Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taiji of the North Atlantic

By Helene O'Barry

On May 23rd 2009, a pod of pilot whales was hunted down with motorized fishing vessels off the coast of Hvalvik, a small town in the Faroe Islands located in the northern Atlantic. Local hunters chased the pilot whales ashore and butchered them with knives and iron hooks. The entire pod was killed, including pregnant females and young offspring. Three such drive hunts, known as grinds, took place in the Faroe Islands in 2009, killing a total of 310 pilot whales. An e-mail has circulated for several years on the Internet about the Faroe Islands hunt, often mislabeled as a hunt in Denmark, complete with graphic photos of the slaughter.

There are two species of pilot whale: the short-finned and the long-finned pilot whale. The pilot whales found in the northeast Atlantic are of the long-finned species (Globicephala melas) and are also known as Calderon Dolphins. Belonging to the dolphin family, pilot whales are second only to the Orca in size. Established by researchers as highly intelligent marine mammals, pilot whales live in extremely cohesive groups that typically consist of adult males and females, as well as related juveniles and calves. A pod of pilot whales is closely united by social and family ties, and females remain with the pod they were born into their entire lives.

The drive hunts in the Faroe Islands usually take place in the summer months when pods approach the islands. It has been met with criticism from animal welfare and environmental organizations worldwide due to the hunting and slaughter methods. These methods exploit the pilot whales’ tight social structure and may involve several hours of chase at sea. When pilot whales are spotted, local fishing vessels gather in a semi-circle behind them and drive the pilot whales toward the shore. As the chase progresses, the hunters throw stones attached to lines into the water just behind the whales. The goal is to force the pilot whales to keep moving forward toward a designated beach until they become stranded. In Taiji of Japan, we have seen how this hunting method sets the dolphins into a state of panic and disorientation whereby the hunters can drive them in whichever direction they want. Oftentimes, however, several pilot whales do not become grounded, and it has been common practice to secure them for slaughter by slamming iron hooks, known as gaffs, into their flesh. It sometimes involves several tries until the iron hook, which is attached to a rope, penetrates deep enough that the hunters can haul the still living and thrashing mammals onto the beach where they are killed, one by one. According to various sources in the Faroe Islands, a newly developed so-called blunt hook, by which the pilot whales are hauled ashore by their super-sensitive blowhole, is being tested. 2 During the slaughter, the sea turns a deep red from injured and dying whales. Pilot whales share a sophisticated communication system and are often heard calling out for one another. Despite all indications that they experience severe physical and psychological suffering, Faroese authorities have made this astounding statement: "... the Faroese whale drive has over the years successfully adapted to modern standards of resource management and animal welfare." 3

The Faroe Islands is an autonomous region of Denmark , and the pilot whale drive hunts have taken place there since the tenth century or earlier. Faroese authorities defend the drive hunts by arguing its tradition and maintaining that the pilot whales are taken for their meat and blubber. The fact remains, however, that the health of the islanders could be in grave danger due to the consumption of pilot whale meat. What is particularly alarming about the drive hunts that took place in 2009 is the fact that they came less than one year after two medical experts of the Faroe Islands warned of the dangers of consumption. In August of 2008, Chief Physician Pál Weihe and Chief Medical Officer Høgni Debes Joensen issued a joint press statement in which they announced that pilot whale blubber and meat are contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury and the slowly degradable PCBs as well as DDE, a by-product of the insecticide DDT. The high levels of toxins in the whales’ meat and blubber have been linked to serious health threats, such as increased incidents of Parkinson’s disease in adults, damage to fetal neural development and impaired immunity in children. Weihe and Joensen conclude that "pilot whales today contain contaminants to a degree that neither meat nor blubber would comply with current limits for acceptable concentrations of toxic contaminants." They recommend that "pilot whale [should be] no longer used for human consumption."

The pilot whale hunts of 2009 subjected entire families of pilot whales to tremendous stress, anguish and physical pain. As a result of the hunts, households in the Faroe Islands were infiltrated with tons of toxic whale meat. It is incomprehensible that the Faroese government would jeopardize the health of their own people by rejecting the recommendations of their two medical experts. The Save Japan Dolphins campaign hereby calls on the Faroese Government to suspend the pilot whale drive hunts with immediate effect.

Faroe Islands Quick Facts:

The Faroe Islands, or Faeroes, consists of 18 islands located between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. They have a population of about 48,000 on 17 islands.

The Faroe Islands is an autonomous region of Denmark and has its own parliament, language and flag.

According to the Home-Rule Act of 1948, the Faroe Islands constitutes a self-governing community within the Danish Kingdom . A long list of items specified in the Home-Rule Act is regarded as special Faroese concerns. Among them are "territorial hunting" and "protection of animals." 4

The Faroe Islands, unlike Denmark , is not a member of the EU.

According to the Faroe Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an average of 685 pilot whales were caught annually during the ten year period of 1998-2007. For reasons unknown to us, no pilot whales were killed from August 2007 to January 2009. Three drive hunts took place in 2009, killing 310 pilot whales.

Pilot Whale Quick Facts:

Long-finned pilot whales live in close-knit social groups of related individuals. Family pods of pilot whales sometimes congregate into larger groups, and often groups of several hundred mammals are seen swimming together. Some researchers believe that the pilot whales’ strong social bonds explain why this dolphin species is seen in mass standings more frequently than any other.

The pilot whales’ tight family bonds work against them during the drive hunt. As phrased by the Faroe Islands Department of Fisheries in 1993: "A school of pilot whales keeps close together, and for this reason the entire school is usually taken."


1. Home page of "Statistics Faroe Islands:"

2. NAMMCO recommendations – Workshop on Hunting Methods for Marine Mammals.

3. "Whales and Whaling in the Faroe Islands:"

4. Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands, No. 137 of March 23, 1948, List A, Item 13.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Killer Whales: When Nature Fights Back

By Helene O'Barry

Horrified parents and children, who had come to SeaWorld's Orlando amusement park to watch the killer whales perform, were quickly ushered out of the killer whale show area by SeaWorld staff. On February 24th 2010, the 6-ton killer whale Tilikum pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, underwater and dragged her around his tank until she drowned. This was the third time in the last 20 years that Tilikum had been involved in the death of a person. In fact, there have been several other incidents in which captive killer whales have caused injury to humans. In December 2009, another SeaWorld killer whale killed a trainer, 29-year-old Alexis Martínez.

These attacks by captive killer whales on humans, I believe, should be seen as nature's way of telling us that something is wrong. Terribly wrong -- not with Tilikum or any of the other captive killer whales who have attacked humans -- but with the ways in which these animals are treated in captivity.

In nature, killer whales are opportunistic foragers that travel many miles every day. They can dive down to 300 feet and are among the fastest swimming whales in the world, reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour or more. Studies have shown that killer whales are highly social and family-oriented marine mammals that possess cognitive abilities and carry out several variations of learning-based foraging. These large-brained animals demonstrate amazingly complex communication skills and social structures. Forming lasting bonds with their relatives and other pod members, a killer whale remains with its pod its entire life.

Only two events will make a killer whale leave its pod: death and capture. Tilikum was about two years old when he was yanked out of the ocean in 1983, near Iceland . Ever since, he has been kept in small concrete tanks, and finally ending up in Sea World’s Orlando amusement park where, according to an anonymous account by a former SeaWorld contractor, Tilikum spent much of his time alone in a 15-foot deep pool.

Confined for nearly three decades in a minuscule and artificial concrete environment, the diversity and challenges of his life in nature were replaced with the monotony and boredom of captivity. Whereas killer whales in the wild can make complex decisions regarding the details of their lives, captive killer whales lose all control. Something as basic as fulfilling their hunger is controlled by their human keepers, and food, in the form of dead fish, is used as rewards for tricks well-done.

Incidents of aggression, as shown by Tilikum, should be expected when free-ranging and sonic marine mammals experience lifelong confinement in a barren and highly controlling environment where their natural abilities can find no expression. These powerful animals become powerless in captivity. Captive killer whales live in constant conflict between their true identity as a wild animal and their forced role as a performing pet. The stress and anxiety they endure must become enormous over time. And this, I believe, is the reason why we see captive killer whales attack humans: their attacks are a normal reaction to the profound abnormality of their lives in captivity, coupled with the strict oppression of self-expression that is imposed on them.

Since Tilikum's capture, his family and pod members have engaged in natural activities of wild killer whales, such as traveling long distances, as well as foraging and nourishing their strong social bonds. Meanwhile, Tilikum has been used for splashing audiences. I believe that Tilikum's fatal attack happened because of a deeply felt frustration at having to suppress who he really is and become something that he is not.

SeaWorld currently confines 21 killer whales in three theme parks. While not all of them are viable candidates for release, they could all be relocated to a natural sea pen. In a fenced-off area in the ocean, the killer whales would once again be able to enjoy the natural rhythm of the sea, the tides and the currents and be free from human exploitation. This would drastically improve the quality of their lives, thus preventing any further attacks on humans.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Cove Wins the Oscar!

All Eyes Turn To Japan
An Important Message from Ric O'Barry and the Save Japan Dolphins Campaign:

If you watched the Oscars, you saw me, Producer Fisher Stevens, and Director Louie Psihoyos accept the Best Documentary awarded by the Academy. Wow, what an incredible moment!

Without your support, this would never have happened. So, even though I wasn't able to thank you all at the podium, I thank you all now.

But this has never been about winning awards. Our job is to end the slaughter and stop the poisoning. And now our work in Japan begins anew. We must focus like a laser on getting The Cove and our message to the Japanese people.

But there are threats on the horizon. Officials in Japan are threatening repercussions against university and community groups that dare to show The Cove. Dolphin-killing fishermen's unions are threatening lawsuits against theaters that show the film. There are even some signs that I could face arrest in Japan, even though I've broken no laws whatsoever.

We wont give in to this pressure. Instead, I am making plans to spend months in Japan with our Save Japan Dolphins Team. I want to be wherever we can find an audience. Our message will particularly resonate with young people, to whom we need to reach out with the dangers of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat and the slaughter of dolphins they love as much as we do.

If you can help me, it will make a world of difference.


The Oscar telecast is the most-watched TV show in Japan! And they, and more than a billion other viewers, saw The Cove movie win!

But now I also need your help in sending a clear message to Japan's Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, that the sale of mercury-laden dolphin meat must end now: Sign and send the petition at:

We need help in promoting the Japanese version of The Cove in the next weeks before The Cove opens at Japanese theaters. We need help for travel, video promotion, website outreach, legal defense, and screening The Cove outside of theaters in libraries, universities, and town halls in Japan.

Japan has 126 million people; only 600 have seen The Cove so far. Those who saw it were shocked and dismayed that this slaughter was happening in their country. We need to enlist their help and the help of millions of their fellow citizens to stop the Japanese government from issuing 23,000 permits annually to slaughter dolphins. We need to seize on the momentum now to pursue an end to the slaughter, once and for all!

Will you help us get the truth out?


Thank you for your generous support of our efforts!

Ric O'Barry
Campaign Director
Save Japan Dolphins Campaign

P.S. The Save Japan Dolphins Campaign and Earth Island Institute do not get any funds from The Cove movie sales. (Those funds go to the OPS, which made the film, and their investors to reimburse them for their considerable costs in making The Cove.)

P.P.S. If you think there is any possibility that you might be able to come over to Taiji on September 1st to celebrate the beauty of Taiji and let them know that the killing of dolphins shouldn't start again, please note that on the comment field on the donation form.


Save Japan Dolphins Coalition: Earth Island Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan, In Defense of Animals,
Campaign Whale of the UK, and OceanCare of Switzerland