Dolphin Activist Ric O’Barry: Boycotting Japan Is ‘Racist’

‘Cove’ star sounds off on the Solomon Islands slaughter, a Spanish dolphin named Marcos, rereleasing wild-caught orcas—and more.

Ric O'Barry, the central figure in the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Cove,' protests against dolphin hunting at a public hall in Taiji in Wakayama prefecture in western Japan on November 2, 2010. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Richard O’Barry, the activist, former dolphin trainer and star of The Cove, has been working with whales and dolphins for half a century and, it’s fair to say, made a good number of enemies in the bargain. SeaWorld, for one, makes no attempt to conceal its contempt for him. O’Barry, who captured and trained TV’s Flipper, founded the Dolphin Project in 1970, which now is part of Earth Island Institute.

Dead dolphins only yield about $500 for meat. But a live one can go for as much as $154,000.

The Cove was released more than three years ago and, despite its international high profile and Best Documentary Oscar nod, the annual slaughter is still going on right now in Taiji, Japan.  

His war against that disgrace unending but unbowed, O’Barry has also set his sights on the capture-and-display industry in such far-flung places as Spain, Dubai, the Dominican Republic and the Solomon Islands, padding his enemy list along the way.

O’Barry had just returned to his Miami home from southern Spain when I caught up with him on the phone, which was not easy to do: Each time I tried, there were three distinct clicks before it began ringing. Of course it was the first thing I asked about.

MORE: Heartbreaking Images of Dolphins in Drained Tanks a 'Routine' Practice, Says Ric O'Barry

TakePart: I’m not the paranoid type, but do you think someone is listening in?

Ric O’Barry: I’m not paranoid either, but I have been fighting some major lawsuits against me over the last five years. And anybody who really knows how to use a computer can hack your system and read all your emails and listen to your calls. This is a multibillion dollar industry. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were doing that. We’re a big threat to them. Many people tell me they hear three clicks before my phone rings and (industry people) told me they’ve investigated me. But they can’t win these lawsuits, and now we are down to the last one, here in Miami.

TakePart: Who is suing you?

Ric O’Barry:: Ocean World Casino in the Dominican Republic tried to import 12 dolphins from Japan—we call them “the Taiji 12.” But they weren’t successful in importing them, and they had already paid $154,000 for each one. But they lost, because the (Dominican) Minister for the Environment would not give them a permit. So then they filed suit against me and Earth Island Institute claiming we interfered with their contract.

TakePart: Why? What did you do?

Ric O’Barry:: We talked to the Minister of Environment in the Dominican Republic, and also two city councilmen in Taiji who wrote a letter informing him that, if the Taiji 12 actually go to the Dominican Republic, and if they die, do not put them in the ground. You have to treat them as toxic waste, because of their mercury content. And that’s what ended it. I also went on Mike Huckabee’s show, twice, and I referred to them as a “dolphin abusement park.” I said the live dolphin capture at Taiji, for parks and casinos, is the economic underpinning of the whole slaughter. Dead dolphins only yield about $500 for meat. But a live one can go for as much as $154,000. And those boats are burning lots of diesel fuel. It wouldn’t be economical if they couldn’t capture those live dolphins. And I’m being sued for saying that. But they can’t win. It’s about inflicting as much damage as they can. I don’t worry about it, and I don’t think about it. We have very good lawyers working pro-bono.

TakePart: What happened to the 12 dolphins?

Ric O’Barry: They were probably absorbed by other sites in Japan, which has 51 dolphinariums. When their dolphins die, they go get more. Most of the Taiji animals go to Japan. The second-biggest buyer is China, then Turkey, Russia and Korea.

TakePart: What were you doing in Spain?

Ric O’Barry: I was there for about a month, supporting a group called PROMAR: volunteers with a stranding network who go town-to-town teaching people in the Mediterranean how to deal with stranded dolphins, whales, turtles, seabirds, etc. The animals that can’t be returned often die. But this one striped dolphin lived, and they want to rehabilitate him, Marcos is his name, and release him in the wild. I went to help get Marcos back to health, so he can go to another seapen, where he can be rehabilitated to catch live fish again, etc., before he’s released. But it’s difficult. Striped dolphins live far offshore in deep water and travel in groups of 100-1000. Ideally, we’d find his mother. But they’re moving fast. And if we find them with a helicopter, we have to go back to Spain and get Marcos and by that point, they are gone. So maybe he cannot be released. Maybe a sanctuary is best. We’re trying to keep him out of dolphinariums.

TakePart: Do any parks want Marcos?

Ric O’Barry: It’s possible. Spain has most dolphinariums in Europe. However, striped dolphins don’t live in captivity very well. The chance of him dying in a tank is high, and they don’t want that bad publicity.

TakePart: What else are you working on these days?

Ric O’Barry: I’m still committed to ending the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, and also the Solomon Islands, where I’ve been rather involved, and quite successful. They killed dolphins just like in Taiji, for hundreds of years. But we signed a contract with chiefs in the islands two years ago, and they haven’t killed any dolphins since. On January 1 of this year, the transport of dolphins became illegal. So it’s pretty much over, for now. When the government changes, everything else changes.

I have also been monitoring Ocean Embassy, run by the same dolphin trainers who worked on Free Willy (the release of Keiko). They are witnesses in the lawsuit against me. They are also involved in Singapore, with 20 or 25 captured dolphins sent to the Philippines to be trained, and just recently sent to Resorts World International in Singapore. They were captured from the wild and they’re telling the world, “We saved them and we’re bringing them here to teach the public respect for nature,” and all this crap. And the public buys it. They also brought captured dolphins to Dubai, at Atlantis Resort and Casino. But these people are so clever. All these guys who were ex-SeaWorld trainers are now the biggest movers of captive dolphins in the world. And you never hear about them. Look up “Ocean Embassy” and “Solomon Islands.” They’re very good at making themselves look green. They have a nonprofit arm and their asking for donations, and meanwhile they’re busy moving captured dolphins around the planet.

TakePart: How did you end the Solomon Islands slaughter?

Ric O’Barry: We showed them alternatives. But we weren’t there as cultural imperialists, telling them what they should do. We were sitting around the campfire, listening and learning. And what they were doing was not sustainable. These days, they have to go out 20 miles in very small canoes just to find dolphins. They said, “Frankly, our children aren’t going to do this, and there are fewer and fewer dolphins.” So we helped them with alternatives, and they went for it. They now do beekeeping: nice beehives in the mangroves. The honey has a wonderful salty flavor. They’re also building houses with the saw mill that Earth Island Institute bought them. People just want to make a living and support their families.

TakePart: Have you tried that in Taiji?

Ric O’Barry: Taiji won’t even consider it. Taiji is very different. But there’s something the world has to understand: Japanese people do not kill dolphins. To boycott the whole country is a blanket indictment against all Japanese people and is a form of racism. There are 127 million people in Japan, and most don’t know the slaughter takes place. It’s not even the people of Taiji who kill dolphins. It’s 47 men at this point, and 12 boats. A very small minority.

TakePart: Did The Cove have the impact you expected?

Ric O’Barry: I was very disappointed and surprised that it did not have more impact inside Japan. When I first saw it at Sundance, I was sure it would shut the slaughter down. If the Japanese people only knew, I thought, if they only had this information. Taiji is based on supply and demand. Dolphin meat is a product, and if consumers see this film, they’re not going to buy dolphin meat. They just don’t have any idea it’s contaminated with mercury. But powerful interests didn’t want the film showing in Japan, including the mayor of Taiji and the Institute of Cetacean Research, which are the whalers themselves. Only a very small number of people have seen the film in Japan, because they were able to intimidate theater owners, and the right-wing nationalists and Japanese media created a backlash against it.

TakePart: What about Japanese activists?

Ric O’Barry: Generally speaking, “Japanese activist” as the term relates to whale and dolphin issues is an oxymoron, and the media is completely controlled by the government. It’s more like North Korea or China, so you can’t get this information out there. People don’t know this is going on. I stood in the street in Ginza (Tokyo) and questioned 100 people at random. Not one of them knew about largest dolphin slaughter in the world going on right under their noses. When I showed them the footage, they thought I made it up or it’s trick photography. I'm incouraged by the recent protest in Tokyo by Japanese citizens, and now we have a Japanese cove captain and Japanese cove monitors. So things are changing for the better.

TakePart: Moving on to killer whales: What are the chances of any wild-caught orcas being retired?

Ric O’Barry: It should be a simple piece of business for Lolita (at Miami Seaquarium) to be flown to a seapen in Washington, where she was captured, and live out her life with some quality and dignity, and to identify her properly. She is not an ambassador, she’s a victim. But will it happen? Probably not, because the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)has to approve it, and they are part of the problem. They’re part of the Department of Commerce. They are there to facilitate commerce and, oh by the way, save the dolphins. They’re a regulatory agency. They issue permits. And historicly they’ve given this industry carte-blanche.

TakePart: So what now?

Ric O’Barry: I’ve been working on this issue for about 50 years—the first 10 with the industry, and the last 40 against it. And I think what SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium are doing is illegal. But you’d have to have the money that groups like HSUS (Humane Society) have to take them to court. Miami Seaquarium doesn’t own Lolita; SeaWorld does not own its whales. The law reads they are being held in trust for the American people. And all they have is a public-display permit, contingent on it being an educational experience. But it’s a form of bad education. It’s never been challenged in court. NMFS won’t hold their feet to the fire, and they don’t really care.

TakePart: Captive killer whales are big in popular culture, with lots coming up: The feature film Rust and Bone, the documentary Blackfish, the documentary The Whale and its pending companion book, and my book Death at SeaWorld, which goes into paperback and may get optioned for a movie. Will 2013 be the year of the orca?

Ric O'Barry: Yes, if there is a message. It’s up to consumers. Forget about the government. They’re not going to fix this. The government is there to protect corporations, not people and other animals. We as consumers have the responsibility. There’s a very simple solution to the problem, which is based on supply and demand. If the message is, “Don’t buy a ticket,” then yes, we can shut it down. I was at the Bambi Awards in Germany, it’s like the Oscars, and I was speaking live to 15 million people. And my message was “Please don’t buy a ticket.” It works. If they get the information, they will respond. So, with all these books and films coming out, it’s possible that 2013, and 2014, will be big.

TakePart: Any other thoughts?

Ric O'Barry: There will always be dolphins in captivity. But we have dolphins born inside buildings who’ve never seen a live fish, who don’t know what the tide is or what currents are. They don’t even know what the sky is. These are freaks. We created them for our own amusement, and we’re selling it like it’s education. There are three things we should do. First, stop capturing. Second, those animals that can be released should be. Not all of them can, for reasons I explained, but all of them can be transferred to a natural seapen somewhere, where they can experience the natural rhythms of the sea and live out their lives. Finally, we need birth control. That’s a big part of the solution. There’s no reason for any dolphin to be born in captivity.

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