For many, the image of dolphins is linked to the TV series Flipper, in which a dolphin was the friend of a young boy. The “smile,” the antics, the good-natured sounds all made people want to see these beautiful creatures close up. The series led to the creation of SeaWorld and other aquatic-themed parks across the country. And his involvement with the series is also former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry’s greatest regret and led to his life’s passion of dolphin rescue. For his feature-length documentary The Cove — which exposes a dolphin slaughter that takes place each year near Taiji, Japan — O’Barry and his team won an Oscar. But the images shown during the ceremony, of pristine blue water turning blood red, is only part of the remarkable story told in the film, which also includes information on the mercury content of the dolphin meat, which has been donated to Japanese schools.
O’Barry’s son, Lincoln, was also involved in The Cove, airing Aug. 29, and the series, Blood Dolphins, airing Fridays beginning Aug. 27, both on Animal Planet.
When I spoke with Lincoln O’Barry via telephone, he was on a Florida beach where, he says, “crude oil was washing ashore.” A pod of dolphins was also near shore, trying to avoid the spill. What he was seeing there may become a future episode of the new series. It was also the day his father left for Japan because The Cove was finally going to open for a theatrical run.
With dolphin rescue being your father’s longtime passion, what was your earliest recollection of being involved with his work?
Lincoln O’Barry: Shortly after the dolphin Cathy (one of the dolphins who played Flipper) died and before I was born, he released some dolphins in Bimini. It was his first reaction after Cathy died — he wanted to release every dolphin in captivity because he felt he was responsible because Flipper created this popularity that had people wanting to see and touch and be around dolphins. Shortly after, Stephen Stills from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young loaned us three grand and we bought our first couple of dolphins and set up The Dolphin Project in Key Biscayne, Fla. We had dolphins right outside the house and three years later we released them into the wild. So my earliest memories would be as a small child, 2 or 3 years old, with those dolphins.
I grew up in the water with dolphins and I didn’t realize that other kids my age were not having that experience. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how special all these experiences were. I first went to Japan in 1976 with my dad, at the time the anti-whaling movement was really hot. There were full-page ads in papers telling people to boycott Japan. Asian-American kids — Japanese and Korean — were getting beaten up on school grounds by kids saying, “Your dad kills whales.”
My dad went to Japan to do something called “Celebrate the Whale.” It was promoted like Woodstock. And because he called it Celebrate the Whale, the whalers came out, everybody came out and once we had them in that auditorium, he was able to help change perception. Back in the ’70s, whaling was curtailed to what it is today. I actually have a picture of myself in Taiji in 1976 sitting on a harpoon gun, and when I was back there last year I took a picture with the same harpoon gun.
Were you in Japan during the making of The Cove? If so, what were your most tense moments?
The Cove was made over a period of time. I was there when we were shooting some of it but we weren’t aware at that time that it would become the film. Louie [Psihoyos], who directed The Cove, had the idea that we should do a TV series, sort of like the Jacques Cousteau series, and this was going to be part of one episode. But when the story became so big, we decided to do a film on my dad and the Taiji issues.
My dad is leaving for Japan today because the film is finally coming out there. [The ban on showing the film] has become a huge issue in Japan because there is a right-wing group there, some older Japanese people that are very vocal. … They are very outspoken. They’ve been picketing outside the theaters that were going to air The Cove and outside the home of the film’s distributor. Since my dad has been there, the top 50 directors, writers and minds of Japan have gotten together to say this is a freedom of speech issue. They may not all agree with what’s in The Cove, but they think it’s very important that it’s shown because this movie did win an Oscar. It has also won almost every film festival it has been entered in. So obviously there is some merit to it and the Japanese people have the right to see it and make the decision [about its content] for themselves.
The first showing was sponsored by a newspaper. So many people came to the theater that [the organizers] moved the projector to the parking lot and projected it up on a wall so everyone could see it. It’s taken a while, but July 3 it opens in three theaters, then in 16 more theaters, and that’s the real test.
The horror of the slaughter is approached so carefully that, while it hits you hard, almost viscerally, it isn’t as shocking as it would be otherwise. It seemed carefully edited.
When the movie gets reviewed, the one screen grab everyone wants to use is the scene in the cove. So people thought they knew what the movie was about. It’s like Titanic. Everyone knew it was about a boat sinking but it was also about the moments that led up to that. The Cove is a lot like Ocean’s Eleven in how this team was able to get in there.
And if you look at the sequence of the slaughter scene, it was like the shower scene in Psycho where you never saw the knife penetrate the woman. If you look at that scene [in The Cove], you never see a spear penetrate a dolphin. We edited it very carefully.
That moment when your father walked into the International Whaling Commission and showed members that documentary was possibly the most intense and triumphant scene in the film. And then he is taken away? What happened afterward that we did not see?
He was just led off the property and taken to the street. That’s how Louie and my dad met. Louie had come down to the conference in San Diego, sponsored by SeaWorld, and, at the last minute, my dad was prevented from speaking. So he was in the parking lot doing a sort of one-man protest. And Louie walked up to him and asked, “What’s this all about?”
If a documentary’s purpose is to change things, this certainly did. How have things changed for you and your cause since you won the Oscar?
It’s great that the world sees this movie but it’s most important that the Japanese see this picture. So when my dad would go to Taiji, The New York Times would cover it but there was never any mention of his visit in the Japanese press. That has completely changed.
On Sept. 1, we were met at our hotel in Taiji by two or three reporters with the national news. My dad [showed them] a picture of someone affected by mercury poisoning in Minamata [Japan]. The news did not talk about [the] mercury poisoning [featured in The Cove] but [discussed only that] this anti-whaling activist was here in Japan. But the second day, one of the Japanese news outlets mentioned we were here talking about mercury poisoning. In Japan, journalists wait for one person to do something, and when they don’t get into trouble, everyone else will follow. So the next day, when nothing happened to the reporter, all the news media started talking about the mercury. My dad was just in Japan and was inundated with 12 interviews a day. Now the blackout is over and that is what my dad wants. … Most people in Japan can’t imagine that people are killing and eating dolphins. Eating whale, more people know about. It’s something that the older generation does and [is] somewhat dying out. But regarding the dolphins, Taiji is a very isolated place and only about 30 fishermen in 12 boats are doing this.
Tell me a bit about the new series, Blood Dolphins. What sorts of things will be covered in it?
The first episode is basically a follow-up to what has happened until now in Japan and in the Solomon Islands. There, dolphin teeth are a form of currency. In the isolated villages you can trade the teeth for food. You can trade 1,000 to 3,000 dolphin teeth for a wife. Also, this mercury issue is something that is going to be shown in the series as well, because we are finding that the mercury is not isolated in the area around Japan. It’s everywhere.
Where will you film?
Japan, Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Federal Islands — I hadn’t planned on the Gulf, but I just felt I needed to be here, so we [may be] working on a story here as well. We’re very concerned about how few animals are being reported dead. This is the biggest environmental disaster the world has ever seen — much bigger than Exxon Valdez, where 750,000 birds died — but officials here are reporting a thousand birds dead.
What impact do you expect the series to have?
What’s happening to the dolphins is a microcosm of what is happening to the Earth. And my dad is very anti-captivity. We have a feeling that, when they see this, people will not go and buy a ticket [to dolphin shows]. Basically everything in life is supply and demand, and the aquarium industry knows about these problems and isn’t educating its visitors. They are the ones who should be doing this, and we are doing their work for them.
Twenty years ago, the aquariums should have told every paying customer that came through their gate, “Don’t buy tuna because dolphins are being killed in tuna nets.” Instead, you could go to any aquarium restaurant and buy a tuna salad sandwich. Today, it’s the same with the dolphin slaughter. You see people picking out the best animals to send to these aquariums.
Obviously dolphins can’t build spaceships, but their capacity to understand and their brainpower, many believe, is far beyond ours. That should be respected and they should be left alone. My activism right now is through my filmmaking. It’s just opening the eyes of the folks to what’s really happening.