The Cove brings all the drama of a spy movie to its telling of the story of the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, on the island of Honshu, and the police surveillance of the filmmakers, the cameras disguised as rocks, the thermal imaging, infrared video, and sneaking around at night contribute to the power of the film, which won an Academy Award in 2010 for best documentary. But years before the Cove crew descended on Taiji with hundreds of pounds of gear and a massive of amount of high technology, there was just a one girl, one girl with a camera and a couple of helpers, who crept onto the cliffs surrounding the infamous cove and shot the photos that shocked the world and ultimately led to the making of the movie.
Sitting in the sun by a lake in her home of Whistler, British Columbia, Brooke McDonald’s attention is a long way from Taiji. Her baby Cedar gurgles in a stroller, while her son exhausts friends playing soccer and her other daughter plays hide and seek in the woods. The idyllic scene suggests nothing of McDonald’s activism and her activist photography, but this is a woman whose life was saved by her floating waterproof camera pack when she fell through ice while documenting the clubbing of baby seals.
McDonald was born into a socially conscious family. Her mother was an activist and one of her mother’s friends was a young Paul Watson, who at the time was building Greenpeace and later would form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “I grew up knowing who he was and seeing him when he’d be in town and I’d dream of the days when I would join one of his missions on one of the ships,” said McDonald. “I think I was 8 years old when I decided I wanted to do that.”
McDonald grew up to become a journalist, covering science and working with Time, and she was given an assignment that put her on the first Sea Shepherd mission to Antarctica, where Watson was attempting to disrupt commercial Japanese whaling disguised as science. On board the ship, she learned from other activists about the dolphin harvest in Taiji, which was so secretive and sheltered that no one had been able to document the killing. McDonald determined to find a way in and to bring pictures out.
She did. In 2003, McDonald spent days hidden on a cliff until the harvest began, shot photos, and though chased by fishermen, threatened with death, and detained by police for days, she brought the film out and delivered it to Associated Press, which spread it around the world. Adventure Journal caught up with McDonald to find out the story behind the story behind the movie. All photos are from her 2003 trip to Taiji and are used with her permission. Slides from the shoot were recently rescanned, and the color has not be altered.
So, it all started with Sea Shepherd.
It was a really interesting trip. I think there were eight media and 38 crew, and that was a very special experience to be stuck on board a boat for two months with a bunch of people who had nothing but passion for the environment and direct activism. I got to hear stories that weren’t getting a lot of press and one of those was the dolphin slaughter off the coast of Japan that happens annually. 18,000 dolphin and another 3,000 small whales are killed in drives over the course of about two and a half months in the fall and early winter. I was told that it was nearly impossible to get images of these hunts and kills, and that the fishermen took cameras and film and smashed equipment and rushed up photographers and arrested them and that so far everyone who’d attempted it had been really unsuccessful getting anything out.
It sounded like such a good project, an amazing project and a challenge, too…I took a small crew with me to Japan. I got some good intel from Sea Shepherd and Ric O’Barry, who was Flipper’s dolphin trainer turned marine activist. Ric has devoted himself to marine life. And he’s one of the people who spearheaded the efforts to get footage out [of Japan] over the last decade and he was more than enthusiastic giving me information and helping me navigate the complexities of that little village.
Tell me about your planning.
Well, I talked to as many people as I could before I left because I knew this was going to be challenging and even be a bit dangerous. I spoke with a couple of activists who’d been there previously and with Ric, who’d be there as well, and I learned that basically as soon as you were spotted by the fishermen, the Japanese fishermen, that it was pretty much game over. They were willing to drop whatever they were doing and pursue you until you were either out of range or your camera gear was destroyed, so that certainly seemed to present a challenge. Also, Taiji is a very small Japanese fishing village; it’s off the beaten path. It’s not a tourist destination, so being white and North American wasn’t going to make things easy.
I picked a crew. One of them was a former Sea Shepherd member who had some video skills and was enthusiastic enough so he was willing to do anything. I just wanted to make sure that whoever was coming knew the risks involved and was comfortable taking them. The guy who came as ground support crew could speak a little bit of Japanese and had traveled in Japan. I also made contact with someone through friends who worked at the Darwin Center in the Galapagos Islands and she was Japanese, very passionate about marine conservation, who had returned to Japan. Her name is Junko, and she offered to be our support there. She picked us up when we converged in Osaka, and helped us get ourselves oriented, rent a car, and find a place near Taiji, so we didn’t have to give ourselves away right from the get-go. We had a lot of assistance right from the start and Ric O’Barry, he drew me a map of the area and gave me everything he knew in great detail.
So, you got there. What happened?
The drive starts on October 1st every year, so we arrived on September 30th, just before midnight, and did a drive through the town when it was dark and everyone was sleeping. Junko dropped myself and the videographer off at the side of the highway, right at the base of the cliff with all of our gear and we quickly hustled up the side of the cliff. It was a little bit tricky because it was dark and there were no streetlights. It was really dark and a bit unnerving. You could hear the water crashing, the waves crashing against the rocks below, but we found a way to get to where we thought the cove was in the dark and camp. I say camp, but all we had was our camera gear and clothes enough to keep warm. I basically made a bed out of leaves and stayed there the night. We didn’t have any form of shelter or anything. We just used what little shrubbery and trees there were around to conceal ourselves.
So we set up camp there, thinking that the drive would begin the next day and we’d probably have some kind of footage within a day or two. But that wasn’t the case. There was a storm that came through and it rained for three days. The fishing boats didn’t leave port, so we were just stuck up there waiting for it to clear up.
When it finally did, we saw 13 boats leave the harbor and they came back later that afternoon with a pod of 60 dolphin — Pacific white-sided dolphin. They were netted just below us, below the cliff in the cove and then left there for a day and a half. They weakened themselves, trying to escape, and then the morning of October 6th, the skiffs came as day broke and began the kill.
What did you see?
You know it was interesting. We were in such close proximity to the pod for a day and a half beforehand. We’d been listening to them — their breath sounds, the sound of them breaking the surface of the water; circling and diving hour after hour. They became familiar sounds. Knowing what was coming was really challenging. I mean all those sounds. They were such alive sounds. There was something living below us.
In the next cove over, there’s an aquarium where the dolphins that are injured but not killed are taken and then trained and later sold to aquariums the world over. We could hear the distress calls between the two coves. There were some killer whales, dolphins and some small whales, and we could hear the distress calls between the dolphins in the two coves, and it was really easy to understand there’s a strong community dynamic with these creatures.
The adults were circling and getting more frantic, trying to find a way through the net. We saw the pregnant females and the babies were mostly centered in the group. It was really…you could sense the fear…it was really…it was hard to listen to their struggle knowing what was going to happen.
But we were getting prepared. I collected footage. But the overall sensory experience was very overwhelming. That morning, within about a half an hour of the skiffs entering the cove, the water was iridescent red. It’s almost impossible to describe the color. Later, the photographs were often challenged as being artificial because people just couldn’t believe the color. A few days after they released them, AP recalled the images for about a week while they verified their authenticity with my original slides. Because it was just so surreal. One paper tried to color correct the image and printed it in their morning addition with blue water – the fishermen were purple, the trees were red – but somehow this made more sense to them. By the evening addition they had given up and printed it in black and white.
The smell of the iron from the blood was sickening; there were so many animals that were being killed at one time, and yeah, watching them in their natural environment where they’re very — they’re very strong and very swift in the water — and watching these boats come in and make jabs at them…until they just essentially bled to death was horrifying. It was a slow, very slow and painful death. The cleanup at the end was also very hard to watch. Skin-divers went in with snorkels and fins and swam through the murk and brought up the babies that had died and sunk to the ocean floor. To see these skin-divers in the red water with the baby dolphins under their arms was nightmarish. But at that point we’d been spotted and the operation was coming to a quick halt. The cliff was surrounded by fishermen on each side and we were finding ways to stash our film and try to get our equipment into the bag.
Were you shocked at the brutality of it?
I was, yeah. I was shocked at the brutality of it. Because they killed. They’d take an entire community and there wasn’t an allowance made for pregnant females or for the very young. Yeah, it was — it was brutal. And it was done so coolly. It really did shock me.
You know, I haven’t witnessed a lot of slaughter. I think we’re all privileged in the fact that we eat our meat without having to look into the eyes of the source of it. It’s an uncommon exposure. I guess I’ve seen my fair share of marine mammals slaughtered, however. I’ve photographed the seal hunt on the east coast of Canada, and that’s clubbing of baby seals who are just over two weeks old, and seen turtles being killed and whales and…so I guess it wasn’t totally foreign, but I have to say it gave me nightmares every night for about three months.
What happened after you were spotted?
Well, [the fishermen] saw us and immediately started blowing whistles. They all had whistles around their necks, and they started to blow whistles and there was pointing and frantic shouting, and the boats came to a stop and everyone stopped what they were doing and turned, and there was a lot of screaming and yelling in our direction. Neither of the two of us had enough Japanese to really understand what was being said, but the way they were gesticulating, it was clear that they were very angry, and they were communicating to each other what to do with us, how to deal with us.
We radioed for help to our ground support person and Nick went over on foot to the police–because he was already in the village, and they told him that there was nothing that they would do. They wouldn’t come out, so Nick then phoned the neighboring village’s police department. It’s a bigger town. It’s called Shingu. He phoned them and they said that they would send someone, so in the meantime, we were out on a cliff top with…surrounded by fisherman with a cliff on each side. It’s a very narrow, very narrow cliff side: The standing area was about four feet across. It’s a sheer drop on either side — more of a peninsula about 40 to 50 feet high with rocks and waves crashing against the bases, so it made me pretty nervous. There was no place to get down. They came up on either side, so we had someone blocking off the parts of the peninsula that connected with the rest of the land, and also the point that connected to the water, so we were stuck. There was no way to get down, and we were holding them off back to back with our gear between us.
There was a man at my feet who was trying to pull me over the cliff by my ankles, and I had my monopod, and I was pushing at him with my monopod trying to get him away from me. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. There was a lot of pulling. I had someone almost take me over the cliff with my camera. I had my cameras strapped around my body. I had two of them and he was pulling on one of them and pulling me down with it, and once he realized he was only going to be able to take it down with me, he hesitated, but Morgan, the videographer, went head to head with them. They were more comfortable being physical with him, and he was getting jostled around a lot. He had some of his equipment taken. Fortunately we had stashed our film and video, but they took his equipment. I managed to survive with mine by the time the police had arrived.
So then, so the police…did they arrest you?
Well, they arrived, I didn’t know what to expect, but certainly the fishermen started to give us a little bit more space. We were asked to come down off the cliff, which we did with our gear, and we were immediately escorted to a police car…well, it was a police truck, with a grill between the driver and the occupant. We were put in and the doors were locked, and at that point we were trying to communicate through the grill. Nick spoke a little bit of Japanese, he told them we were the ones who’d called the police, and that we were being attacked, but there was no response to any of our attempts to talk. They just drove! And we were locked in. And I had no idea where we were being taken.
We were eventually driven to the Shingu police department, where we were separated and put into interrogation rooms. There was a translator provided, and she was the same translator for all three. So they could only interrogate one of us at a time. I went to the washroom and stashed the last piece of film that I had on me in the women’s washroom in the police department. We were asked the same questions for days. They told us we weren’t under arrest, but we needed to stay in custody while they completed their investigation and we were left there for days.
Did they feed you? Were you in a cell?
They fed us, but I was a vegetarian at the time, and so were the other two. We told them this and were brought nothing much that was edible to us. There was some form of animal mixed in with pretty much anything that they brought. So we were eating very little. I ate rice. We weren’t moved to a cell ever. We were always kept in the same interrogation rooms, and I just slept in a chair that they had there. And after the first nine hours, I remember saying, “Okay, it’s been nine hours now. I would like to talk to someone at my consulate.” And they said, “No, no. There’s no need. You’re not under arrest. We can’t release you until we’ve finished this investigation. You’re not under arrest.”
Slowly, the interpreter started giving us information about each other. She was starting to feel very uncomfortable with what was happening and the fact that we were being held so long and our rights were being denied us. She started to communicate small bits of information – when we were free to not answer a question or giving us, feeding me answers that someone else or Morgan or Nick had previously told them, and I got the sense that she was really very sympathetic. So through her I communicated that I needed to call home that there was someone waiting to hear from me, and if they didn’t hear from me that they would start to look for us. The police allowed me to make a phone call at the pay phone, but with three escorts. There were two policemen and the interpreter. I called my mom and I just said, “Mom, they’re telling me to tell you that everything’s okay and you shouldn’t worry.” And she said, “Would you like me to call your consulate?” And I said, “Yes, I would.” We were released four hours later after that.
Even our release was really odd. They piled us into different trucks this time and drove us around for two hours in the dark and then finally stopped at the cove where we’d been picked up. They had us get out, and then took pictures in the dark with a flash camera, having us enact what had happened. It was very odd. Then we were just released onto the streets, and that was it. They disappeared.
They just left you in Taiji.
Yeah, they left us on the street in front of the cove in Taiji.
That’s so odd.
And there were no complications for fetching the film that you had stashed?
No. We had to wait two days. I didn’t want to go right back. I suspected that we were being watched. I had no intention of leaving yet, either. We stayed for another three weeks after that. But I suspected we were being watched, so we didn’t try to retrieve the film for a couple of days, and then one night at about 2 o’clock in the morning, two of us went back and dug the film out of the side of the cliff where we’d hidden it in the dark.
Did you break any laws that you knew of? Any Japanese laws?
Well, at the time I hadn’t broken…we hadn’t broken any laws. And that was part of the problem for the police. They wanted to keep us. They wanted to intimidate us, but they didn’t have anything to charge us with. But very quickly, the town enacted a law that no one was allowed to be on that cliff or on the surrounding hills around the cove, and within about two days of our release there were signs up everywhere, hammered into the side of the cliff and tied on the trees all around there, in English, clearly stating that no one was to climb the cliff. Still in that town today, no one is allowed on any of those cliffs.
So those signs went up while you were still there?
Yeah, they did, within two days.
So when you went back to fetch the film, you were technically…
We were technically in violation, yeah.
We didn’t leave the village again for about two weeks. I had my film and I stashed it safely and we knew that they’d be going out again. I have to say, having watched a pod of 60 dolphin being slaughtered like that, you feel responsible somehow as a witness to do something more than just witness it. I had left myself, allowed a month’s worth of time to get the footage, and we managed to get it in the first week, which was great, but we had another month, we had another three weeks left before we were really going to be forced to be returned, so we wanted to stay.
We’d been given some information from Paul Watson that the fishermen couldn’t kill any dolphin if anyone was there to record it. Even if the photographer couldn’t get the film out, if they took the film away, they still would stop the hunt as long as you were present because the Fisheries Agency said that if any photos were released the people in the photographs would lose their permits for the season to kill dolphin. So we decided to stay on our little vacation in Japan and just sit, basically on the boardwalk, on the seawall on the beach, and just be witnesses. Unfortunately, Paul’s information was bad and they just continued to drive dolphin and slaughter them. We saw pilot whales killed while we were there as well.
Yeah, so we were kind of a menace for a little while. We got long pipes and submerged them in the cove and banged them with rocks to try and frighten off the dolphin when they were driving them into the cove. We were annoying. They found us frustrating to have around and we received many more threats. But I needed to leave eventually to process my film and get it out there. I sent the slides directly to AP and we took the footage to CNN and BBC.
Tell me what happened next — how long before the images got into the world and what the reaction was.
I sent the images and had done the interviews with CNN and BBC and two days later I was on a plane to England. I arrived in London at Heathrow and looked at the newsstand, and seven of the nine morning papers had the photo splashed across the front, and taking the underground from Heathrow into the city was just shocking because I was surrounded by the photos. I couldn’t believe…everyone was buried in their papers, and there was the same image of the bloody cove splashed all over the place. That’s when I realized it had gone pretty big.
For a while it seemed the dolphin hunt was becoming front and center, at least in the activist community, if not beyond, as well. I debated the issue on BBC World News, and I thought for a little bit that the momentum was big enough to see some change, but then it got quiet again. After two months it seemed to have disappeared. I thought, “Oh, well…it was a good effort.” I was hoping that we would be able to do more, but felt at least it was on people’s radar screens for a little while. It always made me a little bit sad that ultimately it didn’t save any dolphin’s lives. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t open up a strong enough debate that anyone of any import got involved. But then The Cove got made.
What role did your images play in that, in The Cove?
I didn’t realize it at first, but Hollywood was hit pretty hard by those images. In fact, Billy MacNamara, a Hollywood actor and producer, had seen the photos, and he immediately called up Sea Shepherd and said, “How do I help with this?” And they said, “Can you fly there?” He arrived three days after we left. He went in kind of crazy. He decided to get dropped by a boat up the coast and skin-dive at night because he heard it was dangerous. He came into the village and stayed there a couple weeks and he really cared about the issue. He took it back home with him and he was trying to drum up interest in a movie. He was working Entertainment Tonight, and he got a whole community of animal rights activists in L.A. all up in arms about it. To the best of my understanding these images ignited the interest that ultimately got money and talent in the right places.
The film needed people with the skills to go back and do it now that it had become even more difficult to operate there. People who already knew about the dolphin hunt were having a hard time getting anyone else on board, so the images really lit the fire, I think. Until I sat on that ship with a very special group of people whose specific interest was marine conservation, and especially large marine mammals, I was clueless. I’d never heard of the dolphin drive. Now it’s a topic that comes up everywhere. My dad’s friend told me about it at a family dinner one night having no idea that I’d had any involvement. I’d hear people talking to each other about it in line getting coffee. My hairdresser brought it up…she was just chatting with me and telling me about this horrible thing that was happening in Japan, she said she was really shocked and sickened by what she’d seen and heard and was trying to drum up support for a marine group trying to change things. It just started to snowball, and suddenly there was enough support to get a movie together. Every year now, there’s group of activists that go out, sometimes celebrities, and they paddle out on their surfboards and try to stop the boats.
But there’s no real change.
No, there hasn’t been change in the numbers of animals that are being taken. It’s still about 21,000 dolphins and small whales that are killed all along the coast. You can hope that eventually changes. Shame seems to be the only thing that might work. I remember talking to Japanese officials, some higher-ups in the Japanese Tourism and Fisheries Agencies. They were saying “What you’ve done is wrong because it shames the fishermen.” And I’ve always wondered if eventually international condemnation will make the difference. But you’re right, nothing’s happened, no numbers have changed at all, in terms of what’s taken.
Do you know anything about attitudes in Japan and whether they’ve changed? Or whether people are even aware of what’s going on?
When I was in Tokyo, I talked to a lot of young people. The Japanese were so friendly and always asking, what are you here doing? So I talked to a lot of young people about where I’d just come from and what I was doing, and they were shocked! They had no idea. They had no idea that their own country did this was.
That was interesting to me. I know the money to be made from dolphin meat is on the black market, and it’s usually to high-end restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. It’s a delicacy often billed as whale meat. I wonder if it will eventually be seen as abhorrent by the next generation. The American cultural influence on Japan, on the younger kids, is fairly strong. I wonder if the international condemnation isn’t going to trickle down and find a place with a younger generation.
Well, clearly if it’s legal do this in Japan and they’re as defensive as they are, then they do feel that shame and they do know that the world is watching. You can only hide things like that for so long before the people who you’re surrounded by start to change their attitudes on it.
Junko learned how defensive people are around this issue. I think she was only 25 at the time she was helping us out, and it was very hard for her after we left. Junko had a very tough time. The police, even though she lived in a northern community quite far away from Taiji, they quite often came to her house and harassed her parents, and her family felt quite shamed by her involvement in it. She had quite a hard time, but she didn’t have any regrets. She said that her peers were very supportive of what she’d done. I think that there’s a change definitely coming in Japan and that we have an opportunity to influence that change right now.
And what’s the best way to do that?
Just continuing to keep this issue in front of people; keep it a topic of conversation. I’ve heard it argued that it’s culturally imperialistic to go in and say it’s wrong to kill these dolphins. We have a terrible record…our cattle industry is also very horrifying, and what it does to the environment, the runoff is awful. We have all sorts of our own reasons to be ashamed, and a lot of people have said, so why pick on this issue? But I don’t think that it is just a cultural issue. These are dolphins that migrate past the coast of Japan, sure. But they are the world’s dolphins. They belong in the world’s oceans. Hawaii could just as easily claim ownership to them. They pass by their coast, too. Their survival depends on transparency. The research isn’t being done to see what the impact of this hunt is on the survival of the dolphins. The species counts aren’t being done. There’s no distinctions made over what species can or cannot be taken. Anything that’s found can be driven into that cove and slaughtered.
So, yeah, I think that we do have a right to a voice on what happens in the cove. We have a right to bring it up and a right to keep it on the surface. There’s nothing like sunlight and fresh air to clean the air, right? It’s a horrible thing. It’s a festering horrible practice and I think if it’s allowed to happen quietly will just continue, into the emptiness of our oceans.