Posts Tagged ‘the cove’

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Advocating for Dolphins at the IWC

July 8, 2011

The Dolphin Dance Project is supporting an international effort at the International Whaling Commission – whose annual meeting begins July 11th in Jersey, UK –  to raise awareness that small cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) deserve the same protections we grant their larger cousins.

Chisa Hidaka, founder of the Dolphin Dance Project, translated and edited a report on the 2010-11 dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan that will be distributed at the IWC. Researched and written by Sakae Hemmi of the Elsa Nature Conservancy, the report challenges the degree to which dolphin hunting can be described as “traditional” and documents the government’s failure to supervise it. The English summary of “The Dolphin Drive Hunt: Appropriate Management?” is posted below; the full report (Japanese) can be found at the Elsa website.  Hardy Jones of Blue Voice, a long-time advocate for dolphins and whales, will distribute the summary at the IWC and give a press conference on the Japanese dolphin hunt.

Representing 89 countries, the IWC has been in the past and could continue to be a powerful force for protecting all cetaceans. It is time that its members recognized that, given all the human activities imposing severe survival pressure on cetaceans (oil and radiation spills, mercury and other pollutants, fishing, boating, sonar, ocean acidification and more) commercial whaling is now environmentally and economically unsustainable. We urge the IWC to shift its focus entirely to conservation. On this year’s IWC agenda is a proposal to create a South Atlantic whale sanctuary – we hope this will be passed and rigorously enforced.

We are proud to support cetacean conservation efforts through our films and other efforts. For more information on protecting dolphins and their habitat, please visit our Protect page and related blog post.

Thank you for your support of the Dolphin Dance Project!

Dolphins are our friends. Let's protect them! photo: Connor Cassidy

The Dolphin Drive Hunt: Appropriate Management?

Observations from the Emergency Extension of the Hunting season of the Dolphin Drive Hunt in Taiji

The following is a summary of the report of Sakae Hemmi of Elsa Nature Conservancy (ENC) investigating the circumstances of the unusual suspension and resumption of the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji this year (2011), as well as ENC’s assessment of the current state of the dolphin drive hunt in Japan. The major findings were as follows:

Irregularities in the dolphin drive hunt season were found to have occurred due to a severe decline (to zero) of the pilot and false killer whale catches in February. The extension of the hunting season through May to attempt to fill the quotas for those species was found to be legal and within the regulation of Wakayama.  Pressure from foreign pro-cetacean activists was likely not a significant contributing factor in the suspension or extension of the hunting season.

Inquiries to the Japan Fisheries Agency and the fisheries section of Wakayama prefecture regarding the regulation of hunt seasons and catch quotas revealed systemic deficiencies in the management of the dolphin drive hunt. Catch quotas were calculated and administered in a manner that systematically responded to the needs of fishermen but ignored the biology and ecology of dolphins, making them irrelevant as a mechanism for supporting the sustainable use/consumption of dolphins as a marine resource. Oversight was lacking, with all catch data reported by fishermen in the absence of independent or scientific verification. Enforcement was weak, with no penalties in place for the mismanagement of quotas. In Futo the quota system failed to prevent or explain the depletion of striped dolphin stocks. A similar trend in Taiji is not unlikely.

Despite previous appeals from ENC to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the Consumer Affairs Agency and other relevant agencies, toxicity information was still missing from the labels of packaged dolphin meat. In some of the samples tested for this investigation, levels of PCBs were 19.2 times the allowable national limit.(See the table attached.)

Glaring inconsistencies in the official position of the Japanese government with the realities of the town of Taiji were found. Records showed that while whaling does date back 400 years, the “traditional” whaling actually ended in 1878 after a whaling disaster that decimated the Taiji whaling fleet. Regular dolphin drive hunts date back only 42 years to 1969 when pilot whales were captured on a large scale for display at the Taiji Whale Museum. Currently only 8.5% of the people in the town  are employed in the fisheries and only about 100 people at the most depend on whaling or whaling-related activities for their livelihood. Historical records and demographic data do not support the contention that “Taiji is a ‘Whaling Town’ that cannot survive without whaling.”

By supporting the dolphin drive hunts, the policies and position of the Japanese government harm not only dolphins but the health and well being of Japanese people, particularly in Taiji. We are hopeful for a change that will bring our nation closer to those of other ‘modern’ countries and with contemporary, global views about the appropriate treatment of wild animals and natural resources.

Table 1. Toxic Substances in Dolphin Meat, Taiji 2011

The Elsa Nature Conservancy was established in 1976 with the aim of global nature and environmental protection across a broad spectrum, from one’s own doorstep to the sky. Elsa always looks for the blind spots of the conservation movement — things others have forgotten about – and has campaigned for the protection of animals that are going extinct unnoticed, such as the Japanese reed bunting (Embriza yessoensis). Furthermore, the organization was campaigning for dolphin and elephant protection before the media took up these issues. It has also continued the debate in opposition to vivisection, as well as criticism of safari parks, zoos, and aquariums. Additionally, Elsa has from the very beginning used recycled paper for its publications, and makes its own stationery and note-pads out of paper with only side used, and from computer printing scraps, in order to save as many trees as possible. Elsa’s basic approach is “Each person practices nature/environment protection in whatever way is personally possible.” While the organization sets forth grand ideals, individual members carry out their own modest but diligent activities.

Elsa Nature Conservancy: Box2, Tsukuba Gakuen Post Office, Tsukuba 305-8691, Japan

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“Save the Dolphins, Save the World”

September 15, 2010

Posted by Benjamin Harley

The Dolphin Dance Project has published a new page on our website that summarizes the primary threats from humans to the well-being of dolphins in the wild.  This is a relatively comprehensive survey and provides links to many of the organizations working to protect dolphins and their habitat.  The page is meant to be a practical resource which provides a review of the current situation and suggestions about what can be done to help.  It is also a stark reminder of the immense impact that our global society is having on the oceans and the world.  In many cases, the perils we create for dolphins signal a greater menace to ourselves. Please have a look, click here.

Banksy's sad dolphin

Dolphins (and whales), as apex predators and mammals, are a unique bellwether for us – a proverbial canary in the (deep blue) coal mine.  We have so much in common with them, not just our intelligence and creativity, but our basic biology:  we eat some of the same fish, we suffer from similar diseases, we can be poisoned by the same chemicals.  In recent years, we can attest that dolphins have been getting measurably sicker, they carry enormous loads of toxins, they are showing up stranded and starving . . . and it all amounts to a neon-flashing-sign proclaiming: ‘save the dolphins, save the world’.

The new page begins with a brief review of our similarities: there is ever more evidence that dolphins have sophisticated conscious lives, deep emotional bonds, and the ability to reflect on their own thoughts.  We are so alike, they are our homologues in the sea.  More remarkable, the fossil record strongly suggests dolphins have had advanced mental capacities for 15 million years; by contrast, humans have had similar capabilities for at most a million years, possibly only the last hundred thousand.  Dolphins (and other cetaceans) have been the most intelligent creatures on earth since long before humans diverged from the other great apes.  One can only imagine what this age of cetaceans was like, what kind of ocean civilization existed before humans started hunting them aggressively in the last 150 years, killing 90% or more of some species, decimating whatever culture existed, destroying the abundance of fish that must have allowed them great leisure to play and socialize.  But we do catch glimpses when dolphins in the Pacific gather around a pregnant humpback whale, providing safety and helping her give birth in a celebration of whistles and clicks.

What is most astounding is precisely how recent our deleterious impact on the entire dolphin population is.  Only modern technology has allowed us to hunt large numbers of dolphins with motorized boats, to ravage the oceans with invisible nets and hooks that cover miles at a time, to create chemicals that are poisoning dolphins to the extent that 50% of first born babies die.  And it is only our relative prosperity which has created a meaningful market for us to capture dolphins to entertain us, to risk catastrophic spills to pump oil from below the ocean, and to produce the huge number of commercial and recreational boats that crisscross dolphins’ natural habitat, killing and maiming dolphins as they speed by.

It is probably fair to say that before the 1950’s, humans rarely amounted to more than a local nuisance for specific pods – but in the last 50 years, things have changed radically.  One is left to contemplate what this must be like for dolphin societies around the world.  For 15 million years, their ancestors lived in relatively peaceful equilibrium with the environment in which they evolved, and for the last few hundred thousand years their most notable interaction with the ever more prevalent Homo sapiens was to nudge us to shore when we fell out of a primitive boat.   But now, in the equivalent of a blink of an eye, dolphins have been undergoing assaults that are perhaps more intense than what World War II did to Europe – hunted, poisoned, caught in ever expanding traps of fishing gear and debris, harassed in some places around the clock.

The way we live today as a global society – through the lens of our impact on the ocean – is nothing like the way we lived in 1930 or even 1950, much less the relatively minimal effects we had on the overall environment throughout human prehistory (with the important caveat of driving many large land mammals to extinction as we spread out from Africa).  What we are doing is devastating, and there is no reason to expect that the oceans will be able to survive it; in our lifetimes the oceans are becoming deserts.

How have we come to this?  It is not just our rapidly accelerating technological advances – these can be equally useful for neutralizing the effects of our society on our environment.  Rather, there is a deep and pervasive attitude that humans are allowed, even intended, to master the natural world to satisfy our needs and desires.  We believe that we are somehow separate from nature, that nature’s purpose is to serve us, that we are above the inevitable give and take of natural systems.  This belief allows us to escape thinking too much about the consequences of our actions – especially the impact they have on our fellow creatures.  And it runs the risk of blinding us to the threats we create for ourselves, making us unassertive even when we do recognize our interdependence.

The first dolphin I encountered in the wild delivered, face to face, an unexpected personal message to correct my thinking.  I was prepared to look into the eye of another intelligent creature and see it mirror back my own curiosity and wonder at such an encounter.  But I did not realize that this experience would blossom quickly into a profound transformation of my relationship with the natural world as a whole.  It was as if meeting this non-human, but seeing it as an equal – and I do not wish to romanticize the experience, it is simply true that anyone unbiased will see in the eye of a dolphin a mind of equal depth and a shared curiosity about the minds of others – caused me to challenge a deep, if unconscious, belief that humans are somehow different, somehow separate, and somehow deserving of deference not offered to any other creature.  To really see that we are just another animal – special in our own ways, but no more precious, no more entitled than any other animal to reign over the creatures of the earth – was to reevaluate my place, the place of humanity as a species, in the continuum of life itself.

Joseph Campbell, the foremost scholar of human mythology, pointed out that one of the defining myths of Western Civilization, enshrined in the Old Testament and also in the legends of the Dorian Greeks, is the separation of humankind from nature, the separation of God from nature.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

It reflects the worldview of herders – people whose identity and survival depends on dominating animals – and it is the deep foundation for our heedless exploitation of nature in what has become the ‘modern’ world.  What I had not realized was that, even with all my ‘green’ sensibilities, I did not know how to see – really see, not just conceptualize – the world in any other way.

Just because we can dominate the natural world, bend it to what we think is in our interest, does that mean we are ‘entitled’ to do so?  or even that it is ‘wise’ to do so?  As soon as one takes seriously the subjective experience of other animals, the field of what we have a ‘right’ to do is constrained by the effects it has on their needs and their desires.  It is no wonder so many scientists fight against recognizing the emotional lives of animals – to the extent that science serves our technical mastery of nature, this would be a great inconvenience – even as bonobos can use sign language fluently to tell us how they feel, and everyone who cares for a pet knows they have feelings.  It seems increasingly strange to insist, until proven otherwise, that other animals are so cognitively different from us.

From seeing myself reflected in the eye of the dolphin, I find myself inexorably expanding the creatures in whose place I can put myself.  It throws into stark relief the blatant disregard for the dignity of other life in so much of modern society: pollution, habitat destruction, not to mention what we do to ‘domesticated’ animals in stockyards and laboratories.  It is the nature of things for life to devour life – but predator prey relationships have evolved gradually, balancing the interests of both.  As the few remaining hunter-gather cultures demonstrate, for most of our evolutionary history, killing other animals was considered a sacrifice, a sacred act, done with gratitude to the animal, and with an understanding that we were part of the same circle of life and death.  It is hard to imagine anything more distant from the modern industrial experience of buying a meal, filling a tank with gas, even visiting a nature ‘preserve’ on holiday.

Palace at Knossos, circa 1500 BC. Before the Dorians, the dolphins are depicted without human riders, and their eyes are drawn with intelligence and compassion like ours.

Two thousand years ago, a famous Roman author Pliny the younger recorded a short anecdote in a letter – the details of which make it especially convincing – about a wild dolphin and its eagerness to make a human friend.  As they still do today, and presumably as they have done since our first homo ancestor swam out into the sea, the dolphin takes the lead, approaching the human, indicating clearly that it wants nothing more than to share the joy of friendship.  The story rings true, not only for the delightful way that humans and dolphins come to love each other, but also for the tragic outcome.  Even loving humans can fail to do the right thing by their cetacean friends – and the forgiving, unsuspecting nature of the dolphin offers it no protection.

“There is in Africa a town called Hippo, situated not far from the seacoast: it stands upon a navigable lake communicating with an estuary in the form of a river, which alternately flows into the lake, or into the ocean, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, and swimming; especially boys, whom love of play brings to the spot. With these it is a fine and manly achievement to be able to swim the farthest; and he that leaves the shore and out-races his companions at the greatest distance gains the victory.

It happened, in one of these trials of skill, that a certain boy, bolder than the rest, launched out towards the opposite shore. He was met by a dolphin, who sometimes swam before him, and sometimes behind him, then played round him, and at last took him upon his back, and set him down, and afterwards took him again; and thus he carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions.

The fame of this remarkable accident spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked round the boy (whom they viewed as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him relate the story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all attentively watching the ocean, and (what indeed is almost itself an ocean) the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of went into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin appeared again and came to the boy, who, together with his companions, swam away with the utmost precipitation.

The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dived up and down, in a series of circular movements. This he practiced the next day, the day after, and for several days together, till the people (accustomed from their infancy to the sea) began to be ashamed of their timidity. They ventured, therefore, to advance nearer, playing with him and calling him to them, while he, in return, suffered himself to be touched and stroked. Use rendered them courageous. The boy, in particular, who first made the experiment, swam by the side of him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards in that manner, and thought the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin.

There seemed now, indeed, to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing; the rest of the boys, in the meanwhile surrounding and encouraging their companion. It is very remarkable that this dolphin was followed by a second, which seemed only as a spectator and attendant on the former; for he did not at all submit to the same familiarities as the first, but only escorted him backwards and forwards, as the boys did their comrade. But what is further surprising, and no less true than what I have already related, is that this dolphin, who thus played with the boys and carried them upon his back, would come upon the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea.

It is a fact that Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, actuated by an absurd piece of superstition, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore: the novelty and smell of which made him retire into the ocean, and it was not till several days after that he was seen again, when he appeared dull and languid; however, he recovered his strength and continued his usual playful tricks. All the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight, whose arrival and prolonged stay, was an additional expense, which the slender finances of this little community would ill afford; besides, the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed. It was thought proper, therefore, to remove the occasion of this concourse, by privately killing the poor dolphin.”

- translated from the Latin by William Melmoth, Harvard Classics

This is an especially sad ending.  The authorities were not able to understand the message which the children so readily acknowledged.  The joy of the dolphin was in seeing the humans voluntarily choose to play with him.  This became the joy of the children.  If only it had become a defining joy to the civilization – making it unthinkable to harm the dolphin for petty human-centric concerns.

Perhaps saddest of all, it illustrates the perennial threat to dolphins of being loved too much.  There are so many more humans today – and we have killed off so many dolphins – there is a great imbalance between the humans who want to see them and the dolphins in places that are easily accessible.  As the industry grows to feed the ever increasing appetite to experience dolphins on our terms, in ways that are convenient to us, rather than on theirs, it is having negative consequences on the dolphins themselves.  It is clear that many dolphins enjoy interacting with humans and will seek them out on their own terms – just like they were doing two thousand years ago.  If you want to experience this for yourself, be sure to find a guide and a situation that ensure the dolphin’s needs come first and allows the dolphin to come to you out of its own desire to make a connection – then you will be as joyful as the boy in the story and no doubt experience the mutual fondness which may transform your relationship to nature itself.

With all this attention to the menace that humans have become for dolphins in the wild, it is important to remember that there are so many inspirational examples of us helping them.  Ordinary people, expressing great tenderness, make enormous efforts to save stranded dolphins and whales.  Researchers work doggedly to understand them and identify what can be done to protect their health.  Citizens invest countless hours and resources to reduce the impact of our modern society and to educate and inform others to stop direct threats like hunting and live capture.  Our new page lists many of the organizations that are devoted to these causes, please support them.

The human heart, like the dolphin heart, is capable of such beautiful compassion and understanding.  At our best, we rise above our own self concerns and take into consideration all the other creatures with whom we share this world.

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海の友達 (Friends in the Ocean)

July 2, 2010

During the first week of June, I went on my fourth trip on Dolphin Dream – a cruise to the White Sand Ridge of the Little Bahamas Bank, where a friendly pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins live and play with visiting humans. Having written about The Cove on a previous post, I had been planning on traveling to Japan. Instead, I returned to my favorite dolphin trip – Dolphin Dream – and aboard, I met just the people I was seeking: Japanese dolphin lovers.

Dolphin Dream has always taken me on the most remarkable trips – and my ‘Japanese week’ was no exception. The dolphins showed up in numbers…playing with us for hours and creating incredible experiences through which new human friendships were forged. By the end of the week, I had made wonderful new friends – human and dolphin. I also learned a great deal about Japanese attitudes towards dolphins…so much that, now back in NY, I’ve been inspired to make a Japanese video about protecting dolphins. I’m very proud to present it here…not only is it my first completed dolphin project, but the first which I shot myself! I have Amphibico to thank for the new underwater housing – they are a new sponsor of Dolphin Dance. I must also thank Dolphin Dream’s Captain Scott for a ton of expert guidance on shooting the video. Of course, much thanks goes to the Japanese women – Moriko and Kazuyon – whose love and dedication to the dolphins is what provides the whole basis of the video’s message. And not to forget – the biggest thanks goes to the beautiful Atlantic Spotted dolphins who generously share their playfulness and creativity with us! I hope you will enjoy the video and forward it to as many people as you can – especially in Japan.

My ‘Japanese week’ on Dolphin Dream was led by Takaji Ochi, a well-known Japanese underwater photographer who has been facilitating trips on Dolphin Dream for the last 10 years. Sporting the deep tan of a dedicated sea-man, Taka, as the American crew call him, is a true dolphin lover if ever there was one. He has even named a couple of the juvenile dolphins on White Sand Ridge after his own sons, Kaito and Hayato. Taka is very charismatic, so it’s no wonder he has a dedicated following amongst his clients many of whom had returned for their 4th, 5th or even 9th time. Most days Taka dived with us, shooting pictures of dolphins as well as human-dolphin interactions so that many of us had beautifully professional photos of ourselves with dolphins to boast by the end of the week (see the photos at Taka’s blog about this trip). For the many who brought their own (wow! high end) cameras Taka also reviewed photos, offering helpful hints on improving their shots. Yet, for the ladies (and one man) who were on the trip, this trip was not only about Taka or even about photography. For these wonderfully dedicated people, it was an annual pilgrimage – just to connect with the dolphins.

Shot by Takaji Ochi, this is the dolphin named after his son, Kaito

Moriko and Kazuyon are the particularly beautiful ‘dancers’ in the video. But they were not the only accomplished divers; and during the week, I learned that the reason for this was not only the fact of having returned so many times to the Bahamas with Taka. Many of my new Japanese friends had also been to Mikura Island to play with dolphins – but more remarkable – many, including Moriko and Kazuyon – practice weekly in a pool in preparation for their trips. These are truly dedicated dolphin ‘dancers’. They practice breath holding so they can dive down further and longer to be with the dolphins. They perfect their ‘dolphin kicks’ so they can more like the dolphins, to be allowed ever closer to them. And I think it’s obvious to see on the video – the dolphins clearly appreciate the effort, rewarding them with enchanting ‘dances’.

Does it seem surprising that there are a group of Japanese women who are so dedicated to connecting with wild dolphins that they practice weekly in a pool? Does it seem surprising that there is a Japanese photographer who loves dolphins and whales so much that he spends almost half the year leading trips to photograph them? I ask because all the recent media coverage of The Cove and of Japanese whaling could make a person think that most Japanese people wanted only to kill and eat cetaceans.

As it turned out, Taka knew even more about the dolphin slaughters than someone would learn from watching The Cove. He was a journalist prior to becoming a professional underwater photographer and he covered the dolphin-slaughter story when it was exposed in other Japanese fishing villages – Futo and Iki – decades ago. In 1979, Hardy Jones, Dexter Cate, Ric O’Barry and Sakae Henmi (among others) exposed the killing of dolphins in these villages through a series of photographs, and in 1992 Jones made a film for CBS and National Geographic that brought the issue to international attention. Hardy’s photos and films showed scenes almost identical to the horrific ones shown in The Cove…bloodied beaches with thousands of dying dolphins. Taka and other Japanese reporters wrote about the slaughter in Japanese newspapers; and they were largely halted. Indeed, that is likely why the hunts in Taiji had to be carried out in such secrecy.

Taka told me that back then, it wasn’t a move to protect the intelligent, self-aware dolphin that resulted in the end of the hunts in Futo and Iki. He told me that what got a response from the Japanese people – and Japanese government – was the revelation that the fishermen were killing animals far in excess of the government-set quotas. Regulations  were being flouted – but not only that – more animals were being killed than necessary for food. This waste of life was morally reprehensible to Japanese citizens, who were emboldened to support an end to, or at least a severe reduction of dolphin killing.

This kind of reasoning may be unsatisfactory for many American dolphin lovers, who often rant, ‘Why can’t they understand that dolphins are intelligent, sentient beings whose right to life must be protected?’ But I think it reflects an important reality about the international conversations regarding cetacean conservation. Japanese people understand very well that dolphins are intelligent. But that is not what is most appealing or important from a Japanese point of view. To protect dolphins in Japan, messages that speak to Japanese perspectives must be honed. Preventing wasteful killing could be a goal for Taiji, where the dolphins are too toxic (mercury) to eat anyway. And we must listen to what people in Japan specifically love about dolphins…and how that may differ from an American or Western appreciation.

Over dinner I talked about this with Maki Maki, who was on her 9th trip with Taka. Although a hobbyist, she is very serious about photographing the dolphins and whales, having also traveled with Taka to Tonga to photograph Humpbacks. I asked why she was so enamored of the dolphins…why she had been back so many times to Dolphin Dream.

‘Well, it’s impossible to stop, isn’t it?’ she asked in response. And I had to agree I was addicted too. When I pressed her for why that was true for her, she simply said, ‘It’s mysterious, right?’ And I had to agree with that too.

Maki Maki wasn’t being shy or evasive. In a very Japanese way, she was affirming something really important – the mystery. We can’t quite put a finger on why it’s so amazing to be eye to eye with a dolphin. Were the reasons manifest, there would be no reason to return year after year.

I doubt that with an American person, you’d leave the conversation that way…‘It’s mysterious, right?’ The American way is to explain, to self-express. It’s because dolphins are intelligent… they have complex social connections…they are self-aware…because I love them. And while these reasons leave out that critical, subtle internal experience, they make a great platform for why we want to protect dolphins. On the other hand, how do you create an pro-dolphin campaign around ‘mystery’?

That might be one reason there isn’t much of a pro-dolphin campaign in Japan. Despite many people who love dolphins, there is no feeling that that love should be imposed on others. Sadly, what there seems to be instead in Japan is a big mis-information campaign led by the Fishery Ministry trying to convince Japanese people that eating whale and dolphins is some kind of deeply held traditional value. That’s just propaganda. True, small fishing villages have been involved in coastal whaling for centuries; but whale consumption only became widespread in Japan after World War II because of the shortage of other meat during that difficult time. At that time Japanese whaling grew enormously with US support. Prior to that, whales were traditionally protected in many areas of Japan, revered as an incarnation of Ebisu the ocean/fish god. Taka told me that decades ago when Japan did have a ‘grass roots’ pro-cetacean movement, it was indeed focused on spirituality.

My ‘Japanese week’ on Dolphin Dream was amazing…but this is just the beginning. I am still planning to visit Japan. I will see Moriko and Kazuyon in the fall when they will introduce me to Japanese dolphins at Mikura Island. I can hardly wait! And we are also already planning next summer’s reunion in the Bahamas on Dolphin Dream. By then, I am imagining that the human ‘pod’ will be as coordinated as the dolphins…and that will really be ‘Dolphin Dance’!

As I plan for next summer, I am well aware of the uncertainties. Oil from the BP disaster is literally around the corner. Some are hopeful that the oil will not move towards the Bahamas as it passes the Straight of Florida where winds tend to blow in a westerly direction. But others are rightly concerned. It is unknown what hazards may result not only from the oil itself, but from the dispersant Corexit that has been used in untested ways at the site of the leak (rather than on the water’s surface). There is evidence of underwater plumes, much greater than what is visible on the surface that is likely killing everything in its environs. Even if the waters around the Bahamas are ‘safe’…I can’t help thinking about all the dolphins and other marine life along the Florida coast, and of course, in the Gulf of Mexico that are being harmed, sickened and killed. The situation is enraging, disgusting, saddening…how to hold on to hope in times like this? Because we need hope and have courage if we are to keep moving forward and do what it takes to stop off-shore drilling, and discover and develop energy resources that are safer, cleaner, more sustainable.

Wild dolphins reach out to us humans from across a species divide to invite us to play. They invite us to see and experience goodness in ourselves – joy, love, creativity, trust – characteristics we naturally share with dolphins. For this, I am so deeply grateful. As I face all that is difficult – things that are personal or global – I understand more and more how important it is to ‘be like a dolphin’. I understand that I have to nurture my ‘delfin’ qualities – cultivate them – human nature won’t allow them to thrive otherwise. I need to cultivate these qualities because they are my most valuable internal resource – the source of strength and inspiration – that will help me do what I can to make our lives and our world a good and healthy place for all living beings who share planet Earth.

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Moving Together

April 26, 2010

Holding each other’s gaze, we twirl. Keeping his eye on mine, my dolphin partner swims in excited circles, leading me around and around and down. Never taking my eyes off his, I undulate, twist and corkscrew to show my enthusiasm for our interaction by mimicking him as best I can while adding a bit of my own ‘flair’. ‘Let’s twirl and twirl  together some more!’ is what I mean. I have forgotten about breathing for a moment…but once I feel the urge to breathe, I realize I am already ascending, following my dolphin partner who is now spiraling around and up. Somehow, we ‘decided’ to turn up towards the surface at the same moment…how exactly is obvious in a way…we just started to ascend when we felt like it. At the same time it’s marvelously mysterious. It is as if he magically knew when I would need to breathe…and I magically sensed that we needed to finish our short dance so he could rejoin his family, who were doing twirls and swirls of their own as they traveled past beneath us.

This blog is about the power of dance to unite…to help us move together. In part, it is my response to ‘Why Dance Matters,’ a virtual celebration of World Dance Day.

But before I get into that…I want to thank the many of you who read my previous blog post on The Cove and who have added comments of your own. The protection of dolphins and their habitat is, of course, exceedingly important to me. So I’m really thrilled that some of the conversation about that is happening on my blog! This post doesn’t focus on the movie directly, but I hope the ideas I’ll discuss – synchrony and empathy – will have resonance – particularly with regard to improving communication between American and Japanese people about protecting dolphins.

It is a beautiful coincidence that dolphins and humans share the ability and inclination to communicate through synchrony – actions like mirroring and imitation.

Watch wild dolphins and their synchrony is stunning. Bonded pairs – whether mother/calf or life-long buddies – often swim together side by side – making the same arc, turning at the same time, even taking simultaneous breaths – as they express their close relationship with each other. Larger groups of dolphins are even more amazing, moving effortlessly in a kind of unison that is wonderfully fluid…at times absolute…but easily accommodating the youngster who needs to take a breath sooner than the rest…or a pair who twirl off for a ‘quickie’…a group who veer off momentarily for a swirling game of ‘chase’…but then return to a synchronously moving pod.

Humans also use synchronous movement to express relatedness. We are masters of imitation and this ability is related to our capacity for empathy. For example, when we are in agreement with each other, we often take on similar postures, gestures, facial expressions and speech cadences with our conversation partner (a tendency well-described by sociologists and psychologists). Often, we do not even realize that we are acting so similarly…yet if we don’t…if the other person doesn’t take on a similar tone or posture, we are likely to have the feeling that the other person just ‘didn’t get it,’ or that maybe they were just ‘going along’ with the conversation and really didn’t agree with us at all.

Some neurobiologists believe that the presence of ‘mirror neurons’ explains the connection between mimicry and the feeling of empathy (references at the end of the post). First discovered in monkeys, ‘mirror neurons’ are brain cells that fire both when we do an action as well as when we see someone else do an action. It is believed that when these ‘mirror neurons’ fire, we sense what it might be like for ourselves to act in the same way that the person we are watching is acting. In our minds, we ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ – and through that experience, it is believed, we come to understand the other person’s point of view, motivation or feeling – we develop empathy.

There is evidence to suggest that humans and dolphins have ‘mirror neurons’ but science wasn’t the basis for me to approach wild dolphins through synchronous movement…rather, it was DANCE!

Most of you know that I’m an avid and long-time practitioner of Contact Improvisation, a form of dance that depends heavily on the kind same of ‘magical’ connection with one’s human dance partner as I describe in ‘twirling’ with a wild dolphin. In Contact Improvisation, dancers we connect through touch and sharing weight (partnering) as well as seeing or even hearing our partner move. The connection allows us to discover the dance between us – a ‘place’ where shared movement seems magically to occur – as if neither dancer were leading, but both are following some enchanted Dance that arises from and guides both dancers.

Synchrony is definitely one of the ways through which we develop a sense of connection in improvised dance. When someone approaches me at a dance jam moving in a manner similar or complimentary to me, I understand immediately that this person is interested in dancing with me. In the simple act of imitation, they not only say, ‘I want to join you,’ but also, ‘I understand what you are doing, and I like it!’ Having left some of his own ideas aside in order to bother to dance like me, he also communicates respect – even deference for my dancing. A measure of trust is generated. We are doing the same actions – our bodies must be experiencing similar sensations. I know he knows very viscerally how I feel.

So, I reply, ‘OK, let’s dance!’ – not in words, but in my movements. I might continue in an imitative mode – so now I’m imitating him imitating me. We might just actually laugh about the absurdity of that (there’s plenty of spontaneous laughter at Contact Improvisation jams). Or maybe I elaborate by adding new movement elements or even contrast – theme and variation. As we play back and forth, the lines between leader and follower blur…until we both become participants in a shared collaborative dance whose creation seems to come from both of us and neither of us. When we start in synchrony, on common ground, it often seems easy to get to such a ‘magical’ dance.

With Contact Improvisation jams as a reference, it was easy to recognize the synchronous motion that goes on during wild dolphin socialization as a kind of expression about their relatedness. And it was easy to sense that synchrony would be an appropriate way to approach wild dolphins – that wild dolphins would likely understand what I ‘meant’. It seemed obvious that wild dolphins and Contact Improvisers use synchronous motion to express similar things: I like you…I respect you…I understand you and want to join you…

My dance ‘investigations’ are completely (and delightfully!) unscientific…so it was great to find some ‘real’ research that corroborates my experiences. In a recent publication, Denise Herzing, PhD reported mirroring, imitation and synchrony in the interaction of wild Atlantic Spotted dolphins with human researchers in the waters around the Bahamas. Attempting to use a simple keyboard to try to establish communication with the wild dolphins, she found that cooperative use of the keyboard between humans and wild dolphins was most likely when there was synchronous movement (and eye contact) between human and dolphin.

I’ve danced with the very dolphins in Dr. Herzing’s report on several delightful past trips (including a very memorable one with friends last August). And…I’m excited to announce that I will be going on a research trip to this area with Dr. Herzing’s mentor, Diana Reiss, PhD in August this year! Dr. Reiss is a professor of Psychology at Hunter College, director of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. She is the researcher who used mirror recognition studies to show that dolphins express self awareness. As you can imagine, I’m very excited to be making the trip with her…stay tuned for some ‘real’ dolphin science coming your way on this blog soon!

Meantime, I am wondering…if we can use dance to reach across species – from human to dolphins…can we also use it to bridge a cultural gap?

Since I wrote my blog on The Cove, I’ve ‘met’ (mostly online) quite a few Japanese dolphin enthusiasts…and I’m beginning to understand that dolphins (and whales) raise difficult issues in the relationship between my two home countries – Japan and America. There is controversy and politics, strong emotions and unfortunately, lots of misunderstanding. How can we work together? How can we help American audiences understand that Japanese people are not ‘anti-cetacean’? That mostly, the antipathy to western pro-cetacean activism is less about dolphins and whales per se and more a retreat from potential embarrassment due to ‘outside pressure’? How can we help the many many Japanese people who love whales and dolphins to speak out and let the Japanese government know that holding on to whaling is not the way in which they want to assert Japanese sovereignty?

I am dreaming about working on Mikura Island…a place in Japan devoted to dolphin study, protection and eco-tourism. According to researcher Justin Gregg, PhD, who worked there for several years as part of the Dolphin Communications Project (DCP), ‘encounters with the dolphins there can be quite spectacular’. An American (DCP) and Japanese research group (formerly, the ICERC; now the Mikura tourism office) already work in collaboration there. I would love a chance to create a work of inter-species dance there through the collaboration of wild dolphins, Japanese and American people to inspire mutual understanding and cooperation in the efforts to protect dolphins and their environment in Japan and around the world. Are you an underwater-and-improvisational dancer, underwater cinematographer, composer, funder or cetacean-and-dance lover? Would you like to join in helping to realize a project like this? If so, please contact me!

[ For more on 'mirror neurons' start with...this NOVA show...or this article ]

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Ripples from ‘The Cove’

March 15, 2010

As someone who loves dolphins, I’m encouraged that ‘The Cove’ won an Oscar and is creating so much chatter about protecting whales and dolphins. But I’m dismayed at all the anti-Japanese sentiment that has been stirred up, particularly because I’m afraid this antagonism will not help the dolphins.

That the ‘ripples’ of the movie are wide is no surprise – ‘The Cove’ is an incredibly compelling and strong film, and I am grateful to the film makers for bringing international attention to an issue near and dear to my heart. I commend their courage and recommend ‘The Cove’ to everyone, particularly if you care about dolphins. I also want to make a statement here about how the goals of this movie can be strengthened. Reaction to ‘The Cove’ has alienated many Japanese people. This is unfortunate, because the people of Japan are in the best position to effect the change that ‘The Cove’ seeks to achieve. We need some voices that inspire Japanese people to the cause.

If you’ve seen ‘The Cove,’ you easily understand why the lines have become drawn as ‘good guys’ against ‘Japanese whalers’. By the end of the movie when you finally witness the cove red with blood – you are rightly enraged and ready to jump into action on the side of the technology-wielding modern-day heroes of the movie. But what is that action? Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS, who made the film) urges viewers to sign petitions to pressure Japan to stop the dolphin hunt.

On its face this may seem appropriate, but increased pressure has only hardened Japan against international opinion. On the heels of Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, threatening to sue Japan in the International Court of Justice over whaling practices, two Greenpeace activists (one of them Japanese) were arrested in Japan. Is it any wonder? Japan is a democratic country. Why would any elected official – in Japan or anywhere – step up to say, “Let’s give in to international pressure!”? On the other hand, if the constituents – the Japanese people – were inspired and spoke up…the results would, no doubt, be powerful.

But ‘The Cove’ misses the opportunity to inspire Japanese people. There are no Japanese heroes, hardly any Japanese protagonists. Most of the Japanese people in the movie rudely do awful things or stupidly try to cover them up. There is a lone brave citizen who speaks out against serving mercury-tainted dolphin meat in school lunches. But he is a minor character, not  portrayed as a hero. The brave councilman is a true-life, Japanese hero. But the protagonists of the film are the American/Canadian team that exposes the dolphin slaughter. I wonder whether having a Japanese person on that team wouldn’t have helped – not only in getting ‘behind enemy lines’ within the movie – but also in achieving the bigger goals of the movie.

The Japanese trailer for ‘The Cove’ focuses on the mercury issue, and I think this is a bit strange, because almost no one in Japan eats dolphin meat. The ruse (exposed by The Cove) to sneak the dolphin meat into school lunches occurred precisely because of the lack of consumer demand for dolphin meat. Also, I’m afraid that pitching ‘The Cove’ as a ‘mercury’ movie might only alienate Japanese audiences further. Mercury poisoning syndrome is called ‘Minamata disease’ because it was first identified and addressed as an environmental disease in the 1950s in Minamata, Japan. Japanese people are well-aware of the dangers of mercury poisoning and might think it ‘arrogant’ for Americans to try to ‘educate’ a nation which has already suffered with it. For a person who knows about mercury, it will seem bizarre to frame the mercury issue around dolphin meat when the threat is much more widespread with tuna, which is also increasingly tainted with mercury and is eaten in vastly greater amounts. In so far as the goal of ‘The Cove’ is to protect dolphins, focusing on mercury seems off-target because, given the vanishingly small market value of dolphin meat, banning dolphin meat sales will do nothing to eliminate the economic incentives of the Taiji fishermen.

As ‘The Cove’ clearly states, the powerful economic incentive for the Taiji fishermen is the hundreds of thousands of dollars that live, captive dolphins fetch from international buyers who want to use dolphins for entertainment in their marine parks. To destroy the economic incentive for the dolphin hunt, no one needs to ‘gang up’ on Japan. Rather, countries need to make a multilateral agreement to ban the capture and sale of wild dolphins around the world – and invite Japan to join.

“Let’s give into international pressure!” will gain no votes, but I believe a Japanese politician could say, “Let’s join the international community in preserving and protecting wildlife!” and expect support. Japanese people have a profound reverence for Nature. The simplicity and purity of the natural form is central to the arts of Japan as in no other culture. To find a voice that resonates with Japanese values in this way, we should call on passionate and talented Japanese artists who can fulfill this role, giving them center stage in the dialogue about protecting dolphins and other wildlife. I would like to include my own voice in this, of course – my Dolphin Dance Project. But while I am Japanese, I live and work in the US. To stop dolphin slaughters in Japan, it is critically important for Japanese people and especially artists in Japan to raise their voices and be heard. I believe that with the right inspiration, Japanese people will act to change their own laws to prohibit cruelty and protect the Natural world. Perhaps they would even inspire the rest of the world.

For the world has been inspired to action by pure, simple natural form in Art before…

In 1967, scientists Roger Payne and Scott McVay reported that humpback whales did not just make sounds – they actually sang together, repeating themes that changed from season to season. At that time, data were already beginning to accumulate about the dwindling numbers of some whale species. Hearing the sound of the humpbacks as ‘songs,’ people appreciated their haunting, almost dirge-like quality and were called into action to protect them. ‘Songs of the Humpback Whales’ was released as an LP in 1970, and in 1979, 10.5 million copies of the CD were distributed in an issue of National Geographic. Due to the change in people’s attitudes about whales, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which was originally formed to make sure there would be adequate whale stocks for hunting around the world became increasingly focused on conservation in the 1970s and eventually declared a moratorium against most whaling in 1986. This did not happen just because of a single LP. Yet, it is well recognized that ‘Songs of the Humpback Whales’ was critical to the changes that have occurred in our feelings about whales since the 1970s.

In our goal to protect the dolphins, we need to appeal to everyone’s humanity – not just people in Japan – but everywhere in the world where the use of captive dolphins and whales for mere entertainment is so wrongly considered to be OK. There are many people in countries, including the US, who think it’s fine to capture dolphins for our entertainment. There are many Japanese people who love dolphins and know that exploiting them is wrong.

In addition, we need to stop poisoning our oceans with mercury by decreasing the burning of coal and controlling industrial emissions. Mercury in the ocean is like carbon in the atmosphere. Avoiding eating dolphin meat is not much of a challenge – not even for Japanese people. But the high levels of mercury in food fish are a problem for humans and dolphins alike. Our large fish (like tuna) are increasingly too toxic for us to eat. And dolphin babies are dying from drinking mercury-tainted milk from their mothers who have eaten mercury-tainted fish. We need messages that remind us that our fates are connected.

‘The Cove’ is a remarkable movie that has innovated documentary story telling. I highly recommend it, and I support OPS in their goal to end the hunting of dolphins in Japan. I also want to encourage us not to act only in reactive anger. Instead of ganging up on one ‘bad’ country, let us create international consortia to achieve environmental goals together. Instead of railing against the horror, let us find the inspiration for positive, inclusive action. Some of will find inspiration in whale songs or other Art – others in time spent in Nature: a walk in the woods, a swim in the sea. Whatever our own way may be, let us deeply feel our connection to the Earth again, that we may be moved to protect its beauty.

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Following the Bubble Stream…

February 12, 2010

Following the Bubble Stream…

On this Valentine’s day (and the Lunar New Year), I’m excited to share an example of my very favorite human-dance ‘move,’ which I call ‘the swirl’. This ‘performance’ was documented on the first day of filming by our underwater cinematographer Bryce Groark.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also see it and a breakdown of the interaction in our new gallery.)

What an ecstatic moment! As I spiraled along the bottom with one dolphin, two others raced in to join, so that the four of us could ‘swirl’ up together to the surface. So magical!

In moments like this, when the wild dolphins allow me to join their beautiful underwater dance, I feel loved. I feel accepted. I feel joy. And watching this clip, the memory of that is what rushes back first.

Then, watching again, I marvel at how much of a ‘dance’ this moment is….undulating in time together we adjust our bodies and trajectories, all the while ‘listening’ to each other’s movements.  The first dolphin catches up to me, then crosses in front of me right to left, gracefully curving his/her body to look back at me…then two other dolphins join on either side of me…what a lovely spatial configuration we make as we rise up all together (click here to see still images from this sequence)! Like so many beautiful moments that unfold with any improvised dancing, no one could have choreographed it better. And to think…it was some tacit understanding between the dolphins and me that created this moment…amazing!

Caught up in the ‘dance’ with wild dolphins, I often wonder what the dolphins are ‘up to’? I wonder whether the dolphins are intentionally and knowingly making something ‘beautiful’ with me. I wonder whether the qualities that make these moments ‘beautiful’ to me are also ‘meaningful’ to them.

I have experienced ‘the swirl’ many times, and seen other humans caught up in it, too. I’ve experienced and seen it with Atlantic Spotted dolphins as well as these Pacific Spinner dolphins – so this is not a species-specific behavior. Yet I have not observed dolphins swirling in this way when they come up to the surface in the absence of a human. There must be some significance that is specific for the human-wild dolphin relationship in ‘the swirl’.

Recently, I met Diana Reiss, PhD, a professor at Hunter College and the head of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. Dr. Reiss conducted the seminal experiments with dolphins and mirrors, demonstrating that dolphins express self-awareness. In the future, I’ll be writing more about Dr. Reiss’s fascinating research and working with her and other dolphin experts who can provide a scientific perspective on the functions and meanings of interactions like ‘the swirl’.  One of the fundamental goals of the Dolphin Dance Project is not only to share the beauty of these human-dolphin ‘dances,’ but to provide the most complete understanding of what transpires – based on the latest research into dolphin behavior and non-verbal communication.

bubble stream in swirlTo my knowledge, there isn’t any scientific literature about ‘the swirl,’ but another behavior that is seen in this clip – the bubble stream – has been well-described and analyzed by several researchers.

Did you see the dolphin on the left hand side making a small stream of bubbles as he/she races in to join us? In ‘the swirl’ it is a bit hard to discern…but here is a clip – also shot by Bryce – that shows the bubble stream well.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also watch it in our gallery.)

Scientists who have studied Spinner and other dolphin species have observed that dolphins often make a unique (or at least distinct) whistle while emitting the bubble stream, and that they sometimes display this behavior (sound and bubbles) when entering social situations. A study in Bottlenose dolphins showed that they can identify other dolphins through these whistles strengthening the possibility that these whistles function as names. Based on research like this, the bubble stream is believed to be something of a dolphin salutation – like a dolphin saying, ‘hi…i’m [whistle]…nice to see you.’ The bubbles are thought to provide emphasis, as the whistle can be made without the bubbles.

Does this mean that the dolphin in this clip was ‘talking’ to Bryce…saying, ‘hello’ and telling Bryce his/her name as Bryce was filming? Was the dolphin who joined ‘the swirl’ coming up to say ‘hello’ to me or maybe the other dolphins? Whether this behavior has the same function in dolphin-human communication as in dolphin-dolphin communication isn’t known. But it is certainly tempting to think of a dolphin offering me a polite hello!

In ‘the swirl’ you might have noticed that I make bubbles, too. It’s been very interesting watching myself on video these past few weeks and noticing how often I (inadvertently) made a bubble stream out of my snorkel. I wonder if the dolphins are amused at my clumsy ‘hello’?  They must think it a strange attempt with no whistle!  Do they ask themselves whether I do it ‘intentionally’? Or maybe they are too smart for that…maybe they know I’m just making bubbles…

One thing I always try to keep in mind, when I am musing about what the dolphins ‘think’…

Dolphins are large-brained social mammals like ourselves, but they live in a radically different environment from us and experience it through an anatomy and physiology that have significant differences from our own. Their brains and ‘thought patterns’ might actually be so different from ours that we can never truly understand what they think or feel. That might seem a little disappointing…but I believe it is absolutely critical to maintain that doubt. In part, it is because I believe this doubt allows us to be respectful – it keeps us from imposing too much of our own human feelings, expectations and thought patterns on the dolphins. Maintaining this respectful point of view, our scientific observations can be more objective. More important, we allow the mystery to be ever present. We make room in our imaginations for a sense of awe.

For me – as for many improvisors – this is the place where the dance takes place…between what is familiar – like body postures and spatial organizations …and what is mysterious – like the soul of my dancing partner(s), be they human or dolphin.

Even as the dancing and science raise questions, one thing is for sure. When we encounter wild dolphins, we humans feel immense joy, acceptance and even love; and this human reaction is a fact.It is certainly true for me, when wild dolphins surround me and allow me to join in their beautiful underwater dance. I am sure that those of you who have swum with wild dolphins feel the same way.

So I am eager for us to reflect to the dolphins what we feel so strongly in their presence. I want to encourage us, as a human species, to act in a way that is consistent with giving to the dolphins the same loving and accepting feelings they inspire in us. That might mean leaving them alone when they need to rest or feed. Or raising money or awareness about dolphins to protect them and their habitats. (For example, you might spread the word about ‘The Cove,’ which is making a big difference in Japan) It will mean different things for each of us, but for each of us, the action will likely make us feel even better…as loving actions always do.

May there be much love in our hearts on this Valentine’s day and every day!

Bubble Stream

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