An Open Letter to British Airways and Virgin Atlantic
by David Scott, Sea Shepherd UK Director
Following a week of high profile press and celebrity comment on the Taiji dolphin drive hunt I am addressing you both in the hope that the most senior decision makers in your organisations can be made to understand the dreadful horror of the Taiji slaughters, the further horrors of dolphin captivity which allow that slaughter in the first place and the part which your airlines play in its continuation.
Two years in a row, the capture of a super-pod of around 250 Bottlenose Dolphins, the species made so famous by the Flipper TV series has excited the World’s press agencies into action. Calls for dramatic change in Taiji, Japan have come from worldwide agencies such as CNN and pillars of the Diplomatic Establishment such as Caroline Kennedy the Ambassador to Japan for the United States of America and Tim Hitchens, the British Ambassador to Japan. Ambassador Hitchens is a former Deputy Private Secretary to Her Majesty the Queen and for him to tweet, “The UK opposes all forms of dolphin and porpoise drives; they cause terrible suffering” is significant indeed.
For some dolphins that suffering ends in death. It is very ugly, very gruesome and, for those of us who have served as Cove Guardians it is very damaging emotionally. How could it not be as you witness a steel spike driven hard into the body of a terrified dolphin to sever that poor being’s spinal cord? Death is not slow. Neither, however, is it your immediate part of the problem but it is important that you understand this part of it before I go on.
In the early days of the Cove Guardian campaign our photographers were able to record the Cove turning blood red in moments. Now that the killers have become more media-savvy the colour transition of the Cove from beautiful Pacific blue to hellish death red is far too gradual for what the media likes to call, “the money shot.” They now hide their shame by hammering a wooden bung into the bloody wound caused by the killing spike whilst the thrashing, dying, screaming dolphin expends every last bit of stolen life before the curtain of finality descends.
These are not quick, painless deaths by any stretch of the imagination, but we cannot stop those deaths whilst ignoring the cause of the drive hunts in the first place, the captive dolphin industry. As airlines which promote holidays involving captive cetaceans, this is your part of the problem.
Captivity, especially the manner in which a captured dolphin is prepared for life in captivity is the epitome of suffering. The passage from wild and free to hopeless captive represents some of the most distressing sights I have ever seen, However it is the holiday industry, including both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic businesses, which continues to glamorise the captivity industry which created the Taiji drive hunt in the first place and which leaves the civic leaders in Taiji scratching their heads in wonder when people like Sir Richard Branson tweet, “Japan should realise the damage dolphin killing does to reputation of an otherwise delightful country”
We know that Sir Richard means well, and I remember his very-strong anti-killing blog which I read on my return from witnessing the captive selection of last season’s super-pod but I would be willing to bet that your airlines – one of which is his airline – are unwittingly making more money out of dolphin slaughter than the killers masquerading as fishermen in Taiji. I acknowledge that you are not the only two airlines involved in support for the captive industry which fuels the Taiji slaughter but you are both British airlines. It must seriously undermine this Country’s diplomatic efforts to end that slaughter if our two best known flag carriers are so financially wedded to the original source of that horror.
It cannot be denied that when respectable airlines promote a holiday destination, they bring an air of respectability to that destination. Similarly, when you promote dolphinariums and marine parks you legitimise them as something more than exploiters of wild marine mammals and I hope you can see that without your support they would be more readily seen as the places where wild dolphins are tragically transformed to the most unfortunate of marine circus animals.
Whilst we view these institutions as cruel beyond belief, the public who visit them, generally speaking, are not in themselves cruel by nature. They trust you. If you tell them that these parks are ethical and the marine mammals on show are ‘rescued’, they will believe you and the misery will continue. That is, unless they have been to Taiji or understand the connection between Taiji and the captive industry in which case they will know the truth and your reputation will become increasingly tarnished. To paraphrase Sir Richard, “Any British airlines should realise the damage dolphin killing does to reputation of an otherwise excellent carrier.”
Not all dolphins in captivity come from Taiji, indeed Seaworld, which you both promote claims not to have bought dolphins from Taiji for many years but without a captive dolphin industry the Taiji drive hunt would have no purpose. Without Seaworld and the glamorisation of marine parks we stand a much better chance of shutting down the whole captive industry and ending the slaughter once and for all
The dolphin drive hunt is absolutely not a centuries old tradition: it only came into being in the 1970s to fuel demand for Flipper-inspired theme parks. The connection between captivity and slaughter has existed not only since day 1, it has been both cause and effect of a self-perpetuating ecological atrocity which will not end without an end to captivity. And captivity is unlikely to end whilst airlines such as your own invest so heavily in marketing collaborations with tourism based businesses which exploit cetaceans for profit.
Captive cetacean facilities have not existed in the UK for many years, and for good reason. There is ample research evidence to explain why keeping cetaceans in captivity is both physically and mentally harmful for the animals but I will not go into that at this time. Instead I will explain the passage from wild to captive by describing what I have personally witnessed on too many occasions already. These are the Damascene moments I experienced in Taiji, scratching my head in wonder at a World which – quite rightly – was outraged at slaughter but which could not be made to see that it is the captive industry which causes the slaughter in the first place.
The banger boats go out at first light every morning during the season that either weather or union rules permit. They are not crewed by fishermen, they are crewed by dolphin hunters and they are hunting dolphins which they can sell as captives, there is neither sufficient market demand nor profit to make it viable to hunt dolphins for meat. The slaughter is genuinely a by-product of the captive industry and anyone who visits Taiji during a hunt comes to that same realisation.
When they find a family of dolphins they chase them back to the capture and killing bay we call The Cove. The chase is normally long, stressful and arduous for the dolphins. You can tell this by their visible exhaustion when they arrive close to shore by which time, of course, it is too late. There is no escape.
They are netted into the Cove and there is a pause whilst transport skiffs return to Taiji harbour to collect trainers from the local captive facilities. The trainers then select the “pretty ones” for captivity and leave the remainder to their fate. Occasionally when the freezers are full the killers chase the remainder back out to sea and I have seen this on a number of occasions but typically the remainder are slaughtered using the method I described earlier. There is no independent profit in this. If the trainers were not willing to purchase captured dolphins the boats would not go out at all. They simply couldn’t afford the fuel or the wages.
The dolphins being held for captivity of course witness the slaughter of their own family. When you have heard the vocalisations of these wonderful animals in a family group and witnessed how protective they are of each other, you realise that this must be suffering beyond imagining. Then they are dragged through the blood and faeces stained water their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers were slaughtered in as by the time they have been strapped to the side of a transport skiff no amount of PR-driven blood-stemming can have kept the waters clean.
After being driven, held in canvass, strapped to the side of a skiff for roughly a nautical mile the confused, scared animals are then wrestled into a holding pen in Taiji harbour for the first stage of converting them to a docile captive. This is necessary because the captive industry has a problem they don’t want you to know about – wild dolphins do not eat dead fish. Their natural behaviour is to ignore it completely. They have to be taught to eat dead fish and they are taught by a long, gradual process which starts with force-feeding.
Most parents will know how difficult it is to force an infant to eat when he or she simply does not want to. Now imagine that infant is bigger than you are and is in his natural environment whilst you are on a shaky pontoon. The only solution is to starve the dolphin for a few days and then put divers in the water to manhandle the terrified being to a corner of the sea cage where he or she can be held with straps whilst the divers take turns to hold his or her jaws open and shove antibiotic and rehydrate laced dead fish down the poor animal’s throat. By keeping the dolphin underfed eventually the animal learns to accept this fish and then the process of training to perform can begin in earnest. The force feeding stage typically is over within a few weeks but is, without a doubt, one of the ugliest things I have ever witnessed – those trainers know that they are taking the most natural creature on the planet and turning it into something wholly unnatural purely for profit, profit which you then share by feeding the holiday industry which is the cause of this effect.
The training and eventual onward transportation of the captive dolphins is another matter entirely and more evidence for the horror files but I am sure that by now you get the picture. The supposedly happy, smiling dolphin in the holiday brochure has had a brutal ride so far and if airlines such as your own continue to support this industry then it will not be ending any time soon.
I am sure that as businesses you will have sought ethical assurances from the dolphinariums and dolphin resorts which you list as holiday destinations. I have no doubt that most, if not all, will deny that the dolphins in their facility came from Taiji or will claim that they no longer have dolphins which come from Taiji. This, of course, misses the point entirely. Captivity is cruel in and of itself even without any direct or indirect links to the Taiji slaughter which feeds from it.
As UK based airlines I would ask you to consider why there are no longer any dolphinariums in the UK. I would ask you to consider further why it would then be ethical to persuade large numbers of UK tourists to travel to dolphinariums at your non-UK holiday destinations. In light of my description of the sourcing process for the vast majority of dolphins held in this type of facility I would ask you to consider if any connection with this trade could be ethical under any circumstances.
On behalf of dolphins the World over I would ask you please to remove any holiday package involving captive cetaceans from your listings. The UK led the way in closing these facilities down, let us now lead the way in closing down those which prey on our holidaying families, selling the lie that the dolphin’s smile means that he is happy, denying the truth that for every Taiji dolphin in captivity there is a legacy of slaughter for that dolphin’s family.
Should either or both of you wish to discuss eco-tourism as an ethical alternative to replace those captivity based holidays it would be my pleasure to meet with you at any time.
Sea Shepherd UK Director