by Larry Smith
They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea! — Flipper TV show theme
For most people of a certain age, our image of the cheerful, helpful and super intelligent bottlenose dolphin was formed by the iconic 1960s Flipper television series - a marine version of Lassie.
The TV show was an adaptation of the 1963 Ivan Tors movie. It was based in Florida, but parts were filmed here - out east near High Vista. And 30 years later, a Flipper revival movie was filmed at Jaws Beach, between Lyford Cay and Clifton.
The show portrayed a wild dolphin who acted as a sidekick to a Florida marine park warden and his two young sons. Produced in cooperation with the Miami Seaquarium, all the TV dolphins were captured and trained by an ex-navy diver named Ric O’Barry.
"I went to the Seaquarium for the first time on opening day in 1955, when I was on leave from the navy,” O’Barry said in a recent interview. "It was only the third dolphinarium in the world…and I realized that's what I wanted to do. And five years later when I got out of the navy, that's what I did. My first day on the job was on the capture boat.”
The show gave O’Barry a good life. He lived in the house that was used in the filming, on the Seaquarium property at Key Biscayne, with the dolphins he trained just down the beach. And as a result of the show’s popularity, marine mammal facilities began opening all over the world, giving rise to a multibillion-dollar trade in live dolphins.
But Flipper also ended up changing O’Barry's life. In 1970, he made an about-face and began educating the public on the plight of captive dolphins, spending some time in the Bimini jail for trying to release a dolphin held at Alice Town's now-defunct Lerner Marine Lab. For the last 40-plus years he has spoken out against dolphin capture at lectures and conferences around the world. In fact, he gave a talk in Nassau a few months ago.
At least 19 different whale and dolphin species (known as cetaceans) are currently held in captivity around the world. And there are some 78 facilities that offer the opportunity to ’swim with a dolphin', holding at least 730 dolphins worldwide. Two of these are in the Bahamas - at Blue Lagoon Island off New Providence and at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island. A third is planned for nearby Blackbeard’s Cay.
O’Barry's voice was supported by an activist group called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society - founded in the 1970s by a former Greenpeace leader named Paul Watson. This group’s mission was "to intervene against illegal activities exploiting marine wildlife.” Sea Shepherd is known for its dramatic encounters with Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic. And more recently it has helped expose the large-scale hunting of small cetaceans in Japanese coastal waters.
Although there has been a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, Japan has continued killing large whales as before under the pretext of “scientific research", while Norway and Iceland rejected the ban and continue to hunt large whales in their own waters. And Denmark's Faroe Islanders slaghter hundreds of pilot whales each year in a centuries-old tradition.
There's no more than 3 per cent of the great whales remaining, but less well-known is the fact that hundreds of thousands of small whales and dolphins die each year through fishery bycatch and direct hunts like that of the Faroe Islands.
The annual slaughter of small cetaceans off Japan was virtually unknown until 2003, when a Sea Shepherd team was arrested for cutting nets to release dolphins captured in a drive hunt at the small port of Taiji in Japan. O'Barry was also there, and the team's covertly obtained photos of the killing of hundreds of small whales and dolphins in a hidden cove made headlines around the world, causing the fishermen to erect barricades to hide the bloody slaughter from prying cameras.
O’Barry returned to Taiji every year to help end the drive hunts. A big turning point came in 2009, when he partnered with a Greek-American photographer and director named Louie Psihoyos. The result of this partnership was a powerful film which argued that the drive hunts are cruel, unnecessary and unsustainable. The Cove won worldwide acclaim and an Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Each fall the Taiji fishermen round up small whales and dolphins using sound barriers to disorient and herd the family pods out of their normal migrations into hidden lagoons like the one featured in The Cove. Some dolphins, those that look like Flipper, are sold for upwards of $200,000 to marine mammal parks around the world. The rest are brutally killed in a bloody frenzy that turns the sea red. The meat is sold for food or fertiliser.
According to Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson: "there is no doubt that the Japanese government sat up and took notice when The Cove won the best documentary award. So Sea Shepherd returned to Taiji to carry on the strategy pioneered by O’Barry - to monitor and document within the restricted boundaries of Japanese law. We believe it is a strategy that can work, but not overnight. That is why we have called it Operation Infinite Patience.”
So scores of earnest volunteers from around the world, styling themselves Cove Guardians, descend on Taiji every year. They spend two weeks at a time during the killing season, monitoring and documenting the entire hunt. And this year, two of those volunteers made their way from the Bahamas. Sheri Albury-Hubball and Melissa Maura are close friends and animal welfare advocates who became passionate about the drive hunts after watching The Cove three years ago.
“I was horrified and began researching online. But I wanted to do more than just post on social media, so I volunteered to become a Cove Guardian,” Sheri told me on their return. "I was a little apprehensive at first because it is a fairly big commitment, but I have no regrets and fully intend to go back. I am now a proud and committed champion of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, contributing to their cause both financially and through social media activism.”
Sheri, who works at Tribune Radio, encouraged her friend Melissa, an animal rehabilitation specialist who makes a living from her artwork, and the two saved up enough to make the long trip to Taiji last month. Both women are also enthusiastic supporters of our homegrown activist group, reEarth, which strongly opposes the captive dolphin industry here in the Bahamas.
More than one million whales, dolphins and porpoises have been slaughtered off Japan in the past several decades – and new analysis by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency indicates these unsustainable hunts are on track to wipe out key species in Japan’s coastal waters.
These coastal hunts should be phased out over the next 10 years, the EIA said in a report released last month. “Our analysis of available scientific data raises very serious concerns about the sustainability of these hunts...Some of the populations targeted are already showing signs of significant declines in abundance to a point where they may no longer have the capacity to recover,” the report said.
Many experts say the hunts continue partly because of the demand for live animals from marine parks around the world, particularly in China. And Taiji is considered to be ground zero for the captive dolphin trade. While most of the animals rounded up are brutally killed, the best-looking individuals are sold to dolphinariums. And according to activists, the folks who buy tickets to these attractions are contributing to the Taiji slaughter.
“As Bahamians we grew up in the ocean, but learning about all the overfishing and pollution and sheer destruction out there is just heartbreaking,” Sheri told me. “In Nassau we have two dolphin facilities and are about to open a third. And even if our captive dolphins didn't come from Taiji, these special creatures are still being cruelly treated. A lot of them die during capture, and many more die within a short time afterwards due to stress.”
For example, Resorts World (the same company that recently took over the Bimini Bay development) is the subject of online petitions and a global boycott protesting the fact that it keeps 25 captive dolphins in a newly-opened marine park at its casino resort in Singapore. Three individuals intended for the resort have died and the remainder are dubbed by some groups as “the world’s saddest dolphins”.
Meanwhile, the few dozen Taiji fishermen (out of a population of about 3500) who participate in the annual slaughter of these highly intelligent animals argue that dolphin-hunting is part of a 400-year-old whaling and culinary tradition and is no different than killing cattle. But conservationists point out that one of the motivations for the hunt is “predator control”. In other words, the fishermen are seeking to eliminate competition for increasingly scarce marine resources.
This is notwithstanding the fact that there is no evidence that marine mammals are to blame for the crisis in the world's fisheries, or that the long history of fishery mismanagement can be solved by reducing predator populations. Experts say rapidly declining fish stocks are a function of indiscriminate and large-scale industrial fishing, which is driving more and more species to commercial extinction. The fact is that global wild fish catches have been falling every year since 1988.
Conservationists also note that - like marlin, shark and swordfish - dolphin and whale meat is highly contaminated with dangerous pollutants like mercury, which pose serious human health risks. Since many cetacean species are long-lived and at the top of the food chain they accumulate high doses of such contaminants, which are linked to a range of immunological, cardiovascular and reproductive effects in people.
According to the EIA report, "Levels of pollutants in cetacean meat being sold for consumption have far exceeded the advisory limits for human consumption, with concentrations of total mercury that are more than 200 times Japan’s limit. Japanese consumers are left largely ignorant of the high levels of pollutants which typically accumulate in the meat and blubber of these top marine predators."
Scientists generally agree that cetaceans, and bottlenose dolphins in particular, perform well on a number of tests that people commonly associate with intelligence, especially in the realms of symbol use and social cognition. This puts them on par with the great apes and chimpanzees.
As Ric O’Barry puts it, "Dolphins are free-ranging, intelligent, and complex wild animals, and they belong in the oceans, not playing the clown in our human schemes."
Both Sheri and Melissa are convinced that the continuous monitoring and documentation of what happens at Taiji, by Sea Shepherd and other groups, will ultimately bring the hunts to an end. “There were as many as 15 Cove Guardians during the two weeks that we were there,” Melissa said.
“We would document the boats going out - there were usually 12 - and then wait until they returned to harbour. It is always a good day when no dolphins are found, but unless we watch and document and tell the world what is happening, it won’t change."
As an artist, Melissa was struck by the contrast between the friendliness of the Japanese people, the beauty of the cove itself, and the horrors that take place there.
“Today, they do everything they can to hide what is going on, and police are everywhere, so we are obviously having an impact. But it’s a marathon event, not a sprint. And films like The Cove are very important to help open peoples’ eyes."