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Talking the talk: let’s have a conversation about Taiji Cove

This ‘dolphin drive’ season, more than 150 bottlenose dolphins have been rounded up and taken from Japan’s Taiji Cove, forced into dolphin shows in captivity, and most destined to make their way into the meat trade.

Dolphins in captivity performing for the general public

These latest figures, released by activist group Sea Shepherd less than 24 hour ago, were accompanied by the statement: “Although we are in the final days of the dolphin drive hunt season here in Taiji, there is no reprieve for the captive dolphins held in the harbour pens. This morning the banger boats left the harbour in quick succession, searching in their final days for pods of dolphins to desecrate, destroy and profit from.”

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Some time in the ’90s, when terrestrial television ruled, I remember watching an episode of The Simpsons in which killer dolphins rise up to take over the planet.

The Simpsons is smart, very smart  I’ve read an essay or two about the incredible mathematical problems and references snuck into series after series  and I think with their killer dolphin takeover, they were onto something.

dolphin army

No, I don’t believe that dolphins are going to rise up, find a way to walk on land and wipe out the human race (though occasionally I wish they would…), but I think the interesting thing is that something as (unfortunately) flippantly dismissed as a comedic cartoon, was actually educating children that dolphins have language. And to have language  not just calls for mating and warning – one must have independent, free thought.

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It’s easy to relate to species that look like us. Species that have two arms, two legs, fingers and thumbs. Great apes where we can trace our common ancestry; chimps and bonobos especially, where we can recognise a language in their utterances and teach them how to use basic signing to ‘talk’ with us.

During my time as an English Language and Communications undergrad, we studied in great detail an entire module on the successes and failures of scientist teaching chimpanzees, like the well-documented Nim Chimpsky, how to communicate the human way.

I can’t help but think that although this doesn’t bring a blanket safety to the species from atrocities such as poaching for the bush meat trade or to supply Chinese medicines, it does help us in western societies relate to the creatures and recognise them as sentient beings.

But pound for pound, relative to body size, dolphin’s brains are larger than those of chimpanzee’s. They are, in fact, among the largest in the animal kingdom.

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As well as an impressive flair for problem-solving and a capacity to plan for the future, dolphin’s varied and complex language at least equals our own. They not only whistle and click, but they also emit ‘burst pulses’ to discipline their young and defend themselves against sharks.

They even eavesdrop on the echo-locating clicks of other dolphin pods to figure out what they’re looking at.

But without arms and hands and fingers, such highly communicative beings have only been taught to respond to human commands when they could have so valuably had their articulations studied and dissected to reveal the exact nature of their intelligence.

I wonder if a different physical form and a different means of language would have saved them from the fate of hundreds of thousands that will now be facing slaughter from September 1 in a place called Taiji Cove in Japan, in the name of ‘cultural tradition’.

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After watching the shockingly powerful and effecting documentary The Cove (available to view here), I felt compelled to act in some way, and in January 2015, joined one of the biggest protests against the Taiji slaughter of recent years. As another killing season commences this month; as do the protests.

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Throughout last year, and in doubt with documentaries such as The Cove at the helm, I’ve seen the public and media interest in dolphins soar, which is wonderful for helping to understand the complex multi-layered nature of these creatures.

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For example, similarly to humans — as I believe anthropomorphism helps the cause of compassion towards these animals — dolphins seek the fun, playfulness and social interaction of natural highs; in their case using the secretion of pufferfish toxins to get their fix.

That’s not all dolphins use their fellow ocean-dwellers for though, according to National Geographic Magazine:

“In Shark Bay some bottlenose dolphins detach sponges from the seafloor and place them on their beaks for protection while searching the sand for small hidden fish – a kind of primitive tool use. In the shallow waters of Florida Bay dolphins use their speed, which can exceed 20 miles an hour, to swim quick circles around schools of mullet fish, stirring up curtains of mud that force the fish to leap out of the water into the dolphins’ waiting mouths”

I believe that this high intelligence and ability to use tools, as well as their highly effect methods of communication, stem from their social structures, which are also integral to their well-being.

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Lori Marino, biopsychologist and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy explains: “A dolphin alone is not really a dolphin. Being a dolphin means being embedded in a complex social network. Even more so than humans.”

Dolphins’ communities require intimate social and emotional bonds that reveal the highly developed way they process emotions.

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National Geographic also states that there is strong evidence to suggest dolphins even have names, using distinct signature whistles to call one another:

“It turns out that there is strong evidence to suggest that at least one kind of dolphin sound, studied extensively over the past decade, does function as a kind of referential symbol. Dolphins use distinct “signature whistles” to identify and call one another.
Each dolphin is thought to invent a unique name for itself as a calf and keep it for life. Dolphins greet one another at sea by exchanging signature whistles and seem to remember the signature whistles of other dolphins for decades.
Though other species, like vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, make sounds that refer to predators, no other animal, besides humans, is believed to have specific labels for individuals.”

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If we cannot recognise the importance of this species and the wealth of what we can learn from them, then I can’t help but feel all those hours I spent during my degree learning about the scientific study of chimp’s engagement with language were wasted. Because science requires growth; new thinking and challenge before it can progress. And progress cannot be made, and it our knowledge not broadened, if we cannot consider an animal’s mind, brain, communication and intricate system of utterances just because they do not possess two arms and two legs.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the dolphin’s ability to learn, and their incredible intelligence at large, Born Free Foundation have released a book on their successful rehabilitation of Britain’s last ever dolphinarium-captive dolphins, Misha and Tom back into the wild. Find out more here.

An extract of this article first appeared in Big Issue Magazine, viewable here: LIKE APES, DOLPHINS ALSO ‘TALK’ – AND NEED PROTECTION.

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A homage to the memory of Tilikum, and a promise to myself

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It’s easy to think, after all the media coverage of ‘2016: the year of death’, that it was the worst start to a year that we have had in this country for a while; kicked off by the passing of David Bowie on the 10th January, two days after his 69th birthday. 

Though I felt terrible sadness at the loss of a musical hero, who will tie quite deeply into this story later (more on that to come), I remember the previous year starting off far worse. 

On the Wednesday 7th January 2015, at approximately 10.30am I had just finished signing off that week’s Primary School news bulletin at Discovery Education when my BBC breaking news alert pinged. The story read that the office of a satirical French newspaper had been stormed by gun men. Returning to work after their Christmas break, heads full of January thoughts and imminent news deadlines (just like mine), the editor and staff at Charlie Hebdo barely had time to register what was happening, let alone react. 

One eyewitness account said that someone thought the gunman was a person staging a ‘joke hold up’ and laughed, before gun shots and screams broke the mood. Ten journalists and two policemen were killed that morning.

Journalists and news editors, people like myself, were angry. They killed the messengers. The public was outraged ‘they killed the cartoonists, they killed the funny guys!’ was one quote that stuck out to me. If memory serves, the Big Issue penned that one.

‘We won’t let terrorists win’, ‘pencils are stronger than bullets’, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ were some of the protest slogans I remember reading. 2015 had started with a very literal bang, and for one moment in time; we all stood up, stood together

and gave a shit.

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What does this have to do with the passing of Tilikum, I hear you ask? 

The mood of Britain was rocked and on edge. People gathered in their masses four days later at Trafalgar Square, pledged their allegiance to France, shouting their right to free speech. The streets of London felt alive with the absolute opposite of apathy. 

Six days later; one weekend on from London’s Unity March, and once again London’s streets were filled with angry people of all ages, exercising their right to speak up and be heard. This time it was a different kind of terrorist in the firing line. A terrorist that uses ropes, hoists, imprisonment in glass tanks, and funds their work with a cashflow from unsuspecting tourists. We stood once again on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and this time called out ‘Je Suis Tilikum’.

IMG_6832Me, at the anti Sea World protest in 2015

“I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”

Empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove. These were our messages that day. Riding a wave of protest that my fellow journalists; slaughtered at their day jobs, had created. We rode that wave for Tilikum, a whale who hadn’t ridden a wave himself in 32 years at that point. 

I was 24 years only at the protest. Tilikum was 34. He has 10 more years on me. And I thought about that a lot. All the great things I’d done in my life. 

Tilikum came to Sea World in 1992, when I was two years old. I was probably just getting to grips with walking a few steps and talking a few simple sentences back then. All the things I’ve done in my life since then… and Tilikum has been in the same tiny part of Sea World‘s Florida park, in the same tank, swimming in the same circles with the same view, day in, day out. All. That. Time.

A wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. A wild killer whale with 10 extra years on me should have a hell of a lot more life experience.

kate snowdon photoA wild orca I encountered in South Africa

I encountered Tilikum once. In real life, in person. Summer 1999, and I was nine years old, on a family holiday to Orlando. These were the days before social media ruled the Internet, before I could sit and read National Geographic from cover to cover, before Blackfish was a documentary that existed to be watched and shared hundreds and thousands of times. 

It felt like an innocent day of family fun, and my overwhelming feeling was that I loved this incredible killer whale and the way he could perform with his ‘carers’ so carefully and gently. I don’t think you can get away with that level of naivety in today’s Information Age. Tilikum was driven mad by his captivity and is now known to have killed three people.

Including his Sea World trainer, in the pool, in front of an audience.

001A family holiday snap from 1999.

Dominic Dyer addressed the crowds back at Trafalgar Square in January 2015, and quoted the words of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor “I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”.

I felt the fire in my belly and I vowed to stand for that poor, disturbed, incredibly intelligent orca that I’d seen behind the glass all those years ago.IMG_6843See Dominic Dyer’s full speech and my coverage of the march that day here. 

“Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

There’s a second part to this story. Fast forward one year from the empty the tanks protest, to January 2016. Almost a year to the exact day, David Bowie passed away after a private battle with cancer. 

About a week on, we were back on the streets of London again, this time protesting outside the Japanese embassy.

A crowd, as big as the year before, marched through the streets once more with the message: empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove.

These three causes are completely interlinked; Taiji Cove is where wild dolphins are rounded up in Japan every year and killed by spears for meat consumption, or the most handsome specimens are captured to be sold into a life in tanks at marine parks like Sea World. 

imageFor those who know little about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan, I would highly recommend watching the Academy Award-winning documentary; The Cove. 

As powerful as Blackfish, this tells the story of the other marine mammal that’s most commonly associated with captive performances alongside human trainers; the bottlenose dolphin. 

Significantly, just before the credits on this powerful documentary roll, the song ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie concludes the film. 

“I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

I’m reliably told that the artist, knowing the activist film makers were on a low budget, charged as little as he could get away with for the licensing of the song to be used in the film. Despite his affection for Japan, he risked his reputation with the country for the cause of the dolphins.

See my full coverage of the 2016 march here. 

As January kicks off once again with a personally significant loss; this time the passing of creature whose gaze I once met through thick glass many years ago, I vow to stand up once again, and let my voice be heard.

The annual Taiji dolphin drive slaughter is in full swing once more its season running from September to March, and once again the waters of the Cove will run red with blood, and the ‘lucky’ dolphins who survive the massacre will be sold on to marine park shows across the world to face the same fate as Tilikum. Driven mad in a tiny glass prison.

I promise, to Tilikum, that as long as marine mammals are kept in tanks, I will continue to stand against it.

I will stand, until they can swim free. 

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I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim!

For a year now I’ve been on the frontline of the call to end Taiji Cove’s annual dolphin slaughter, and the connected use of dolphins and orcas in marine parks, such as Sea World. (There I am below, second from the right with my phone in hand).

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Given that I’ve outlined the details of the yearly ‘dolphin drive’ before, and the captivity ‘side effects’ that go hand-in-hand with the slaughter, I’ll just keep the overview to a minimum here:

  • The Taiji dolphin drive hunt takes place in Taiji, Wakayama in Japan every year from September to March
  • Over the 6 month period, thousands of dolphins are driven into the secret waters of Taiji cove (aka the Cove) using noise pollution that disrupts the dolphin’s sonar, throwing off their navigation
  • They are then herded by fisherman’s boats into the sheltered area of the Cove, hidden from public view, where they are killed one by one. The legal method of killing is to drive a metal pin through their blow holes and down into their spinal column
  • This does not always lead to immediate death. Dolphins have an extremely complex nervous system, so will feel every second of this as they wait to die
  • The reasons for the drive were originally for human consumption or resale to dolphinariums (yes, the atrocities at Taiji Cove supply dolphinariums, like Sea World)
  • In more recent years, it has been shown that the levels of mercury present within dolphin meat deems them unfit for human consumption. The slaughter continues to take place in the name of ‘tradition’, with some of the carcasses used for dog food or as fertiliser

imageThis past Saturday (16th January) saw the next installment of the protests against Taiji cove. This one was rather special, not only gaining more momentum than the demo this time last year due to its swelling numbers, but also because we used the occasion to honour the late, great David Bowie.

The video I shot below outside the Japanese Embassy should explain why/how…


Such a powerful movement, and a beautiful, poignant day. Not only has Bowie given this movement (via The Cove) an incredible anthem, but also a huge interest; due to his connection to it. For the first time, I’m seeing national press coverage of our marching! The Huffington Post even used one of my photographs (included above) to open their article!

Well done all the hundreds of people I had the pleasure of marching with, and what gratitude I have for David Bowie; for this along with so many other reasons.

Don’t forget… if you’re a passionately against the killing of dolphins in Taiji Cove, please take a moment to add your signature to a petition against the practice https://www.change.org/p/ban-the-killing-of-dolphins-in-taiji-japan.

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Making a stand, marching a march.

I am lucky. As a journalist, a blogger and as a human being, I have a voice.

A voice I can use to speak up when I’m angry, when I’m sad and when I see things that are wrong.

Last weekend, I used that voice, for all those reasons, on behalf of creatures that can’t.

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Together with several-hundred people from all walks of life: a lady who rescues dogs from areas of natural disaster, a student moved by the award-winning documentary Blackfish, a television presenter, a BBC producer, even a Game of Thrones star (Maisie Williams) – I marched from Cavendish Square to Trafalgar to voice my disgust against dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Japan, and my anger at the awful conditions and mentally disturbing environment that marine wildlife are kept in at ‘amusement’ park Seaworld.

There are many reasons I hold these views – some I have discussed before, others I probably couldn’t express as elegantly, concisely and graphically as the following footage:

It is hard to admit to ourselves that we have probably, at one point or another, unwittingly and unknowingly contributed to a world that captures, controls and imprisons animals – that directly relates to the hell that is Taiji Cove even. I know I have.

And when I see these old holiday snaps from years gone by – I physically feel sick. But nonetheless, I urge you to take a look, because I can’t truly express what I stand for, without being totally honest and  forward in showing you what I stand against. So let’s be clear: This is what I stand against…

Including my naive and ignorant self that took these photos – because this directly relates to the atrocities of Taiji Cove, and there is no excuse to be ignorant anymore.

IMG_6904The London march may have been and gone, but it is not too late to stand with others against what is wrong.

As fellow my march-ee and long-time inspiration, Born Free President Will Travers, so aptly quoted (see videos following): “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King Jnr.

Thank you to everyone I met last weekend for giving me hope that together we can share truths, open minds and even change opinions – and that’s where the tiny ripples begin that change the whole course of the river.

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SeaWorld: Behold, the great water circus!

A family holiday snap, 1999.

A family holiday snap, 1999.

“Connect with animals and explore nature to recognise the important role kids play in the future of our world.” It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Why is it then, that something which claims to mix conservation, kids and fun has seen one part of Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate; Virgin America, sever all ties with it?

imageThe answer is one that I’ve grappled with trying to delve into in the best, most succinct, but also most thorough and truthful way for some time now.

On the 14th of October, Virgin America announced it would no longer include SeaWorld in its reward package options following a global online campaign from PETA, and only days earlier, Britain’s biggest and most media-dominating entertainment show; the X Factor, pulled an episode of its Xtra-Factor reflective supplement programme, after campaigners protested against airing footage of the contestants visiting a dolphinarium. It seems people are switching on to the plight of performing marina life – and with good reason, they’re not happy about it.

IMG_5796I was fortunate enough to be given the most enriched and positive education as a child from parents who never ‘pushed’ but always encouraged. When I was aged 9, during a holiday of a lifetime to Orlando, Florida – one which only came into being after the passing of my grandfather – my parents, knowing my love for animals and penchant for fast rides, took my brothers and I to SeaWorld.

IMG_5797Innocently, we clapped and cheered as we watched Shamu the Orca whale push his trainer elegantly through the tank, parting the water, like some Biblical force as the pair glided around the semi-circular length of the arena, splashing excited audiences as they went.

One of our holiday snaps

One of our holiday snaps

Fifteen years later, I sat in horror as I watched the acclaimed documentary, BlackFish, delve into the “amusement park”‘s dark history. And for those who haven’t seen it yet, believe me, it’s dark.

Blakfish_quad_Web_400_300_85The undeniable, barbaric brutality in which orca male Tilikum is torn from his mother; his home; and plunged into a dehabilitating life of punishment and psychiatric torture in the confinement of a tank, resonates something of a war prisoner. It’s painful viewing, but I’ve never believed in turning a blind eye – denying knowledge for one’s own ignorant comfort.

The power of this documentary is that it not only brings to light a truth long-suppressed, but it starts conversations. Although the film was first screened at Sundance Festival in January 2013, the topic seems to have gathered momentum the last few months, appearing on social media aplenty, and I’ve even purchased magazines of late solely on the pre-tense that they contain an article on Tilikum, or SeaWorld at large. photo.phpBut beyond the shocking story of BlackFish, there is something else that peaks my interest about the institution of SeaWorld. Earlier in the summer, I sat in artist Pollyanna Pickering’s beautiful garden alongside Born Free Foundation CEO Will Travers. We discussed some of my musings on the legacy of ‘Wildlife Warrior’ Steve Irwin, and he told me that in March this year Steve’s daughter, Bindi, was named as SeaWorld’s Youth Ambassador.

imageSecond generation ‘wildlife warrior’ Bindi, a Youth Ambassador for some glorified water circus that has ripped Orca’s from the wild and forced them to perform in tanks little bigger than the relative size of a large bathtub?

imageUnder the guise of ‘Generation Nature’, SeaWorld’s crisis control PR strategy is a convincing one to those innocently not ‘in the know’ – just like myself and my family in those afore mentioned moments of enjoying Shamu’s ‘splash zone’ in the Florida sunshine as a child.imageWill Travers, in his own blog, recently suggested that the further PR strategies employed by SeaWorld (namely expanding some of their ‘enclosures’) is about as effective as upgrading your bathtub – except this is a bathtub you have to live in, and can never get out of!

A world without SeaWorld?

A far cry from the blaring megaphones in SeaWorld’s jam-packed auditorium, waving my hands and cheering out loudly when “those from England” were asked to “make some noise”; an adult version of myself bobbed back and forth in a small boat to the rhythm of the ocean’s current, chatting to an American tourist about our home countries and what we loved about them, like how they transitioned so beautifully between the seasons. “Guys!”, a tour guide on our eight-person sea expedition called out, lowering their binoculars and pointing. And we saw her, calf in tow pass right beside the boat, making her incredible journey.

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Sign the petition here: http://action.sumofus.org/a/seaworld-orcas-captivity-california-ban-blackfish/

 

Want to know more about the marine park and dolphinaria industry?