When I was last in Japan this previous winter, activist-philanthropist Ady Gil purchased a boat. Along with Masako Maxwell of A.G.W.C. Ady joined me in Taiji this October and soon we were exploring the coastline around Taiji by sea! Worried we might take some kind of drastic action to interfere with the hunters during the dolphin-drives, the Coast Guard arranged a formal meeting for our little crew. We laid out the nautical charts of the Taiji coastline and asked them to show us any places we were prohibited to venture into, assuming the killing Cove would be first on the list, closely followed by Taiji harbor.
But we were surprised to find all areas were open to us—provided there was no dolphin drive in progress. It was then requested we keep at least 2 nautical miles from the hunters while they were driving dolphins. Was this the law, we asked? It appeared it was not, but rather, merely a request from the hunters. Oh really?
When Ady asked to be briefed on the exact laws binding us—so we could properly follow them, there were no straight answers forthcoming. Rather the authorities shook their heads, muttering that Japanese law was far too complex to explain. This struck us as odd and certainly begged us to cautiously push the envelop that appeared to be little more than a result of the dolphin hunters preferences—surely a poor substitute for any actual concrete rules. As we were well aware, before now, no one had ever approached the hunters on “their own turf” and it was clear no one knew really how to deal with our presence.
Once the boat was ready to roll, we set out to sea, against a blood red sunrise, following the banger boats that vanished, fanning out over the horizon. The massive Coast Guard ship lurked in the distance, keeping us always in clear sight. Way out we found the banger boats, belching the black clouds of smoke that told us they were chasing and herding dolphins. It soon became apparent that there was not one, but two separate dolphin hunts in progress by two different banger gangs.
As we prowled the far perimeter of the unfolding hunt, our minds were focused on the hapless dolphins we were not surprised to see the massive Coast Guard ship swing into action and head our way. We eased off a little, but kept close enough to make sure our presence was noted by the hunters; cat and mouse on the high seas.
Eventually one banger gang began to accelerate and drive their pod toward shore. The other hunt in progress stood between us and them, so we stayed as we were, pacing this way and that on the water, praying hard that the dolphins might somehow escape and always wondering when the gigantic Coast Guard ship might come at us and drive us away.
We were heart broken when reports from volunteers on shore told us that the first pod of about 10 Risso’s dolphins had been successfully driven into the Cove and set upon by the first group of hunters.
But out at sea, we could clearly see at such close quarters that this banger gang was having a much harder time. On the prow of our little vessel I leaned over the water and wished with every bit of my being that these dolphins might escape–but it looked impossible, the poor dolphins were surrounded by five roaring high powered boats, piloted by men whose experience driving dolphins is only exceeded by their lack of compassion for these amazing creatures. But suddenly, after more than four long hours of chase, the hunters just turned and headed back to Taiji! And there racing back out to sea, we glimpsed the dolphins themselves, leaping over the waves! What a moment, to see them still alive and racing free!
As usual, my time in Taiji overlapped with other visitors evincing a marvelous mix of nationalities and backgrounds. Among them were a soundman from the BBC, marine scientists from Israel, a filmmaker from New Zealand as well as Japanese citizens who are concerned about the fate of dolphins in Japan. Another unusual visitor I was most pleased to welcome into our midst was artist and performer Russ Ligtas from Cebu (in the Philippines). Russ who has a deep respect and affection for dolphins also studies the art of Japanese Butoh dance, had made his way to the Cove in Taiji for a series of performances dedicated to the cetaceans killed there.
What we initially thought might be a quiet first performance at the Cove soon turned out to be anything but as Ady Gil’s boat came ambling nonchalantly into the Cove itself to film the performance—closely followed by the coast guard’s small inflatable.
They both floated quietly waiting for the show to start. Word of this quickly spread and the place was soon fully stocked with around 15 police who had turned out to see what was going on. Meanwhile Russ was in the public bathroom putting on his costume, which includes very striking white face paint, which caused the officer who discovered him there to shout with surprise. As has become mandatory here now, before Russ could perform, he had to go through the passport check procedure, while the officers peered curiously at him. Finally, everyone settled down, and Russ began to perform on the shoreline of the Cove while cameras rolled and clicked.
Butoh dance is a more modern adaptation stemming from more traditional art forms like Kabuki theatre. It often addresses difficult social issues through the expressive medium of dance and voice. Russ’ performance, like his haunting white visage, was captivating.
The emotions we all struggle with here in Taiji were portrayed with incredible poignancy: the anguish, the grief, the despondence, the rage, and the empty lack of understanding at the seemingly endless deluge of death and cruelty lashing the shores of the Cove…. To say it was a powerful performance would be a terrible understatement.
During Russ’ short time here, two pods of beautiful Risso’s dolphins, totaling around 20 individuals, including tiny babies, were slaughtered in the Cove. Arrayed against them was the full might of the Taiji hunters: a wall of steel and roaring engines and always, that relentless banging noise driving the dolphins closer and closer to a painful death.
The dolphins were so incredibly beautiful, surfacing close together, keeping close to each other with their little babies at their sides.
Such grace and camaraderie evident in these, the only wild creatures that will go out of their way to help humans in trouble at sea–and look what our species does in return… Having to witness this atrocity with one’s own eyes changes a person forever, and Russ took these experiences and incorporated them into his skillful artistic expression. There are times when art goes where activism cannot and where it can touch or reach those who might otherwise remain deaf and blind to issues of cruelty and suffering.
The connection between the killing, capturing, buying, selling and trade in dolphins and whales is nowhere more obvious than in Taiji.
However, this deadly connection is intentionally hidden from the many Japanese tourists visiting these parts, eagerly paying to watch dolphin shows and to pet, kiss and swim with captive cetaceans – all of whom have endured the trauma of chase, capture and the tragic slaughter of their families and communities. How ironic that it is the lure of the dolphins’ beauty and grace that condemns them to death and servitude….and commands such a high price.
Other shadowy interests lie behind the Taiji hunters, ones with enough power to command a lot of power and invest what could amount to around 2 million dollars over the six month killing/capturing season to keep the kind of police/coast guard presence here In defense of this lucrative dolphin trade. A job surely for private security rather than the public authorities.
In challenging these powers of greed and pride and commerce, our presence here has been drawing threats of violence and danger. The importance of keeping pressure/presence, bearing witness and continuing to give voice to the millions of people around the world including in Japan, who value dolphins alive and free has never been more important.
On a quiet day SJD volunteer Heather Hill and I went down to the cove to pick up garbage for over an hour, something that clearly struck locals, who thanked us for our efforts.
Through the tension and danger, I’ve continued daily efforts at building friendships, learning more about various aspects of Japanese culture and daily life, improving communication and connection and seeking ways towards positive change that will ultimately benefit the greater Taiji community as well as the oceans. I always think its what the dolphins themselves would do in my place.