Last Friday, over 250 dolphins were captured by fishermen off the coast of Taiji, Japan. This small town, made infamous by our film "The Cove," is now known the world over as “a dolphin’s worst nightmare.” A relatively small group of 50-60 fishermen are responsible for the slaughter of thousands of dolphins every year in a single cove in Taiji. However, the few animals with ideal physical characteristics, usually young females with few scars, are first captured and sent to theme parks around the globe. Although the dolphin drives happen regularly during the open season, from September to March, this weekend's catch was a unique one. 

The super-pod currently being held captive at the cove is not only one of the largest groups ever to be caught at one time, but it also contains a special member -- an angel, of sorts. A 1-year-old albino calf was easily spotted swimming along her mother's side. The calf was adoringly named "Angel" by observers because of her angelic features that are said to resemble a graceful “angel with wings.” Albino animals are very rare in nature, and although she doesn't fit the bill of a typical show-dolphin, Angel's unique appearance places a different kind of target on her head -- one that is even more lucrative.

Ric O’ Barry of the Dolphin Project, a former dolphin trainer and the subject of "The Cove," said, “Angel was the first dolphin to be selected. Her mother committed suicide just like Kathy did.” Kathy was one of the dolphins that played the role of “Flipper," who also committed suicide from the stresses of captivity. As conscious breathers, dolphins can choose not to take their next breath. When the stress of captivity, or being ripped apart from their families, becomes too great to bear they can end their own lives. "People don't believe me but dolphins do it all the time," O'Barry said. "Captivity is extremely stressful and there is nothing more stressful to a dolphin than taking away its calf.”

With tragic irony, the Taiji Whale Museum issued a statement from Assistant Director Tetsuo Kirihata: “Albinos stand out and tend to be targeted by predators. She must have been protected by her mother and her mates. We will take good care of her.”

Ultimately, this multi-billion dollar marine mammal captivity industry is nothing but a business, fueled by the pocketbooks of the international public. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Captain Paul Watson weighed in on CBS News, saying the only reason for the hunt is due to “demand from marine aquariums around the world." This season’s dolphins have been destined for facilities in Japan, China, Russia and throughout Asia, but as recently as 2010, SeaWorld has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a pilot whale from the Japanese dolphin drive. They were denied an import permit because they couldn’t prove that the animal was ethically obtained.

Diligent first-hand reporting by volunteers with marine mammal advocacy groups has led to a public outcry surrounding the capture of Angel. International news coverage and petitions carrying thousands of signatures have called for Angel to be returned to her rightful home along with the rest of the pods. Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said, "the one good thing about this situation is that it has focused attention on the issue in Taiji like we've never been seen before."

On Sunday, Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, tweeted: “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing,” re-opening the international debate over the dolphin drives. While Angel is currently destined for a life of cruelty in captivity and her kin will likely suffer an even worse fate, her unique appearance has captured the hearts of the world in a way that we can only hope will save the lives of countless dolphins in the future.

Photos courtesy of Karla Sanjur, Save Japan Dolphins, Earth Island Institute

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