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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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