On Christmas Eve, a young minke whale, whose gender has not been identified, got trapped in a set of fishing nets owned by the Taiji Fisheries Cooperative in Japan. The fishing nets are known as “a set net,” a type left in place all year outside Taiji harbor, about 400 meters off the coast. Once trapped inside the nets, the whale was unable to find its way out. It had become one of the many victims of so-called by-catch. The town of Taiji is already known to the world as a place of enormous cruelty. This is where hundreds of dolphins are killed in a ghastly drive hunt that takes place six months out of the year. Some dolphins are harassed and massacred in huge blood baths inside the infamous Cove, while others are hauled away for a lifetime of captivity. In a place where so much suffering exists, the Taiji Fisheries Cooperative could have viewed the trapped minke whale as a chance to show the world that this town is sometimes willing to make an exception and show some mercy. But the fishermen of Taiji did no such thing. Eighteen days went by, and they just left the whale there, helplessly trapped inside the nets with nothing to eat and no way to free itself. There is no doubt in my mind the whale knew that something was terribly wrong. It knew it was trapped, and it also realized that it depended on help to get out.
The imprisoned minke whale’s predicament was documented from day one by Ren Yabuki, the director of the animal rights organization Life Investigation Agency (LIA) in Japan. In collaboration with Dolphin Project, Ren Yabuki had already spent several months in Taiji in an effort to record and expose the annual dolphin hunt. He and the global animal welfare community nicknamed the whale Hope, and people from all over the world pleaded with authorities in Japan to free the whale. Japanese animal welfare advocates urged decision makers to help the whale escape. In their responses, authorities led us to believe that they had every intention of freeing the whale – it was just a matter of finding the right way to do it. But rescue never came. Days turned into weeks, and the whale became increasingly agitated. In drone footage shot by Ren Yabuki, the whale is seen charging the nets and deep diving, growing increasingly desperate to get out of its manmade confinement.
And then, before daybreak on the whale’s 19th day of imprisonment, two utility boats left Taiji harbor and approached the fishing nets. Just the day before, authorities had once again told animal welfare advocates that they had every intention to free the whale. The two boats carried 10 fishermen in all. Surely, the whale must have heard the sound of the engines. As the boats got closer, it must also have heard the sound of human voices. The whale had been trapped for 18 days. It had managed to keep itself alive somehow, and I can’t help but wonder what went through its mind at that moment when the men arrived. Did the sound of their boats make the whale even more frightened than it already was? Or did the whale think that those creatures – humans – had come to help it? Because they could have. They could have freed the whale from those nets. Authorities had led the world to believe that the plan was to do exactly that.
The men know they are being filmed. The drone is right above them. That whale must be so scared and in so much pain. And this is when one of the men tilts his head back and looks directly at the drone. It is as if at that moment he decides to convey to the world how he feels about what they are doing: He grins.
Instead, the men began the long, excruciating process of killing it. Ren Yabuki was able to document everything with his drone, and this is his account: “At 5:50 a.m., boats from the Taiji Fisheries Association departed Taiji fishing port. The boats headed to the set nets of Tomyozaki Point; they split up into two groups and began hauling up the nets. At 6:30 a.m., the nets were hauled up, and the minke whale was driven between the two boats. At 6:49 a.m., the minke whale’s tail was tied with rope and then tied to the edge of the boat and hung upside down. The head of the minke whale was underwater for about 20 minutes, and at about 7:09 a.m., it drowned. The minke whale had its tail tied to the edge of the boat and could not breathe. It was clear it was suffering. It violently thrashed, as blood splattered around, but the fishermen were laughing while working.”
Ren Yabuki’s footage is hard to watch. While the men force the whale’s head underwater by hanging it by its tail, the whale is fighting hard to get to the surface for a breath of air. Blood is pouring out of its body. Meanwhile, the men are standing on the deck of the boat, keeping an eye on the progress. I will never comprehend how their minds work, how it is even possible for anyone to treat another living being with such calculated viciousness. They planned this attack. They woke up that morning knowing what they were going to do that day.
A couple of minutes into the footage, five of the men can be seen preparing a large piece of blue tarpaulin. While the tethered whale is still fighting to reach the surface for a breath of air, the men take their time and carefully arrange the tarpaulin on the boat’s deck. As soon as the whale’s thrashing subsides, they tie another piece of rope around its tail. Then they throw the tarpaulin over the whale, and its tail can no longer be seen. They obviously want to hide the moment when they haul the whale onto the boat. Several hold on to the tarp to keep it in place. Perhaps they think that so much time has gone by, the whale must be too weak by now to fight back.
But then, suddenly, the whale once again tries to free itself from the ropes. Its frantic bashing is so forceful, most of the men let go of the tarpaulin and take several steps back. A large part of the tarpaulin flies into the turbulent, bloodied water while one of the men continues to hold the other end of it. Now the whale is exposed again and still fighting for air after all this time. Imagine what the whale is going through, having its head forced underwater, wanting desperately to breathe, and not being able to reach the surface.
These men are torturing a whale to death, and all they care about is how to best hide it from the world. They throw the tarp over the whale one more time. Blood is running down the side of the boat. The whale is still moving, but not as much as before. The tarpaulin goes over the boat’s railing, and two of the men are sitting on it to keep it in place. Once again, the whale starts to move underneath the tarpaulin – this time even more violently. Its tail penetrates the tarpaulin and sticks out through the big hole it creates. Despite the torture, the whale is still not dead. The men know they are being filmed. The drone is right above them. That whale must be so scared and in so much pain. And this is when one of the men tilts his head back and looks directly at the drone. It is as if at that moment he decides to convey to the world how he feels about what they are doing: He grins.
I suspect the fishermen knew all along that they were going to kill that whale, and they were just waiting for the whale to become weaker as days turned into weeks. Authorities never had any intention of freeing it. I see that now. They were just gaining time, waiting it out. Perhaps they were hoping the whale would make it easy for them and become entangled in the nets in an attempt to get out and drown on its own. When that did not happen, they decided to do it themselves. The men attacked the whale in the morning darkness, no doubt in an attempt to eliminate any witnesses. They killed the whale to save their fishing nets from possible damage and because meat from minke whales sells for a high price. No doubt, they also wanted to secure all the fish that were inside the nets with the whale. As usual, it all comes down to that: money.
It took the men 20 minutes to execute the whale. The footage shows the men hauling the mutilated minke whale onto the deck of the boat. They quickly wrap it in the blue tarpaulin, and place plastic containers with various gear in them as weights on the edge. That way, a gust of wind will not cause the tarp to expose the whale’s dead body. One of the men grabs a hose and starts cleaning the blood off the side of the boat. Then they bring the whale ashore and take it to the slaughter house in Taiji harbor. A day’s work is done.
Executing such a violent assault on a whale that was already exhausted with fear and anxiety was an act of utter cowardice.
This world needs hope. It needs hope that good things can happen. It needs hope that there is a way forward not involving the usual bloodshed and cruelty to those of the planet’s inhabitants who have no say over how we treat them and cannot protect themselves. People from all over the world – people who have never even seen a whale in person – recognized the whale’s suffering and followed its plight the entire time it was trapped. They named the whale Hope because this is what the whale represented to so many of us: hope that Japanese authorities would show some mercy and free the whale. That is all we asked. Let the whale go.
The fishermen in Taiji, on the other hand, apparently felt nothing even though they must have seen the trapped whale every day for almost three weeks. The sight of this truly remarkable being helplessly confined in a human-made trap evidently evoked no sympathy in them whatsoever. And when they moved in to destroy it, they also destroyed a glimmer of hope that some light can arise in even the darkest of places. Executing such a violent assault on a whale that was already exhausted with fear and anxiety was an act of utter cowardice. Their attack on the whale was an attack on humanity itself in that it dragged all of us even further into a place of darkness where humans do not care what other living beings feel, a place where there are no limits to the suffering we are willing to inflict on them to get what we want. When the men hung that whale upside down and forced its head underwater to drown it, they became evidence to human greed and stupidity. The stupidity was magnified when they wrapped its mutilated dead body in the blue tarpaulin, as if that would prevent the world from seeing what they had done.
To the men who tortured Hope to death in Taiji, I just want to say this: Your blue tarpaulin did not work. We saw what you did, and we will never forget the 11th of January 2021. That date is forever ingrained in our memory. You betrayed Hope, and you betrayed an entire world that was watching and hoping that, for once, human decency would prevail in Taiji.
Featured image: Minke whale is slaughtered by Japanese fishermen, Taiji, Japan. Credit: LIA/Dolphin Project