It is difficult to imagine aquatic mammals more mesmerising than dolphins and whales. Perhaps it’s the ethereal way that whales glide through the ocean, seeming to float effortlessly despite their cumbersome size. Or, maybe it’s the playfulness and curiosity of dolphins convincing us that we have a connection with these complex cetaceans. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that our appreciation for dolphins and whales is pretty universal.
Yet, despite being two of the most-loved marine animals, whales and dolphins are still regular victims of our planet’s most dangerous inhabitants - us.
You may of heard of Taiji? Most people haven't. But what is the truth behind the annual Taiji dolphin hunts?
Earlier this month, a juvenile minke whale was killed by fishermen off the coast of the Japanese town of Taiji. After being trapped by nets for 19 days with limited space to hunt, the weak young whale was held underwater by two fishing boats. It took a full 20 minutes for this majestic mammal to drown before it was butchered for its meat.
As with many forms of animal slaughter, there will likely be no legal consequences for this despicable act. Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019, meaning commercial whaling is perfectly legal in the country’s coastal waters.
The minke, nicknamed Hope by animal rights protesters, was the bycatch of a much larger and even more harrowing event - Taiji’s annual dolphin slaughter. During the hunt, which lasts for up to six months, fishing boats herd thousands of disoriented dolphins into Taiji cove, trap them with nets and kill them by driving sharp metal poles or knives into their spinal cords.
The dolphins die slowly, painfully and amongst the rest of their pod, either by bleeding out, suffocating or drowning. Like Hope, their meat will be packaged and sold in local supermarkets, despite containing high levels of mercury.
Those that are spared this brutal end, usually bottlenose dolphins, are hoisted into cramped containers and flown overseas to become aquatic clowns in amusement parks or aquariums. Given the grotesque treatment of these gorgeous mammals in even the most ‘regulated’ parks (we’re looking at you, SeaWorld), we’re not sure which fate entails the most suffering. It’s an understatement to call the captivity of these intelligent and highly social animals devastating.
Unsurprisingly, Japan has faced international criticism for its outdated dolphin hunts, with the release of the 2009 documentary The Cove intensifying global shock and outrage at the annual event.
Yet, when we look at the bigger picture, we uncover a truth no one wants to admit: the rest of the world is also responsible. The deep-rooted belief that animals are ours to exploit is what ultimately stimulates demand for these beautiful mammals, and we need to hold every part of the supply chain accountable.
Every time tourists pay for the chance to pose or swim with a captive dolphin, they make sure the next year’s hunt will be just as profitable as the one before.
Every time an orca calf is stolen from its mother and confined by four walls for our entertainment, or a dolphin becomes ensnared in a tangle of commercial fishing nets, we prove that animals are no match for humans, even in their own environment.
Every time whales are harpooned in the name of science, or sound-sensitive dolphins are forced to perform tricks over and over again in front of screaming crowds, society suggests that animal life is worth less than human greed.
This is a reality we can’t and won’t support.
Viewing photographs and footage of the Taiji dolphin hunt is incredibly difficult, but recognising that this is not an isolated case of animal suffering makes it all the more challenging to digest. Slaughters like these happen to mammals, birds, reptiles and fish in every single country across the globe, with one crucial difference: the majority happen behind closed doors.
This allows cognitive dissonance to breed to such an extent that thousands of people sign anti-dolphin hunt petitions while simultaneously funding the mass slaughter of cows, pigs, chickens and fish with every trip to the supermarket.
What the Taiji dolphin hunt does is confront us. It forces people to look at what they don’t want to see. It gives meat-eaters no choice but to care about something they benefit from not caring about. It makes one thing abundantly clear: our attitudes about and behaviours towards animals need to change. Now.
Begin by saying no to dolphin shows and swimming experiences, signing petitions against commercial whaling, and educating others about the annual dolphin hunts and the true cost of visiting aquariums.
Be the voice animals don’t have.