Ric’s dolphin redemption

By AG Staff 28 August 2009
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Once the famed trainer of Flipper, Ric O’Barry is now a passionate advocate for dolphin freedom.

Ric O’Barry, 69, is a man with plenty of life in him yet; however he looked tired when he met with AG in August. He was enroute to Broome to lobby the city to suspend ties with Taiji, a town in western Japan which is Broome’s sister-city.

Ric has been campaigning against dolphin captivity industry 38 years, but he is currently directing his focus on Taiji, where there is a long tradition of dolphin hunting, capturing them for tourist parks or killing them for meat. The town, and Ric’s campaign work there, now features in the documentary, The Cove, which won the people’s choice award at the Sundance Film Festival. The exact number of dolphins that are killed or captured is hotly debated, but it’s estimated to range from hundreds to tens of thousands.

Although he is a vocal critic of the dolphin-hunting practices that occur in Taiji, Ric seems interested in producing meaningful change within the Japanese town. Later this year, he’s planning a trip to Taiji with comedian Ben Stiller, musician Sting and environmental advocate Robert Kennedy Jr, which he claims is to showcase the beauty of the town and its potential to support itself in other ways. “The trips I’m taking now are tours – ‘what’s right about Taiji’ tours,” he says. He references places like Nantucket, USA, that have turned a corner in the way he believes Taiji could. “[Nantucket] is now a lovely small tourist town… that was once the centre of whaling in the world.”

However, the Japanese government is also issuing whaling and dolphin licences on 1 September, while Ric is planning to be there. 

Following our interview and the release of The Cove in Australia, Broome did indeed suspend its sister-city ties with Taiji, due in part to considerable public pressure. The connection harks back to 1892, when residents of Taiji’s prefecture helped establish Broome’s pearling industry. “We haven’t severed ties but have told Taiji that they will be unable to fulfil their sister-city obligations until the issue is resolved,” says Broome’s shire president Graeme Campbell. Graeme says the issue for Broome’s council is not dolphin fishing but the methods of killing that take place in Taiji. However, Graeme is quick to point out that the town of Taiji itself is not responsible for the national licensing system that allows the industry to continue.

Ric also doesn’t support a generalised boycott of Japan and says that it is a tiny minority of people who even know about the issue. The Cove, he says, is currently being translated into Japanese. If it is blocked, Ric says that “Jim Clark, who is the executive producer, promised me that if all else fails he would put it out for free.” So far, Ric and others featured in the documentary have managed to harness considerable public support and have succeeded in raising the profile of this issue in Australia and abroad. And he’s not about to quit yet: “If we win an Academy Award, that’s called Gaiatsu, that’s what I’ve been doing in Japan – Gai means external, atsu means pressure. External pressure.”

The Cove is now showing in Australian cinemas.

* Ric works full time towards advocating better treatment of dolphins and heads Save Japan Dolphins (http://www.savejapandolphins.org/). He has also developed protocols for rehabilitating captive dolphins so that they can survive in the wild, a process he spends months enacting – sometimes in remote locations. Ric condones interaction with dolphins as long they are free to come and go as they please.