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Talking the talk: let’s have a conversation about Taiji Cove

This ‘dolphin drive’ season, more than 150 bottlenose dolphins have been rounded up and taken from Japan’s Taiji Cove, forced into dolphin shows in captivity, and most destined to make their way into the meat trade.

Dolphins in captivity performing for the general public

These latest figures, released by activist group Sea Shepherd less than 24 hour ago, were accompanied by the statement: “Although we are in the final days of the dolphin drive hunt season here in Taiji, there is no reprieve for the captive dolphins held in the harbour pens. This morning the banger boats left the harbour in quick succession, searching in their final days for pods of dolphins to desecrate, destroy and profit from.”

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Some time in the ’90s, when terrestrial television ruled, I remember watching an episode of The Simpsons in which killer dolphins rise up to take over the planet.

The Simpsons is smart, very smart  I’ve read an essay or two about the incredible mathematical problems and references snuck into series after series  and I think with their killer dolphin takeover, they were onto something.

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No, I don’t believe that dolphins are going to rise up, find a way to walk on land and wipe out the human race (though occasionally I wish they would…), but I think the interesting thing is that something as (unfortunately) flippantly dismissed as a comedic cartoon, was actually educating children that dolphins have language. And to have language  not just calls for mating and warning – one must have independent, free thought.

simpsons dolphin

It’s easy to relate to species that look like us. Species that have two arms, two legs, fingers and thumbs. Great apes where we can trace our common ancestry; chimps and bonobos especially, where we can recognise a language in their utterances and teach them how to use basic signing to ‘talk’ with us.

During my time as an English Language and Communications undergrad, we studied in great detail an entire module on the successes and failures of scientist teaching chimpanzees, like the well-documented Nim Chimpsky, how to communicate the human way.

I can’t help but think that although this doesn’t bring a blanket safety to the species from atrocities such as poaching for the bush meat trade or to supply Chinese medicines, it does help us in western societies relate to the creatures and recognise them as sentient beings.

But pound for pound, relative to body size, dolphin’s brains are larger than those of chimpanzee’s. They are, in fact, among the largest in the animal kingdom.

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As well as an impressive flair for problem-solving and a capacity to plan for the future, dolphin’s varied and complex language at least equals our own. They not only whistle and click, but they also emit ‘burst pulses’ to discipline their young and defend themselves against sharks.

They even eavesdrop on the echo-locating clicks of other dolphin pods to figure out what they’re looking at.

But without arms and hands and fingers, such highly communicative beings have only been taught to respond to human commands when they could have so valuably had their articulations studied and dissected to reveal the exact nature of their intelligence.

I wonder if a different physical form and a different means of language would have saved them from the fate of hundreds of thousands that will now be facing slaughter from September 1 in a place called Taiji Cove in Japan, in the name of ‘cultural tradition’.

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After watching the shockingly powerful and effecting documentary The Cove (available to view here), I felt compelled to act in some way, and in January 2015, joined one of the biggest protests against the Taiji slaughter of recent years. As another killing season commences this month; as do the protests.

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Throughout last year, and in doubt with documentaries such as The Cove at the helm, I’ve seen the public and media interest in dolphins soar, which is wonderful for helping to understand the complex multi-layered nature of these creatures.

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For example, similarly to humans — as I believe anthropomorphism helps the cause of compassion towards these animals — dolphins seek the fun, playfulness and social interaction of natural highs; in their case using the secretion of pufferfish toxins to get their fix.

That’s not all dolphins use their fellow ocean-dwellers for though, according to National Geographic Magazine:

“In Shark Bay some bottlenose dolphins detach sponges from the seafloor and place them on their beaks for protection while searching the sand for small hidden fish – a kind of primitive tool use. In the shallow waters of Florida Bay dolphins use their speed, which can exceed 20 miles an hour, to swim quick circles around schools of mullet fish, stirring up curtains of mud that force the fish to leap out of the water into the dolphins’ waiting mouths”

I believe that this high intelligence and ability to use tools, as well as their highly effect methods of communication, stem from their social structures, which are also integral to their well-being.

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Lori Marino, biopsychologist and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy explains: “A dolphin alone is not really a dolphin. Being a dolphin means being embedded in a complex social network. Even more so than humans.”

Dolphins’ communities require intimate social and emotional bonds that reveal the highly developed way they process emotions.

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National Geographic also states that there is strong evidence to suggest dolphins even have names, using distinct signature whistles to call one another:

“It turns out that there is strong evidence to suggest that at least one kind of dolphin sound, studied extensively over the past decade, does function as a kind of referential symbol. Dolphins use distinct “signature whistles” to identify and call one another.
Each dolphin is thought to invent a unique name for itself as a calf and keep it for life. Dolphins greet one another at sea by exchanging signature whistles and seem to remember the signature whistles of other dolphins for decades.
Though other species, like vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, make sounds that refer to predators, no other animal, besides humans, is believed to have specific labels for individuals.”

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If we cannot recognise the importance of this species and the wealth of what we can learn from them, then I can’t help but feel all those hours I spent during my degree learning about the scientific study of chimp’s engagement with language were wasted. Because science requires growth; new thinking and challenge before it can progress. And progress cannot be made, and it our knowledge not broadened, if we cannot consider an animal’s mind, brain, communication and intricate system of utterances just because they do not possess two arms and two legs.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the dolphin’s ability to learn, and their incredible intelligence at large, Born Free Foundation have released a book on their successful rehabilitation of Britain’s last ever dolphinarium-captive dolphins, Misha and Tom back into the wild. Find out more here.

An extract of this article first appeared in Big Issue Magazine, viewable here: LIKE APES, DOLPHINS ALSO ‘TALK’ – AND NEED PROTECTION.

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I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim!

For a year now I’ve been on the frontline of the call to end Taiji Cove’s annual dolphin slaughter, and the connected use of dolphins and orcas in marine parks, such as Sea World. (There I am below, second from the right with my phone in hand).

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Given that I’ve outlined the details of the yearly ‘dolphin drive’ before, and the captivity ‘side effects’ that go hand-in-hand with the slaughter, I’ll just keep the overview to a minimum here:

  • The Taiji dolphin drive hunt takes place in Taiji, Wakayama in Japan every year from September to March
  • Over the 6 month period, thousands of dolphins are driven into the secret waters of Taiji cove (aka the Cove) using noise pollution that disrupts the dolphin’s sonar, throwing off their navigation
  • They are then herded by fisherman’s boats into the sheltered area of the Cove, hidden from public view, where they are killed one by one. The legal method of killing is to drive a metal pin through their blow holes and down into their spinal column
  • This does not always lead to immediate death. Dolphins have an extremely complex nervous system, so will feel every second of this as they wait to die
  • The reasons for the drive were originally for human consumption or resale to dolphinariums (yes, the atrocities at Taiji Cove supply dolphinariums, like Sea World)
  • In more recent years, it has been shown that the levels of mercury present within dolphin meat deems them unfit for human consumption. The slaughter continues to take place in the name of ‘tradition’, with some of the carcasses used for dog food or as fertiliser

imageThis past Saturday (16th January) saw the next installment of the protests against Taiji cove. This one was rather special, not only gaining more momentum than the demo this time last year due to its swelling numbers, but also because we used the occasion to honour the late, great David Bowie.

The video I shot below outside the Japanese Embassy should explain why/how…


Such a powerful movement, and a beautiful, poignant day. Not only has Bowie given this movement (via The Cove) an incredible anthem, but also a huge interest; due to his connection to it. For the first time, I’m seeing national press coverage of our marching! The Huffington Post even used one of my photographs (included above) to open their article!

Well done all the hundreds of people I had the pleasure of marching with, and what gratitude I have for David Bowie; for this along with so many other reasons.

Don’t forget… if you’re a passionately against the killing of dolphins in Taiji Cove, please take a moment to add your signature to a petition against the practice https://www.change.org/p/ban-the-killing-of-dolphins-in-taiji-japan.

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Making a stand, marching a march.

I am lucky. As a journalist, a blogger and as a human being, I have a voice.

A voice I can use to speak up when I’m angry, when I’m sad and when I see things that are wrong.

Last weekend, I used that voice, for all those reasons, on behalf of creatures that can’t.

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Together with several-hundred people from all walks of life: a lady who rescues dogs from areas of natural disaster, a student moved by the award-winning documentary Blackfish, a television presenter, a BBC producer, even a Game of Thrones star (Maisie Williams) – I marched from Cavendish Square to Trafalgar to voice my disgust against dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Japan, and my anger at the awful conditions and mentally disturbing environment that marine wildlife are kept in at ‘amusement’ park Seaworld.

There are many reasons I hold these views – some I have discussed before, others I probably couldn’t express as elegantly, concisely and graphically as the following footage:

It is hard to admit to ourselves that we have probably, at one point or another, unwittingly and unknowingly contributed to a world that captures, controls and imprisons animals – that directly relates to the hell that is Taiji Cove even. I know I have.

And when I see these old holiday snaps from years gone by – I physically feel sick. But nonetheless, I urge you to take a look, because I can’t truly express what I stand for, without being totally honest and  forward in showing you what I stand against. So let’s be clear: This is what I stand against…

Including my naive and ignorant self that took these photos – because this directly relates to the atrocities of Taiji Cove, and there is no excuse to be ignorant anymore.

IMG_6904The London march may have been and gone, but it is not too late to stand with others against what is wrong.

As fellow my march-ee and long-time inspiration, Born Free President Will Travers, so aptly quoted (see videos following): “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King Jnr.

Thank you to everyone I met last weekend for giving me hope that together we can share truths, open minds and even change opinions – and that’s where the tiny ripples begin that change the whole course of the river.

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