If there is an oceanic equivalent to Fort Knox, it would be the cove outside the town of Taiji on Japan’s Honshu Island. For years, 24-hour patrols, razor wire fences, and a near-vertical landscape all conspired to keep a dark secret: Each fall, Japanese fishermen gathered there to corral and slaughter hundreds of dolphins for meat. No foreign activist had ever witnessed the carnage up close. Which is precisely why Louie Psihoyos showed up.
In 2005, Psihoyos, a former National Geographic photographer and budding filmmaker, decided to infiltrate the melee. To aid his mission, he assembled one of the most unique film crews in history. The Ocean’s 11-esque team included an ex-Air Force avionics technician, freedivers capable of swimming 290 feet underwater on a single breath, and a sailor whose official title was Director of Clandestine Operations. At the heart of the outfit was Ric O’Barry, the animal trainer behind the TV series Flipper, who for the past 30 years has worked to free captive dolphins by any means necessary.
As soon as the group arrived in Taiji, they were relentlessly tailed by the local police. To evade them, Psihoyos used decoy vans and booked phony hotel rooms. The team employed military-grade infrared cameras to scope out the cove’s surroundings, and at night they tracked the patrols and set up fake rocks (crafted by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic) with cameras and microphones hidden inside. The avionics group piloted flying cameras; divers caught the action from beneath the surface. The result is a film that unfurls like a heist flick and hits like a heavyweight.
After premiering at Sundance in January, The Cove has gone on to win awards in more than a dozen festivals. What’s more, the exposure has ended the slaughter in Taiji and put the Japanese government in the uncomfortable position of having to admit its wrongdoing. “The awards and accolades are collateral,” Psihoyos says. “I consider this a movement, not a movie.”
Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of National Geographic Adventure