Twenty years ago in Australia I helped free a bottlenose dolphin from a drift net. In 2004, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins protected four swimmers from great white sharks for 40 minutes until the sharks lost interest and left. Last week, I was very touched to learn that a dolphin essentially asked a diver for help removing a hook from its left pectoral fin.
Like millions of moviegoers around the globe I was enraged by the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove.”
The oceans belong to “the commons.” They are our grandchildren’s legacy. No country is entitled, irrespective of ancient cultural practices or not, to slaughter 20,000 dolphins or capture and live trade dolphins or other small whales with impunity.
Let me tell you why and what we can do about it.
Dolphins are aquatic, top-predator mammals classified as a type of whale or cetacean. There are two types of cetaceans. Baleen whales filter massive amounts of small oceanic organisms, called krill, with comb-like sieves in their mouths. Toothed whales, on the other hand, grab prey with their teeth. Dolphins and their mistaken twin, the porpoise, are a type of toothed whale. There are about 70 kinds of toothed whales, and about 45 species of dolphins, porpoises and false whales, such as killer whales or orcas.
Dolphins are innovative when faced with a new scenario or situation. This goes beyond genetic programming of behavior. Innovation allows rapid assessment of a new situation and reactions to it. Dolphins clearly understand gestures, similar to sign language that chimpanzees are also able to learn. Humans and dolphins appear to be the only known animals to spontaneously interpret images on a screen without prior teaching. Dolphins are capable of highly flexible behavior, and therefore are considered intelligent.
Like crows and ants, dolphins use tools to assist when foraging. In Australia, bottlenose dolphins scour the ocean bottom using sonar or echolocation and probing their nose or rostrum up to 30 inches into the floor. But in order to protect their nose and face from spines and stingers, they wisely use a sponge whilst hunting for buried bottom-dwelling fish.
Right now in Taiji, Japan “The War Against” is brutally exterminating dolphins and small whales.
From September to March, each morning fisherman head out to sea in their banger boats — striking steel pipes which confuse and startle dolphins, driving them or small whales into a bay, which is quickly netted off to prevent their escape. Agitated they are left over night to calm down.
Many are injured, suffering from broken pectoral fins. Others die from extreme stress and exhaustion.
The following morning fisherman re-enter the penned bay and catch and kill the dolphins, one by one. Some are dragged by their tails in a process known as “pithing” onto the shoreline. A steel pine is driven through their spine, quickly pulled out, and the hole is plugged by a wooden stopper preventing blood from filling the cover. It is a gruesome spectacle. Some juveniles are taken away for sale to dolphinariums.
Sea Shepherd and other activists protecting nature arrive each morning in the Taiji harbor where throngs of police meet them, outnumbering the activists by at least five to one.
The Japanese slaughter dolphins for food. Sadly, the dolphins are toxic; they contain levels of mercury poisoning in excess of 160 times that of safe levels for human consumption. As a matter of fact, young children and pregnant mothers are advised by the Japanese government not to eat dolphin. Dolphin meat sells for $520 a beast. Aquariums eagerly pay upwards of $140,000 for juvenile dolphins.
In a world preoccupied with rights — which in most cases are confused with privileges — it is a terrible indictment on our species not being concerned with why levels of mercury are so elevated in these apex-marine predators. What we do to our oceans we do to ourselves.
Mercury is a neurotoxin; mercury poisoning disables the central nervous system. No animal should swallow mercury.
The bloody and senseless right of entitlement by the Japanese fisheries must end. Dolphins and whales play a crucial role in the health and well-being of our oceans. They cull the old and weak, essentially ensuring a high level of fitness amongst their prey. They also prevent diseases from becoming epidemics.
There’s a lot each of us can do to stop this barbaric practice and extreme cruelty to these exquisite marine mammals i.e. dolphins and orcas.
The way to affect change is through the power of our collective wallets, by acting fiscally together we can cut off the demand for live traded animals. Don’t buy tickets to any dolphinariums or parks with captured marine mammals.
Next, let the Japanese Tourism Agency know that you will not visit their nation due to the destruction of dolphins and whales. It will take less than two minutes to send them an e-mail; our goal is 50 million e-mails. Just do it.
Lastly, please support the conservation work of Blue Voice, Save Japan Dolphins, Ocean Preservation Society, Animals Australia and Operation Infinite Patience — Sea Shepherd.
Dolphins are playful, affectionate, curious, intelligent, social and vocal. Are they the creatures humans would have been had we not left the water?
Wild dolphins, like all other animals, including humans, are entitled to the right to life on our blue planet.
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and co-author with Chris Maser of their forthcoming book “Life, The Wonder of it All.”