Fighting for the Lives of Marine Mammals in The Cove

Every once in a while there is a movie so good it's astonishing, and this morning I saw one. It's called The Cove, and it has just been screened at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim and standing ovations. The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos and produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society, chronicles former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry's heroic campaign to stop the killing of 2,000 dolphins every year in the Japanese coastal village of Taiji. In the 1960s, O'Barry trained the animals that collectively became known as Flipper to TV viewers - an experience that he has spent decades trying to undo because of the role the television show played in creating the captive dolphin industry in the United States and around the world. He came to believe that dolphins should never be captive, and he has tirelessly campaigned to end the inhumane treatment of these undeniably intelligent, self-aware creatures.

The Cove is a riveting tale, told with skill, substance, and relentless drama. The place that gives rise to the film's name is a secretive cove in Taiji, Japan, and the film tells the story not only of what goes on in this hidden place but the lengths that O'Barry and his team had to go to expose it. The Cove is promoted as "an intelligent/action/adventure/Ocean's Eleven-like horror film wrapped around a tale of redemption and ultimate revenge - oh, and it's a documentary." It justly deserves, and was recently awarded, the Audience Award at Sundance.

This could have been, but is not, a punishing series of images of relentless cruelty. Instead, it places the Japanese fishery in a cultural, historical, and political context, tying it, for example, to the captive dolphin industry and to the failure of the International Whaling Commission, the only international forum devoted exclusively to the regulation of whaling but which, inexplicably, excludes any jurisdiction over, and therefore protection for, dolphins, porpoises, and other small whales. Claiming that the dolphins are "pests," depleting the world's fish stocks, the small group of fishermen who make their living in the cove do everything they can to prevent the outside world from learning what they're up to. Nothing seems to matter, including the health of their own children. Because dolphin meat is toxic, containing levels of mercury that vastly exceed safe levels, the fishermen have no where to go with the dolphin meat they produce but to serve it to children in mandatory school lunch programs or to market it to Japanese consumers as falsely labeled whale meat.

An international coalition has been working to stop the fishery that is the focus of The Cove and to protect the thousands of dolphins that are driven to their death there each year. SaveJapanDolphins.org has information on steps we all can take, including sending letters to the Japanese Embassy and to President Obama. This movie is a remarkable achievement, and everyone should see it. I hope they'll get the chance.