “security concerns.” Yet, how can this not be considered voyeurism?

The double standards do not end there. Overnight, public parking would become private and for “business only.” Fishermen would be able to drive their car up to “restricted” areas, unload their gear, and then move their car, while we had to park down the street and haul our gear down the road to get to the same exact spot. Cars would be illegally parked on the side of the road, and yet the police simply said “we'll handle it” when asked about it. But if we were to replicate any of that, it would be an instantaneous pull over, ticket, and harassment from the police.

The Cove Guardians are the only group on the ground in Taiji documenting these atrocities and bringing them to the rest of the world throughout the entire killing season. We are on the precipice of a massive socio-economic change that could very well bring the end of the dolphin drive hunt for good. If you would like to know how you can help from anywhere in the world, please visit Cove Guardians - What You Can Do. I implore you, if you can, become a Cove Guardian and stand up for the dolphins. If you can stand with us in Taiji, please email coveguardian@seashepherd.org. This problem goes beyond the killing shore of Taiji; It is a worldwide problem that needs worldwide support.

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