Welcome to Taiji
Fighting Dolphin Slaughter in Japan
from No Compromise Issue 23

By Nik Hensey

Just past the small bridge adorned by stone dolphins reads the wooden sign: “Welcome to Taiji.” Those hospitable words, highlighted by smiling whale caricatures, struck me oddly as they were written in English. To find a Westerner in Taiji, Japan was a rarity as my Sea Shepherd crewmates and I were a day’s drive from any major city and in a place where few Japanese ever find a reason to venture. Arriving in late September, this would be my battlefield for the next two months where I was told to expect to see forty to sixty Pilot Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins, Striped Dolphins, and False Killer Whales driven in for slaughter every other day. As a documentary crew had been attacked with knives just a few years prior, our presence would have to remain unknown until our emergence to document and obstruct the bloody “dolphin drives” of Taiji, Japan.

Oikomi or “dolphin drives” are an annual occurrence in a handful of small towns throughout Japan where pods of dolphins and small whales are driven ashore by a fleet of ships where they are killed en masse. As dolphins and whales ‘see’ through the use of sonar, the hunters/ whalers effectively disrupt the mammals’ echolocation system by doing nothing more than banging on adapted metal tubes placed into the water. Disoriented and terrified, the pods are surrounded by the ships and chased to point of exhaustion; once surrounded by the fleet the animals’ barely stand a chance.

Taiji-cho, a small coastal town of the Kinki region in Wakayama Prefecture on the main Japanese island of Honshu, is a prime location to conduct such “dolphin drive” operations. The town’s position at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean places it along the migratory paths of ocean mammals and Taiji’s Hatagiri Bay has been physically altered in size and depth to make it an ideal cove for driving in these pods. For this reason, in part, Taiji kills (or collects as they prefer to call it) far more dolphins than any other town in Japan. In fact, the whalers are permitted by the local government to kill 2,900 dolphins and small whales every year in a killing season that spans October to March. But such a permit process is nothing more than an attempt to make the “dolphin drives” appear as though they are regulated by the government.

In reality, it is the whalers themselves who report the number and species killed throughout the season—hardly government oversight—and the “season” exists not to allow for dolphin and whale populations to restore their numbers. This was painfully clear as I witnessed the whalers butcher newborn Pilot Whales along with their mothers and they were anything but concerned about sustainable “harvesting” practices. There is a designated killing season merely for the fact that, come April, Taiji has its influx of tourists who visit the town to dine on fresh dolphin meat after watching a pathetic Orca leap through the air for snacks in a dilapidated pool where decommissioned harpoons menacingly point at her.

This year, the killing began at the break of dawn on Monday, October 6, 2003 when a pod of sixty Striped Dolphins was ruthlessly butchered by a handful of men wielding knives and pneumatic spears, many with cigarettes in their mouths and one man making jokes as he dragged the corpse of a still-bleeding dolphin aboard his skiff. The sight was something out of a horror movie, as the blue water, once breathtaking, had become an intense shade of crimson that words cannot describe and photographs do not do justice. The thrashing of dying dolphins spread the stench of blood and I could feel death on my skin. Imagine waking up for a bath to find your tub filled with blood—multiply that by a million. With our emergence from hiding, the video equipment we wielded in the hopes that it would deter the slaughter simply resulted in our arrest so that the massacre could continue unabated. This despite the whalers’ attempts to steal and destroy our equipment and a scuffle on a cliff that could have resulted in my crewmate’s death… Welcome to Taiji.

For three weeks, our crew of four held an entire fleet of dolphin-killers at bay with little more than video equipment. Only after a special police task force was created and a surreptitious town hall meeting passed all sorts of laws that virtually made anything we did illegal did the whalers attempt another kill. With the efficacy of our cameras stripped away by the new ordinances we abandoned our hopes of appealing to the public through the media, and took up the same weapons as those of the whalers. As a pod of Pilot Whales was being driven in for the slaughter we placed our own improvised metal tubes, similar to those that are used to capture a pod, into the shallow waters of the cove and hit them with rocks to scare the pod into the safety of deeper waters from where they came.

With hostilities approaching a climax I found myself alone and under constant surveillance in a town where I was anything but welcome. Death threats came as though they were salutations and I’m certain that the only reason why serious harm didn’t come to me or the incoming crew was because of my assurances to the town that any violence against a crewmember would result in the sinking of the Taiji fleet within a year. The harbor and killing cove now prominently displayed signs of “Danger - No Trespassing: Falling Rocks” written in English that clearly applied only to those who sought to protect dolphins rather than kill them. Sea Shepherd had been an occupying force in Taiji for nearly two months and where an estimated eight hundred dolphins and small whales would ordinarily be killed in that time, the whalers had taken only a tiny fraction of that amount.

On November 18th, a pod of twelve Striped Dolphins was driven into Hatagiri Bay by the whalers and held with a series of nets awaiting slaughter at any moment. Without the ability to legally document or witness the killing, our crew was left with no other alternative than to take direct action. Without hesitation and knowing they’d be arrested, Allison Lance-Watson and Alex Cornelissen dove into the water and began to release the heavy nets that served as the only barriers to freedom. For over thirty minutes the two swam in the water, cutting nets, untying lines, and attempting to usher the frightened dolphins to freedom. Not only would the action save lives, but would also cost the whalers a great deal of money as it was rumored that several of the captured dolphins were slated to be sold into captivity. While dolphin and whale meat is an expensive luxury product in Japan the bulk of revenue for the dolphin drive operations actually comes from the captivity industry where dolphins are forced into a life of breeding or exploitation for human greed and amusement.

Following the arrest of my two crewmates, the special task force raided the trailer in which we were living and seized nearly all of our equipment. Despite the twenty-four hour surveillance and police raid, video footage of the release and a previous slaughter was snuck away and released to the global media resulting in extensive exposure of the bloody dolphin massacres of Taiji, Japan. With the ensuing international public outrage, the Japanese government has been forced to reevaluate the anachronistic practice of oikomi and even some of the people of Taiji, who are deeply embedded in the whaling industry, are reconsidering the inhumane legacy they will be leaving their children should the “dolphin drives” continue. Cetacean populations continue to rapidly disappear and whalers such as those in Taiji are mercilessly slaughtering intelligent and sentient beings for nothing more than profit under the pretext of culture. That is, until enough people stand up and take action.