Richard O’Barry was the world’s leading authority on dolphin training, working on the set of Flipper until tragedy struck. Years later, O’Barry and a team of activists and filmmakers embarked on a covert mission to penetrate a hidden cove in Japan and reveal a dark, deadly secret.
Ostensible ‘team leader’ Richard O’Barry came to fame as the trainer on the 1960s Flipper TV show until Kathy, the main ‘Flipper’, died in his arms. O’Barry insists that Kathy killed herself, an epiphany that he believes gave him an insight into the dolphin mind, turning him into an ardent campaigner to free them from captivity and prompting him to expose the grim events inside Taiji’s cove. “I was as ignorant as I could be for as long as I could be,” he explains. “I spent ten years building, and the next 35 trying to tear down.”
The slaughter is only half the story. The covert operation the team put in place links freedivers, activists and, unexpectedly, Industrial Light & Magic — all conspiring to expose a government cover-up and the dolphins’ plight. In a breathless segment, the team race to the cove under cover of darkness, avoiding the local police and fishermen who want to keep the town’s murky secret hidden, to plant film cameras stowed in fake rocks around the bay. Utilising hi-tech kit and thermal imaging cameras, they work the area like double agents planning a sting. The tension is palpable, not least because their actions seem like a well-scored action sequence more at home in a Bond film, but there’s no comfort of a second take if they screw it up.
Once the dolphins are corralled into the bay, trainers from Sea World fly in and take their pick of the bunch to transport home and train. For the rest it’s wholesale butchery to bolster a clandestine market in dolphin meat in a segment so galling you’ll be watching through your fingers, the silent bay crimson in its aftermath.
It’s not just an exercise in shock, though. The scenes of slaughter are almost an afterthought in a treatise on government corruption, the ineffectual International Whaling Commission and the very real danger of mercury poisoning that Japan (and the world) is going to have to come to terms with. It’s a story that needed to be told.
A taut, thrilling documentary that plays out like a heist movie while never overshadowing its message or activist credentials.
Reviewed by Philip Wilding