In my experience, the most worthwhile, valuable things in life are those that reach inside you and squeeze. Hard. You feel electrified, blown away, numb. Words and rational explanation fail you. But you know you have been moved. And, if you are lucky, perhaps even changed.
For me, such a visceral reaction often occurs from the simplest of things. A first kiss or touch. Taking off in an airplane. Hiking through a quiet woods. Visiting an ancient place. Leaving my footsteps on a faraway corner of the globe. Staring at the ocean’s horizon. The arts frequently shoot me full of the same sparks. Reading Dostoevsky for the first time or The Hours or the poetry of Adrienne Rich. Replaying certain defining songs until my ears hurt, “Dead Man’s Hill,” “Left of Center,” “How Soon is Now?” Sitting paralyzed by Schindler’s List, Crash, Milk.
I did not know what to expect of the award-winning documentary The Cove, but what I watched for an hour and thirty-two minutes will not leave me anytime soon. It electrified me. Blew me away. I am numb.
The film follows a small group of activists on a mission to expose the world’s largest dolphin capturing (and killing) operation in a tiny cove in Taijii, Japan. At the helm is diver, photographer Louie Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry, who, ironically, captured and trained dolphins for the television hit Flipper. The group risks their lives to plant hidden surveillance equipment in and around the cove in order to document the horror of what is taking place there.
And what a horror it is. From their boats in the cove, a small group of Japanese fishermen create a “wall of sound” to frighten the dolphins in the area. The men then seal off the mammals and come back the next morning to sell them to buyers from the tourist/dolphin entertainment industry. Those dolphins that are not selected are slaughtered—23,000 per year. What happens from there is just as chilling.
I watched in disbelief as the picturesque cove turned into a pool of thick, bright red. I admit to tearing up, while cursing my ignorance. How could I have not been aware of the full severity of this atrocity? Under which rock has my head been under? I give myself a touch of slack as the documentary announces that most citizens of Japan are also unaware of the truth. No excuse.
I was not surprised to learn that the background of this reality is smeared with the usual greed, politics, and government corruption. Even Greenpeace receives a slap on the wrist. I am always surprised, however, when I am reminded of the depths to which human ignorance can sink. Suddenly the squealing crowds at Sea World seem ludicrous to me. And as Dr. John Potter, an Underwater Acoustics Consultant, astutely reflects, trainers use an elaborate set of hand signals to work with dolphins—um, but wait, dolphins don’t have hands. Again, humans assume their superior intellect, though dolphins may in fact be more intelligent. Perhaps, as Potter points out, we humans could learn a thing or two from them.
One of the most poignant moments in the documentary reveals the footage of two free divers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack smoothly slicing down through the depths of the ocean. Two mermaids swimming with the dolphins below. Mutual respect and embrace.
I will not go into further detail, as my hope is to encourage others to watch this riveting piece of film for themselves. Take from it whatever lessons they may. I will say this, however. As disturbing as it was to watch, The Cove also reached inside of me and tugged loose an old feeling of hope. I have felt something similar when I’ve joined various marches in Washington, D.C., written a letter to California’s governor on behalf of a wrongly imprisoned inmate, or held hands with friends and strangers “across the sea” to protest the BP oil spill in the Gulf. There is hope in human passion. There is hope that human action will undermine and blot out human ignorance. There is hope that activism is always better than inactivism. And there is hope that when a circle of humans join together to shout, No, this is unacceptable and we are going to expose it to the world, the world will listen—and change.