The Cove is many things—a work of political activism, a piece of investigative journalism, even a sort of real-life espionage thriller—but at its heart, it is a story of one man's efforts to atone for his role in an enterprise that he has come to see as incredibly harmful, even abusive. That man is Ric O'Barry, who got his start as one of the dolphin trainers on the 1960s TV show Flipper and now campaigns to liberate dolphins from captivity all over the world. As O'Barry tells it, Flipper played a huge part in stimulating the domesticated dolphin industry—but it was his experience working up-close with the water-bound mammals that led him to believe it was wrong to turn such animals into slaves for our entertainment.

But it isn't just the fact that so many dolphins are trapped in aquariums that upsets O'Barry. According to him, many if not most of these dolphins are taken from the waters near Taiji, a former whaling town on the southern coast of Japan, and the same fishermen who trap these animals also make a point of slaughtering any dolphins that, for whatever reason, don't seem to merit being sent overseas. And most people are unaware that this slaughter even takes place, partly because it is done in secret, in a cove far from public view.

Ric O'Barry

Ric O'Barry

The Cove, then, is largely about O'Barry's efforts—and those of the filmmakers, who join him on his mission—to bring this slaughter to light. O'Barry himself is too well-known to the local police and fishermen to work all that stealthily; but director Louie Psihoyos, who also appears as an interviewee, assembles a team of divers and professional risk-takers who use military-grade thermal cameras and even the odd special effect (fake rocks created by the folks at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic!) to sneak into the cove at night and plant high-definition video cameras that can capture once and for all what happens there.

Along the way, the film explores a number of issues that should catch the eye of even those who don't think the slaughter of animals, per se, is a particularly big deal.

For one thing, there is the question of mercury poisoning; dolphins, being as high as they are on the ocean's food chain, tend to have much higher concentrations of mercury in their bodies than regular fish, yet dolphin meat is actually sold to the average consumer in certain Japanese markets. What's more, the filmmakers argue—based on DNA tests of the meat found in Japanese stores—that local dolphin meat is sometimes packaged in ways that trick the average consumer into thinking that it is actually exotic large-whale meat.

Article continues below
Aerial view of the cove

Aerial view of the cove

In addition to health concerns and truth-in-advertising concerns, the film also explores how the Japanese government has skirted existing international laws against certain kinds of whaling, as well as how it has bought support from other nations on the International Whaling Commission. Repeatedly, government officials insist to the public and to these filmmakers that the dolphins caught by Japanese fishermen are killed instantaneously, in a humane manner—but the evidence dug up by the filmmakers suggests otherwise.

Then there are the broader environmental questions. The Japanese officials all but admit that the killing of dolphins and porpoises in such large numbers could have an impact on the oceans, when they claim that dolphins are "pests" that are responsible for the falling number of fish; according to these officials, killing so many dolphins and porpoises ought to have a positive impact. But the filmmakers argue that the decline in fish populations is due to the same industrialized human voraciousness that is now affecting dolphins as well.

Keep Out' signs warn visitors to stay away

Keep Out' signs warn visitors to stay away

The film also raises interesting questions about humanity's relationship to the animal world, and how we project human experience onto creatures such as dolphins. At one point, O'Barry says that the dolphin's "smile" is "nature's greatest deception" because "it creates the illusion that they're always happy." If it weren't for the shape of the dolphin's mouth, he suggests, we would realize just how unhappy such creatures are in captivity.

But at times, you wonder if O'Barry and his colleagues are projecting other qualities onto the dolphins that may or may not be there. One diver talks about making eye contact with a dolphin and "connecting" with it, almost as if there were a meeting of souls. O'Barry also asserts that, when he showed Flipper to one of the dolphins that appeared on the show, it could tell the difference between itself and its co-stars—and he says the big turning point in his zeal for dolphin welfare came when one of them "committed suicide" in his arms by ceasing to breathe when, in O'Barry's view, it could have chosen to stay alive. (To his credit, O'Barry does admit that "suicide" is a loaded term for what he's describing.)

The film crew used night vision technology for some scenes

The film crew used night vision technology for some scenes

Dolphins are certainly very intelligent, and you can understand why the film underscores the bond that some people have felt with them: if it weren't for these particularly human qualities, the slaughter of dolphins might be no different, morally speaking, from the slaughter of cattle, the catching of fish, or the harvesting of any other animal. The striking thing, as O'Barry notes, is that even the people who kill the dolphins seem to think there is something kind of dodgy about what they do, otherwise why would they go to such lengths to keep it secret—even from many of their own countrymen?

Article continues below

Whatever one makes of these larger issues, The Cove is a compelling (and admittedly one-sided) portrayal of one group's determination to expose a truth that many people would prefer to hide behind lies and, when the activists get too close, intimidation. Told with humor and suspense, it is also a reasonably entertaining film, as well as one that gets us thinking about how we can improve our stewardship of Creation.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What do you think you could or should do, in light of what documentaries like this reveal? Does it affect whether you will go to an aquarium, or whether you will eat fish?

  2. What do you make of O'Barry's claim that "the dolphin's smile is nature's greatest illusion"? How have appearances made you more or less likely to love an animal? To love people?

  3. Does it matter to you how an animal is killed, before you eat it? Consider the Jewish food laws concerning the proper way to slaughter animals.

  4. What would Jesus do? The Bible says he demonstrated his resurrection by killing and eating fish (Luke 24:41-43, John 21:1-14). Do you think he would kill and eat dolphins too? Why or why not?

  5. Do animals have souls? If so, do all animals have them, or only some? Are there different kinds of souls? Are any of them on par with human souls?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Cove is rated PG-13 for disturbing content (footage of dolphins being slaughtered and thrashing about in the blood-filled waters of the cove, etc.). A few very brief curse words are uttered, too.

The Cove
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for disturbing content)
Directed By
Louie Psihoyos
Run Time
1 hour 32 minutes
Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Hardy Jones
Theatre Release
August 07, 2009 by Lionsgate
Browse All Movie Reviews By: