The residents of the coastal town of Taiji, Japan, would have you believe that they love dolphins. Murals depict cuddly cetaceans on buildings, the dolphinarium draws tourists, and trainers come from all over the world to handpick their charges during the annual migration just offshore. But what the throngs of visitors don’t see is a heavily guarded cove where every year, thousands of dolphins are corralled and killed, their mercury-laden meat turned into school lunches or passed off as pricey whale to unsuspecting restaurateurs. With equal parts outrage and spy-flick derring-do, this exhilarating film chronicles director Louie Psihoyos’ quest to penetrate the cove and expose Taiji’s secret.
As a guide, Psihoyos enlists former Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry, who became an animal activist after Kathy, one of the real-life Flippers, suffered captivity-induced depression and died in his arms. O’Barry can be shrill, and initially Psihoyos worries that he “went halfway around the world to end up in a car with this paranoid guy.” O’Barry is certainly driven: He regularly gets arrested for springing captive dolphins, and he and the Taiji police have been playing a cat-and-mouse game for years.
To pull off the infiltration of the cove, Psihoyos and O’Barry assemble a marine espionage dream team: A special-effects guy fashions hollow rocks to conceal cameras; a former Canadian air force electrician designs drones for aerial shots; world-champion free divers plant underwater microphones; and Japanese pirates help the crew evade thuggish guards. The Cove is at its most exciting during the crew’s midnight raids, and it’s not giving too much away to say that the final payoff is devastating.