Days ago, I was surrounded by a pod of Spinner dolphins off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. There must've been at least fifty of them, including babies that looked like silver nerf balls skimming the surface as they bounced up and down, budding their small heads.
The dolphins were not in any hurry, so they flipped and dived around us in almost choreographed repetition, some flipping airborne at least three feet above water. Our small eco tour group cheered at each leap and delighted as they swam close enough to our raft to touch them.
After this experience, I couldn't help but think about "Blood Dolphins," an upcoming three-part series on Animal Planet produced by Ric and Lincoln O'Barry, the father/son activists featured in last year's Oscar award-winning documentary The Cove. I recently attended a Television Press Tour Q&A with the filmmakers, where a reporter queried, "Why save dolphins?"
The elder O'Barry responded with the thoughtful passion that bears out his five-plus decades of marine work: "[Throughout history] dolphins have saved the lives of humans. That's special. That's altruism. That's communication." He believes they are highly intelligent, self-aware and complex creatures. The surreal experience of these seemingly foreign creatures practically performing, and interacting with my raft group, made me appreciate their supreme nature all the more.
Witnessing dolphins swimming free in their habitat first-hand is one thing, but O'Barry is vehemently opposed to captive environments. "We've been brainwashed into thinking that dolphins belong in a concrete tank doing tricks for us, and somehow that translates into conservation," says the activist who once trained Flipper, America's favorite dolphin. "Flipper was a blood dolphin. Shamu is a blood dolphin. That is the reality of it. My hope is that with 'Blood Dolphins,' viewers will think twice about seeing a captive dolphin show."
"One of the dirty little secrets is, where did these animals come from?" offers the younger O'Barry. "They didn't just magically appear in these aquariums. In countries where they allow the slaughter of dolphins, typically they're also allowing the export of dolphins."
"Blood Dolphins" tracks the dirty secrets of dolphin hunting and slaughter in Taiji, Japan and the South Pacific's Solomon Islands. "The largest slaughter takes place [in an area of the Solomon Islands] and has been going on for 400 years. They kill about 2,000 dolphins a year," shares the senior O'Barry. The natives use dolphin teeth as a form of currency. So O'Barry and his crew worked with the chiefs to end the slaughter. "We find ways to subsidize them by giving money to each family to get involved in sustainable projects, like bee keeping." Just last year, three chiefs signed a contract to terminate dolphin slaughter.
For every victory, however, saving dolphins is a dangerous business, especially when it means meddling in organized crime. "In Japan I have become a marked man," explains Ric O'Barry. "There are groups we have to stay out of their way [such as] the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, who are very involved in whaling and fisheries industry. And two right-wing violent groups [with] a history of violence. We're trying to shut down the traffic in captive dolphins and that is a multi-billion dollar industry." To emphasize the point, he adds: "I've lost two associates who were murdered."
The O'Barrys anticipate that "Blood Dolphins" will be a game changer in how we see our relationship with dolphins and, ultimately, with our relationship to the planet. After all, Ric O'Barry notes, "There is no point in saving the dolphins without saving their habitat."
"Blood Dolphins" three-part series premieres on Animal Planet August 27, 11 PM ET/PT.
The Cove first television broadcast on Animal Planet August 29, 9 PM ET.
Ric O'Barry is a Marine Mammal Specialist for the non-profit Earth Island Institute. For more info: www.earthisland.org.
While in Maui, check out eco raft tours at: www.islandstarexcursions.com/maui_rafting.html.
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