Text by Ryan Bradley
Some stories are simple, straightforward, even easy. Louie Psihoyos isn’t interested in them. A photographer for National Geographic when he was just 23, Psihoyos sought out assignments that were broad, vague, and visually challenging—subjects included dreams, garbage, and smell. He spent nine months in trash heaps. One time, he nearly fell to his death getting a photograph on top of the Chrysler Building.
So it should come as no surprise that for his first film, The Cove (released this month), the 52-year-old infiltrated a super-secret and heavily patrolled inlet in northern Japan with a crack team of extreme athletes and a bevy of military-grade cameras to capture a brutal and never before seen dolphin slaughter. What he did was by all accounts illegal and dangerous and borderline stupid. But so is killing a dolphin.
“My mandate for this movie was: just make a difference,” Psihoyos (rhymes with “sequoias”) says. “I took that to an extreme level. To do that, I realized, we had to become part of the story.”
The “we” he speaks of includes a former Air Force avionics technician, a freediver capable of swimming 288 feet underwater on a single breath, and musician turned factotum whose official title was “director of clandestine operations.” At the heart of Psihoyos’s “Oceans 11”-esque team is Richard O’Barry–famous for training the five dolphins that played the roll of Flipper in the 1960s television show, infamous for dedicating the rest of his life to clandestinely freeing captive dolphins the world over. For his efforts O’Barry has been arrested at least 40 times (he’s lost track) and is persona non grata in Taiji, the Japanese fishing village where dolphins get slaughtered for their meat.
While filming, Psihoyos and his team were relentlessly tailed by the Taiji police force. They used decoy vans and fake hotel rooms to lose their pursuers, tricks Psihoyos had learned “watching spy films.” It’s this sort of spirit that pervades The Cove, an eco-thriller that’s hard to believe is a documentary. Already, the film has brought audiences to tears while garnered standing ovations and awards at several film festivals. Most importantly, it’s making enough money to potentially shut down the cove and dolphin killing.
“We’ve latched onto something here,” Psihoyos says of his film’s success. “There’s a much larger story to tell.” He won’t say exactly what it is—only that it involves whole oceans this time—but it should come as no surprise that he’s already in deep, taking on a new challenge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions