TAIJI, JAPANKeiko Hirao sits on pebbly Whale Beach in the late morning sun, taking in this town's main summertime attraction -- two playful dolphins swimming alongside tourists in a picturesque cove.
The creatures flap their tails and perform acrobatic jumps as dozens of delighted children tread water in the aquatic petting zoo. But Hirao is troubled. She knows something that many other tourists here don't.
"When I found out," the Osaka resident said, "I cried."
Each September, Whale Beach is closed to swimming. That's when the dolphin slaughter begins.
Taiji is one of the few towns worldwide where the sea mammals are legally herded from the sea and killed in groups so their meat can be sold at market, experts say.
Over seven months, 2,300 dolphins are steered into a hidden cove, where the choicest specimens are selected for sale to dolphin parks for $150,000 each. The rest are speared by fishermen in a frenzy of blood and thrashing fins.
Officials of the isolated town of 3,500 residents on Japan's southeastern coast have long blocked outsiders from observing the kills. Now a controversial U.S.-made film documenting the carnage has unleashed worldwide outrage over the practice -- and led the fishermen to say they will release 100 dolphins from the year's first catch (while making no promises about cutting back on future kills).
"The Cove," winner of the 2009 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, portrays Taiji as a charming burg with a darker side, a place where Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.
To foil efforts to block their access, the filmmakers used divers with sophisticated underwater equipment, aerial drones and surveillance and military-style thermal cameras. The result is part graphic horror flick, part suspense thriller and part "gotcha" movie -- its dramatic scenes of determined undercover police giving chase to cameramen ending with chilling footage of churning water stained red.
'Over the top'
Ric O'Barry, the documentary's human protagonist, is a dolphin trainer-turned-activist who has traveled to Taiji for 15 years to crusade against the hunt.
Once a dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV series "Flipper," the 68-year-old feels partially responsible for people's fascination with captive-dolphin shows.
"In my life, I have watched dolphins give birth and have nursed them back to health when they were sick. I've captured and trained them," he said. "When I go to this cove and see the slaughter, it sickens me.
"It's just over the top in terms of cruelty. It has kept me awake at night for 15 years. Once you see it, you can't unsee it."
Officials here say dolphin hunts have long been a part of Taiji's fishing culture. Although many have seen segments of "The Cove" on the Internet, most would not discuss the issue.
In a rare interview, one fisherman defended the cove's restricted status.
"In the West, the places where you kill the cows and pigs are always off limits," said Shuichi Matsumoto, who has gone on the dolphin hunt for years.
Joining 25 other fishermen on specially equipped boats, he bangs a long submerged pole with a hammer to create a wall of sound that drives the acoustically sensitive mammals toward shore, where they are killed the following day.
"We don't want to show this to anyone."
In a park overlooking Taiji's majestic coastline, residents gather each April 29 at a statue of a large right whale to pray for the souls of the creatures taken from the sea.
The local catch once was mostly large cetaceans, a practice that goes back centuries, and Taiji prides itself as the birthplace of Japanese whaling. But ancient scrolls show that dolphins were also hunted here, say officials from the Taiji Whale Museum.
These days, the town is dominated by symbols of the catch. There are whale statues, whale-tail fountains and a dolphin-themed resort. Cutesy whale cartoon figures promote public busing.
O'Barry first came to Taiji in 1993, guiding journalists interested in writing about the dolphin kills. He was harassed by supporters of the hunt and soon resorted to disguises involving wigs, hats, sunglasses and even dresses.
Louie Psihoyos, director of "The Cove," first thought O'Barry was paranoid, but soon saw that Taiji meant business about its privacy.
"They told us they treated the dolphins humanely, like relatives," Psihoyos said of his initial meeting with local officials. "Then they threatened us. They said it was dangerous for us to be there."
The filmmakers say many Japanese outside Taiji still don't know about the dolphin kills, and they plan to release a Japanese version free on the Internet if they don't find a distributor here.
For years, Japan has faced worldwide protests over its whaling industry. After the International Whaling Commission instituted a commercial whaling moratorium in the mid-1980s, the country announced it would still harvest a small number of whales for scientific purposes.
Japan insists that dolphins, a cuisine served mostly in the countryside, and other small cetaceans are not covered by the moratorium.
The Japanese kill about 20,000 dolphins each year, most harpooned in the open sea. Taiji is the only place where the creatures are herded to shore before being killed, said Shigeki Takaya, an official with the Fisheries Ministry. He said the government monitors the dolphin kills.
"Most reporters tell one side of the story," he said. "They are prejudiced, so I usually don't comment on this. We have to respect our own culture. But why do you only focus on Taiji?
"We are not the only nation that kills dolphins," he said, pointing out that Canada, the Faeroe Islands and Denmark also hunt several species of dolphin. "Why not report about that?"
Yet some Taiji residents are conflicted.
"I know people think we are all barbarians," Council Member Hisato Ryono said. "There has to be another way to kill these creatures without making them suffer. But I don't know what it is."
Concerned about dangerous levels of mercury in the animals, Ryono helped persuade the town to pull dolphin meat from local school lunches. Officials are also conducting tests among residents for mercury levels.
Ryono, who supports the dolphin hunt, said he first had doubts about the practice on a kayak trip when he paddled alongside the highly intelligent mammals and felt what he called a sense of peace and healing.
That night, at a barbecue serving dolphin meat, he asked whether anyone else felt strange eating such a wonderful animal. None did.
He said dolphin fishermen worry that "The Cove" might cause enough "gaiatsu," or outside pressure, to force them to stop. But fisherman Matsumoto, chain-smoking during a two-hour interview, said no amount of gaiatsu will end the practice.
He believes filmmakers enhanced the documentary to make the cove seem bloodier. He also said that the fishermen changed their killing technique five years ago and believes the makers of "The Cove" used footage of old kills to mislead viewers.
"Killing in groups, we often missed our marks right behind the dolphin's head," he said. "They died more slowly. There was too much blood. It didn't look good, and the meat didn't taste as good."
Now dolphins are separated and killed individually. Like a matador, he said, he can hit his mark "99.9 percent" of the time. "I know the spot," said Matsumoto, 48. "I can make a kill in 10 seconds."
He defended Taiji and his neighbors.
"This is not an evil town. Nice people live here," he said. "But we are not going to stop this practice. We are who we are."
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