The Reluctant Warrior: The Cove's Ric O'Barry
An Animal Rights Article from


Jason Mark of  Earth Island Institute
March 2010

At 70, Ric O’Barry would love to be at home watering his bamboo and playing with his five-year-old daughter. Instead, he spends most of his time with people who hate him.

It wasn’t noon yet, and Ric O’Barry was tired. He had circled the globe during the past month, first flying from his home in Coconut Grove, Florida to Taiji, Japan to monitor the start of the annual dolphin hunt, then from Japan to France on a press junket, home to Florida for a brief stop, then back again to Taiji. In a few days, O’Barry would return to Europe to promote the documentary film he stars in, The Cove, and finally wrap up 62 days of constant campaigning. Now, standing on a forested hillside above the lovely aquamarine inlet that has become infamous for the slaughter of dolphins, he waited for a crew from 60 Minutes-Australia to get the right angle on a setup shot. He yawned.

But fatigue wasn’t turning into impatience. Having worked for years as an animal trainer and underwater stuntman on more than a dozen television shows and movies, O’Barry is no stranger to the elaborate preparations required for film’s illusion. Nor is he innocent about how to use the media to take an obscure issue and make it a cause célèbre: Watching the maneuvering and remaneuvering of a camera crew was just part of the business of saving dolphins.

“I’m talking to seven million people,” O’Barry said, referring to the average number of weekly viewers of Australia’s 60 Minutes. “I’m very conscious of that.”

The producer said they were ready and O’Barry let out a little sigh, as he almost always does before answering questions. Then, just as characteristically, he performed with gusto one of his well-polished raps.

“You see those tarps?” he asked, motioning to the rolls of green cloth coiled above where the local fishermen stab dolphins to death. “They’re covering up. It’s a cover up. They say this is their tradition and their culture, but this begs the question: What are they hiding? Are they ashamed of their tradition and culture?”

When O’Barry gives an interview, he makes long, steady moves with his hands. This habit makes it hard to miss the dolphin tattoo on his left hand, or the fact that he is missing the top of his right thumb, which he blew off while working on the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. At 70, his white hair is thin and the line of his jaw has softened, but his brown eyes are sharp. He wears almost the same outfit every day: khaki pants, a khaki cargo vest with “Dolphin Rescue Team” embroidered on the breast, a beaten tan hat with captain’s laurels ironed on the brim, and two-toned Sperry Top-Siders, no socks. The overall affect is of an avuncular hipster, a kind of Pirate for Good who doesn’t seem to notice if he has told you the same story two or three times, a story that always has to do with dolphins. “The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception,” is one of his favorite lines.

Since The Cove became a critical success at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, O’Barry has given countless media tours of Taiji – the small Japanese fishing village on the picturesque Wakayama coast that, as he says, is “part Norman Rockwell and part Norman Bates.” The next stop on the tour for the 60 Minutes journalists was the Taiji Whale Museum or, as O’Barry tells reporters, “a whaling museum that celebrates the killing of dolphins and whales.”

In a country known for its cutting edge technology, the Taiji Whale Museum is a crude affair. The tanks where the dolphins live are tiny and there are cracks in the concrete amphitheater. The place is an easy target for O’Barry, who has spent most of the past 40 years on an international crusade to halt the captivity of dolphins.

He led the 60 Minutes crew to the main arena, where a small crowd watched the first dolphin show of the day. “They have nowhere to go and nothing to do – it’s cruel and unusual,” he said. “The only way out is death. You literally bore them to death. You go to the Sydney Zoo and look at the snake exhibit: there’s trees and branches. Even a cold-blooded snake is given more consideration.”

Next, he took the crew to a small cinderblock building where two spotted dolphins were swimming back and forth in a pool barely 20 feet long by 15 feet wide. The dolphins kept coming up to the glass to make eye contact with the human onlookers.

O’Barry addressed the camera: “This is not living. This is surviving. Living is feeding in the ocean, swimming 40 miles a day. This is sensory deprivation. They say this is about education, to create an appreciation for dolphins. But the education doesn’t work, because one of the largest dolphin slaughters in the world happens right around the corner, and no one cares.”

The Cove opens with O’Barry giving his Taiji tour and – even through a series of detours into the Minamata mercury poisoning of the 1950s, humans’ fascination with dolphins, and Japanese food culture – keeps him at the film’s emotional center. This works well because O’Barry’s story is so novelistic: the lone man on a search for self and meaning. O’Barry, as the film lays out, started his career as the trainer for the five dolphins that starred in the 1960s series Flipper. The popular television show played a large role in creating the modern affection for dolphins, and so, in a way, O’Barry is responsible for the rise of the dolphin entertainment industry.

But after working as a dolphin trainer for nearly a decade, O’Barry realized with a shock that what he had been doing was wrong. One day in 1970, after the television show had ended, O’Barry was called to the Miami Seaquarium, where he found Kathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, sick in the water. The animal died in his arms and sank to the bottom of the tank. At that moment, O’Barry decided to commit his life to freeing dolphins. In the beginning of his 1989 memoir, Behind the Dolphin Smile, he wrote: “I wanted people to realize that it was wrong to own dolphins, and even worse, if possible, to make them do silly tricks.… With the death of Kathy, the dolphin I most dearly loved, [I was on] a pilgrimage to try to undo at least in part some of the mess I had made of things.”

O’Barry believes he’s to blame for the dolphins at the Taiji Whale Museum, the tanks at some 150 similar dolphinariums, the swim-with-the-dolphins programs at resorts. His convert’s zeal is fueled by the emotional attachments he has had with individual dolphins over the years, both as a trainer and, later, as he worked to return them to the wild. For O’Barry, the dolphin hunt in Taiji isn’t just killing – it’s murder.

“With most documentaries you need a hook, an emotional hook, something that will carry your narrative all the way through,” said Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove. “Ric was a perfect choice for me for a protagonist.”

O’Barry’s complex history, combined with some unorthodox storytelling, has made the movie a darling among reviewers. The New York Times called it “an exceptionally well-made documentary that unfolds like a spy thriller”; Time said it’s “slick and smart.” The film has won countless awards and is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.

The Cove departs from conventional documentaries by being a movie about the making of a movie. Near the start of the film, O’Barry tells Psihoyos that to stop the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, the world needs to see and hear what is happening there. But the local fishermen – pissed off at the intruding Westerners – have set up a round-the-clock defense. So Psihoyos assembles a team of divers and camouflage experts to penetrate the cove and get the incriminating footage.

The result is a cross between Free Willy and Mission: Impossible. Many of the scenes are shot in the eerie green of night vision goggles or the spookier luminous black-and-silver of infrared lenses. Handheld cameras put the viewer at the center of the action as Psihoyos’s crew undertakes repeated sorties to place hidden cameras and microphones. The suspense builds until the team gets what it came for: gruesome images of the local fishermen capturing dolphins for sale to aquatic parks and then, the next morning, stabbing dozens of them to death. Few documentaries pack such adrenaline.

The film – and the media attention it has generated – has been a huge boost to O’Barry’s efforts. Since the film came out, more than 430,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the Japanese Fisheries Agency to prohibit the killing. Nearly 300,000 people have “friended” O’Barry on Facebook. The town of Broome, Australia briefly suspended its sister city relationship with Taiji, creating a minor diplomatic dustup.

O’Barry told me, “The Cove defines the issue. If a journalist has seen the movie, I don’t have to explain to them why dolphin captivity is wrong. They get it. That’s a game-changer for me.”

Lincoln O’Barry, Ric’s 37-year-old son who has worked closely with him over the years, said that the film has been a “tipping point” for his dad’s efforts, and that “we just need a little push to get over the edge.” Lincoln is currently working with the Discovery Channel to produce a television series about Ric and Taiji modeled on the show Whale Wars.

The tsunami of international attention is a core part of Ric O’Barry’s strategy of gaiatsu, the Japanese word for “external pressure.” The more people who see the film and sign the petition, the more likely it is that the Japanese will halt the hunt. “The Cove is gaiatsu on a massive scale,” O’Barry likes to say. At the same time, he is well aware that gaiatsu is insufficient, and that the dolphin killing won’t end until there is an outcry within Japan to halt the practice. “The real change has to come from the inside of Japan,” Lincoln said.

But generating a popular revolt against the hunt won’t be easy, at least judging by the reception to The Cove at a September screening at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo. “The problem with making gestures in civil disobedience, whether political demonstrations or environmental statements,” O’Barry wrote in Behind the Dolphin Smile, “is that they depend on others for their meaning.” The same could be said for the filmmaking. What a Western audience might see as a clarion call against animal abuse, the Japanese view as cultural imperialism. The press screening had been organized by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project – which has employed O’Barry for the last three years – as a way to generate advance buzz for the film’s public debut at the Tokyo Film Festival. During the showing, the audience responded well to the film. But in a press conference after the movie, the correspondents’ questions turned sharp as they demanded to know whether the animal rights issue would sway the Japanese, many of whom don’t see a distinction between eating a dolphin and eating a cow. A reporter from The Times of London asked: “Is there a difference between hunting Bambi and hunting Flipper?”

O’Barry is hypersensitive about the charge of cultural imperialism and goes to great lengths to make clear that the vast majority of Japanese are not involved in the hunt and don’t even know about it. “If you lived in a small town in America,” he said to me, “and you had a group of Japanese showing up to protest something, it would be outrageous.” Imagine if dozens of Japanese activists and hordes of international media descended on, say, Camden, Maine and demanded to know why the locals eat bacon.

At the Correspondents Club screening, O’Barry was well prepared for this line of argument, which he has sought to address since he first traveled to Japan in 1976 in an effort to ease the Greenpeace-led boycott of the nation. O’Barry insisted that more important than the abuse of dolphins was the fact that dolphin meat has dangerous concentrations of mercury. “It’s not an animal rights issue – it’s a human rights issue,” he said. “It’s about people’s right to know. The Cove will do what the Japanese media have failed to do – report the truth. And the truth is that dolphin meat is tainted with mercury.”

The reporters kept asking about animal rights, but O’Barry stuck to his message. Then he engaged in a bit of theater. “If you find that dolphin meat is not toxic, I’ll go away and never come back,” he offered. “But if it is toxic, then print that.” As he said this, he held up a package of dolphin meat from a grocery store. The photographers, who mostly had been still, jumped up and filled the room with the flutter of shutters snapping.

Many of the reporters left the room unconvinced. “Maybe it’s just an anti-sushi campaign,” a veteran journalist for one of Japan’s most influential newspapers said to me.

Still, the film is having an effect. When Ric O’Barry returned to Taiji last September at the start of the hunting season, the fishermen did not put out to sea for two weeks. At the end of September, volunteers watched amazed as the fishermen released a hundred bottlenose dolphins back to the sea, rather than butcher them for meat as usual.

Unfortunately, the slaughter of pilot whales is continuing, but O’Barry’s efforts have led to fewer dolphins being killed this year. More importantly, news stories are being published in Japan, for the first time, about the dolphin slaughter and about the dangers posed by the mercury contamination of dolphin and whale meat. The fight to protect dolphins – all the dolphins – continues.

O’Barry and the Save Japan Dolphins campaign will be returning to Japan shortly to screen The Cove for more Japanese audiences. The hope is that the group can make a major difference and end the dolphin killing before another season can begin. When The Cove has been screened for ordinary Japanese audiences, as it was last October and November, they have been shocked and outraged that their government is allowing the dolphin slaughter to continue. Screening The Cove to new audiences and getting copies of the DVD into the hands of decision-makers and the media will hopefully make the dolphin hunt politically and morally untenable for the Japanese government.

The popularity and critical acclaim of The Cove is giving a big boost to efforts to stop the dolphin hunt. In February, the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. The nomination alone is already boosting traffic to Save Japan Dolphins, and the campaign’s momentum will only increase if the film wins an Oscar. We are keeping our fingers (and flippers) crossed.

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal. This story originally appeared in Earth Island Journal, the award-winning environmental journal published for over 25 years by Earth Island Institute, an incubator of nonprofit organizations devoted to environmental issues, animal rights and social justice.

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