Taiji, Japan, 9-11-19: It’s been a tragic start to the dolphin hunting season here in Taiji. The month is not even half over yet and we have seen brutal slaughters and heartbreaking captures take place.
One of the most difficult scenes to watch unfolded in the waters of the Cove. Yesterday, a nursery pod of pilot whales was ruthlessly hunted for hours and then driven into the shallow waters. Exhausted and traumatized, the family surfaced and spy hopped as they caught their breath. Once the nets were dropped and their fate was sealed, they swam in a tight circle, always touching one another. Their beautiful matriarch could be also be seen swimming around them, always rubbing up against members of her family. Without food or shelter, hunters left the family alone overnight.
Today, just after sunrise, dolphin hunters arrived at the Cove to begin their day’s work. The pilot whales (which are actually one of the largest species of oceanic dolphins) were still swimming closely together as they tried to understand was what happening. The skiffs began breaking the family apart in order to begin the captive selection. The pilot whales were frantic to get away from the hunters but to also stay together. Their splashing echoed up towards us on the hill as we watched their desperate final attempts at freedom and life. Eight pilot whales from this family were taken for a life of captivity. They will never again know the freedom of the open ocean and they will now have to beg for, and earn their meals.
The final group of captives were left waiting on the shore of the Cove until a boat came to take them away. While they were trapped and waiting, the hunters began the slaughter process. Those new captives were left to watch and listen as their family was slaughtered right next to them. It was heartbreaking to witness that and know how emotionally bonded this family was. The captives that were taken to the sea pens in the harbor also had to endure watching their dead family being dragged past them on the way to the butcher house. I thought of them each time a banger boat was loaded up with more dead bodies and driven away towards the harbor. Other captive dolphins in the harbor sea pens have to listen and watch the same boats that destroyed their family drive past them every day. I imagine they might relive this trauma and never forget what happened to them.
The slaughter process was long, bloody and loud. The pilot whales thrashed against the water as they were dying. We continued to live stream this horror, watching as their blood seeped out from under the tarps. The hunters slaughtered this family in phases, presumably because of their size. They appeared to kill three to four individuals at a time, so those left waiting for their turn at death had to swim in bloody water and witness their family slowly dying. The matriarch was killed and alone, she was taken to the butcher house. We could see her dead body floating on the surface as the boat prepared to take her away.
Seeing her lifeless form floating on the water was one of the most heartbreaking sights. Just 24 hours before she was leading her family through the ocean as the pod cared for their young and each other.
In the end it seemed like the pod members that were killed last, also gave the least amount of struggle. The sounds of their thrashing were not as loud as the family members before them and it made us wonder if they had just given into their fate. They had seen their entire family, and their brave and beautiful leader killed right before their eyes. The family members that weren’t killed were forcibly taken away from them, never to be seen again.
The events that happen in Taiji stay with you forever, but some days will always stand out more than others. With this nursery pod of pilot whales destroyed, today was one of those days.
Featured image: A family of pilot whales awaits their fate after being driven into the Cove, Taiji, Japan. Credit: DolphinProject.com