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Going to Taiji
by Brittany Michelson

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It’s Friday night and I’m crying. A pod of pilot whales has been traumatized for three days in the cove in Taiji, Japan. Some were slaughtered yesterday morning, more were slaughtered this morning, and the remaining still swim in their family’s blood.

I think of their terror and desperation. Their innocence. How they’d been swimming freely, no knowledge of what was going to happen one bright morning, a morning like any other.

Have you seen a photo of a pilot whale? They have big heads and rounded faces and they look friendly. The pilot whale is a member of the dolphin family and is second only to the killer whale in size. They have plenty of teeth and incredible strength. Yet they don’t injure the men who harm them. They want to be peaceful.

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You know that common question from childhood: if you could be any animal, what would you be? My answer was dolphin.

We had a pool in the backyard of my childhood home in San Diego. I would put a diving ring around my ankles and wiggle through the water with my dolphin tail. I imagined I was in the ocean. You could only go so far in the pool.                                        

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In Taiji there is a group of men that terrorize dolphins for a living.

They call themselves fishermen. Dolphins aren’t fish. They are cetaceans, marine mammals of the order Cetacea. MRI scans have shown that dolphins are second to humans in intelligence.                                            

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I walked my dog on my favorite trail in Topanga today. Up there you can see the ocean.  It hurt to look at it. I thought of the pilot whales huddled together in the cove, rounded heads bobbing. Babies clinging to mamas. The matriarch making rounds to check on the others.

At home I follow updates on the computer. One with a pierced spinal cord escaped from under the tarps and thrashed on the rocks, bleeding, then was drowned and dragged by the tail with a skiff back under the tarps. One selected for sale to the dolphin display industry was put in a separate netted area. All alone for the first time. He refuses frozen fish.

My heart is knotted. My tea has turned cold. The sun shines in Topanga. The sun shines in Taiji.

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Every year from September 1st through the end of February, pods swimming by on their migration route are at risk of crossing paths with hunting boats.

Blue Cove, dolphins are safe. Red Cove, the water is filled with their blood.

I read details of Blue Cove, Red Cove, Blue, Blue, Red. Like some kind of competition. A ticking off of colors. Advocates vs. Captors. Us vs. Taiji.

When a pod is spotted the hunters bang steel poles that extend into the water from their boats to create an underwater wall of sound. It frightens the dolphins and distorts their navigational sense. The boats then drive the frantic, disoriented pod to the cove.

There, they are stabbed with a sharp metal spike just below the blowhole. They thrash about, tails slapping against the water as it turns red.

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I’ve heard the hunters sometimes joke around. Colleagues on the job. I want to rip apart their laughter. I want to scream.              

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This is my first season following the Taiji dolphin drives. I connected with Dolphin Project through the animal activism network on Facebook. A friend invited me to join Women of the World United Against Taiji. I sometimes wish I hadn’t become aware of the brutality in the cove. But we cannot un-know what we know and the heart often automatically invests itself.

Here’s what I learned:

Dolphin meat is sold in Japan, even though it contains extreme levels of mercury. Adults are slaughtered; sometimes youngsters who are not big enough to be worth killing for meat are dumped back in the ocean, unlikely to survive without their mothers or the rest of the pod.

The Taiji fishermen believe dolphins consume too much fish from the ocean; they see killing them as eliminating competition.

The massive money made from selling captures to dolphin entertainment businesses is what funds and perpetuates the drives.                   

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I’m going to Taiji in February. I’ve heard it’s freezing in the early morning when the boats go out. I’ll need a big jacket, mittens, a warm hat. Is there something I can wear to shield my heart?                        

As a Cove Monitor, I will get up before sunrise and head over to the cove to watch boats depart in search of pods. The hunters might be drinking coffee, as I’ll be drinking mine. Maybe they’ll make small talk, discuss details of their quota, their hopes that this morning will be successful, that they’ll be done in time for an early lunch. They might joke around.

I will stand cringing, wishing there was something I could call out to change their minds. Every cell in me asking the ocean gods to bring them back empty handed. Or not bring them back. Maybe they’ll get lost at sea.

I’ll carry binoculars, video camera, and notebook. The hunters carry nets and ropes. Sharp metal rods. I’ll hope my hands get warm; they’ll hope theirs get bloody. I might contemplate the contrast of hands. How can mine be so different from theirs?

I have photos of dolphins swimming in the ocean on my computer. They have a dolphin kill quota. And capture orders. To them, dolphins are meals. Sales. Pests. To me, dolphins are worth flying across the world for.                                           

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There is a sign at the cove that says dolphins and whales in the area are owned by the Taiji Fishermen’s Union. Cetaceans are not property! I want to scream. They belong to the ocean.

I imagine diving down in the night and cutting the nets to free those in the cove.

You’re allowed to observe, but if you intervene, you’ll get arrested, then deported. Possibly denied entry to Japan later on.

Cove Monitors record and document cove activity through photography, live stream video, and social media posts to expand public awareness and increase pressure on the Japanese government to end the hunts.

The government says it is tradition. Killing off whole families of dolphins and capturing others with state of the art boats to sell for entertainment…

What is tradition?

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The ocean runs alongside Pacific Coast Highway. On my drive to work, I think of dolphins out there, swimming freely in California waters. I think of the dolphins in Taiji, who are stolen from their ocean home and sold for human entertainment, or brutally killed.

Today I think of the pilot whale family that was torn apart to become food digested in minutes, loaded with mercury to poison those who eat it. I think of the lone pilot whale separated from his family. If I were a dolphin in Taiji would I prefer to be shipped away and forced to entertain, or death?

I remember swimming in the pool when I was a kid, pretending to be a dolphin in the ocean. Envisioning the expansive blue water. Freedom. 

This piece is dedicated to the pilot whale pod that was trapped and destroyed in the cove from Nov. 19th-22nd, 2015, and to all the dolphins that have been victims of the Taiji hunts.

For more info on the Taiji hunts please visit 

Brittany Michelson's work has been published in an anthology by Bona Fide Books, PoemMemoirStory Magazine, Elephant Journal, Role/ Reboot, Environmental News Network, Split Lip Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Whistling Fire, If & When Literary, Bartleby Snopes, Sleet Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and other journals. She lives in Topanga Canyon.