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'The Cove:' Japan Has a Dark Secret It Hopes the World Will Never See

Suspenseful and shocking film exposes the slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins and the billion-dollar industry that profits from selling them.
 
 
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Ric O'Barry almost looks crazy. He is driving a car, with a mask over his mouth, crouching low in his seat, hoping not to be recognized.

If the authorities catch him, there's no telling what will happen to him. He's cruising through the misty streets of Taiji, Japan, a small town with a really big secret, he says. And it's a secret that the town's fishermen want to hide from the rest of the world at all costs.

This is how the documentary, The Cove, opens. And it turns out O'Barry is not crazy, he's on a mission -- probably one of the most important in the history of conservation. And it's personal.

He used to be a world-famous dolphin trainer. He captured and trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the hit TV show of the same name. The show's popularity sparked a dolphin craze that has continued since the 1960s and has grown into $2 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

But while places like Sea World might be raking in the cash, O'Barry has spend the last 35 years trying to end dolphin captivity -- having had a change of heart after the tragic suicide of one of the main dolphins in Flipper. (If you want to know how a dolphin can commit suicide, you'll have to see The Cove.)

It turns out these intelligent and charismatic creatures don't do well in captivity -- half of all captive dolphins die within two years. They're used to swimming 40 miles a day, diving hundreds of feet deep and hanging out with their close-knit pod. Apparently jumping through hoops and swimming with tourists in a pool just isn't an adequate substitute.

But that hasn't stopped the plethora of marine theme parks and the horrific industry that has grown to support it. It has, however, inspired O'Barry to expose some of the worst of it, which is why he's hiding out in Taiji.

In this quaint fishing village, each fall, tens of thousands of migrating dolphins are captured, some of which are sold into captivity (for up to $150,000 a piece), and the rest are taken to a secret cove and slaughtered (to be sold for their meat -- sometimes falsely described as whale meat).

O'Barry wants the world to see what's happening in Taiji, and that means staying out of reach of the authorities and the local fishermen, who would very much like him arrested, deported, or worse. It also means trying to get into the secret cove with a camera.

The film kicks off with O'Barry joining forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society to put together a dream team of sorts that will get them into the cove and capture the horror on film.

It's reminiscent of Oceans 11 to be sure -- there are underwater sound and camera experts, special-effects artists to hide microphones in fake rocks, marine explorers and world-reknown free divers who help get the gear into place, and unmanned drones.

There are secret night-time missions, viewed on film with military-grade thermal cameras, where the crew is constantly dodging either the police, the Japanese mafia or irate fishermen.

It's a thriller. You're perched on the edge of your seat wondering if they'll get the footage they need or if they'll get nabbed. Sometimes it's so engaging, you forget to wonder if you actually want to see what they're trying to tape. And that's the film's greatest accomplishment.

Mixed in to the night-vision goggles and camouflage narrative are the images and interviews that make you realize why these people are risking their lives to make a movie: to save some dolphins.

 
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