Interspecies Communications

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It is February, 1980. I am sitting alone in a boat watching two species of dolphins — pseudorcas and tursiops — stampeding into a small cove, caused by the din of 200 Japanese fishing boats. It is my third month here on Iki Island off the coast of Kyushu.  The fishermen regard me as an expert in cetacean acoustics. They have asked me here to help them develop acoustic technology to keep dolphins from preying on individual fishing lines. Only for this reason, have they granted me an observer's access to their “dolphin drive fishery”.

I find the fishermen to be mostly good-natured men who are living a lie, not very well. They are always polite to me despite our sometimes strongly worded difference of opinion regarding cetaceans. They often tell me that they only started killing dolphins because they thought it would definitely save their own fishery. They never tell the whole story, at least never to a foreigner. In fact it  is they, themselves, who are the only cause of this overfishing.

Ironically, their own local newspaper recently reported what everybody knows; that overfishing is a human-caused problem. No matter. These men continue killing dolphins, although for the unpublicized motive of  earning a little extra money selling the flesh as animal feed and fertilizer.

Although the dolphin killing occurs on Iki every winter, the deeper cause is not actually Local. When I was here last year, essentially commissioned to make a media event by Greenpace, I learned that the Japanese Fisheries Ministry in Tokyo has been subsidizing this dolphin drive for years, as well as other notorious dolphins drives occurring at Taiji and Wakayama. It is the Fisheries Ministry’s view, that dolphins are pests.  With human overfishing now occurring throughout Japan, their horrific  solution is not to recover the Fisheries by letting them rest for a few years, but to sponsor a campaign to eliminate all other predators.

The Fisheries Ministry keeps expanding the operation through subsidies, even as foreigners start arriving to protest the slaughter.  I’ve thought long and hard about this federal sponsorship. I conclude, rather discouragingly, that  it has no environmental or economic objective,  other than to keep throwing  money at voting fishermen.


A few nights ago, I grew bold after a few glasses of a local rice brandy, and asked my drinking companion who was also the head of the local Fishing Cooperative, if he liked eating dolphin meat. Mr. Obata grimaced  at my interpreter, as he usually did whenever I strayed beyond the fragile bounds of the business at hand. He tried to pull my meaning back to the comfortable utility he insisted could always be found within the horror. "We tried selling the meat. The big species taste too metallic. Nobody on Iki would eat it more than once."

I expected him to quickly change the subject. But he’d drunk as much brandy as me, and he was 5 inches shorter. He stared at his hands and kept on talking, certainly aware that the Japanese consumption of cetacean flesh was considered a taboo in the West. As leader of the anti-dolphin committee of Katsumoto town, he had long been a primary target for all the protest, the letter-writing campaigns, and the threats of boycotts levied against his countrymen's business by environmentalists and schoolchildren all over the world.

"Myself,” he began, “I can't understand how anybody can like the taste of dolphin meat, although I hear it is a considered a gourmet treat at Taiji. I suppose it's fine added to the mix of kamaboko (a fish sausage, often tinted pink, that is popular throughout Japan). There’s a few folks in Katsumoto who have acquired a taste for the suckling animals. They cut it into strips for barbecue. But I have never tried it. And I never will." He pulled out a Lucky Seven cigarette, tapped it on the table top, lit it, inhaled deeply and smiled, displaying a mouth full of gold teeth. Then he started to smirk. "We keep a few dolphin steaks stashed away in the freezer of this hotel. If you like, I can arrange a tasting?" He chuckled once, then lifted his eyes to stare at me deadpan.

Mr Obata was always interested to hear my theories of why Westerners loved dolphins so dearly. No matter how I answered, he would retort, "We too would love dolphins if they would stop destroying our fishery." He loved it when I became his straight man. And it always got him to smile.

Although I had learned quickly not to react to his anti-environmental one-liners, I also recognized that his observations often hit the mark. The reason I was not here with Greenpeace this year, was because Mr. Obata had convinced me that the type of staged media event favored at the time by Western activist groups, could never stop the killing of dolphins. Indeed, environmentalists were skillful at manipulating the media. And the TV coverage they generated successfully publicized the killing outside Japan. Obata even acknowledged that the resultant mass protests deeply embarrassed the federal government. But when the Japanese lose face, they respond by digging in their heels. Obata believed that the Fisheries Ministry actually expanded the Iki slaughter this Spring, just to spite the foreign protest.

Obata's insights were often tainted by cynicism. Even as he vouched that TV coverage in London, San Francisco, and Sydney would never alter the equation, he assured me it would help environmental groups raise funds so that next winter they could send a new batch of potential heroes to Iki. In Obata's view, the Iki slaughter provided as much a windfall for people like me as it did for the Katsumoto Innkeepers who filled  their rooms with foreigners in the dead of winter.


iki1I watch the pseudorcas pause a moment to rub their bodies against metal as if trying to determine the sensual meaning of the galvanized fence that straddles the killing cove. One at a time, they swim through the gate until they hit the sandy bottom with their flukes. When they are all inside the fence, they back up a few feet into slightly deeper water. Then turn to face one another; ten pseudorca bodies emanating from a common center like the petals of a black daisy. I am aware that cachalot also favor this same behavior, and it even has a name: ”the Marguerite Formation.” The largest animal, nearly twenty feet in length, raises its head a bit to vocalize a tenor whistle into the still air. In my experience, it is exceedingly rare for a cetacean to vocalize in air, and it takes me by surprise.

I drop a hydrophone over the edge of the boat, don headphones, and turn on the cassette recorder. Underwater, I hear a new call sounding vaguely like a piccolo sliding up an e-minor scale. This is picked up by several animals who resonate the overtones and accentuate the tonic. I imagine the vibrations shimmering off their acoustically sensitive skin, resonating along the length of each animal's body out to the tips of the flukes where it is retained a moment, and then rolls back toward their heads. Even as the harmony seems to transform the daisy into a living musical instrument, it also evinces the destiny of this pod. Tears come to my eyes.

Sound vibration possesses physical heft underwater, which causes me to wonder, in my own yearning for mythology, if the pulse might massage the tender skin of each animal. If so, then these calls may help prepare the group mind for the task ahead. Massage relaxes the body, helps it respond to a situation that causes physical stress. When muscles and internal organs relax, they better withstand the unfamiliar weight of gravity pressing against them. The large male ceases his call. The chorus stops answering. The pseudorcas break from their circle and slip backwards into deeper water. Their breathing seems to intensify. One at a time each animal surges forward until its momentum is finally inhibited by the impenetrable mass of the beach. Motionless now. The deed is done. The pod has stranded.

It is quite a different story for the tursiops. About three hundred of the smaller dolphins (up to twelve feet long) have followed the pseudorcas' path to the brink of the steel gate. Just like the pseudorcas, they stop to mill about for a few seconds. Fearing the finality presented by the steel barrier, individual animals turn to dart back to the open sea. But it's too late; the fishermen have unfurled a stout net between the two headlands of the outer cove. The tursiops rush back and forth along the length of the net, echolocating, rubbing against the mesh, searching in vain for a safe passage. One of them panics, and barrels into the net at full speed, twisting and biting in an attempt to rip a hole in the fabric. But the net holds. A pectoral fin soon becomes entangled. The animal churns its flukes trying to escape. The monofilament still holds, slicing deeply through the dolphin's silky skin. The dolphin startles, thrashes violently, slapping up against the net until flukes get caught as well. Held beneath the surface, unable to pull free to draw mortal breath, it soon ceases thrashing. A dolphin life is transmuted into another statistic of the Killing Cove.

A smaller tursiops charges the net at full speed. Somehow it rips a substantial hole in the fabric. Ten dolphins follow its lead through the gaping hole and swim away to freedom. Fishermen scream at one another until a boat is dispatched to the spot. Two men lift up the section of net, tie several criss-crossed pieces of monofilament to fill the gap, and then clip a small piece of netting to patch the hole.

In contrast to the pseudorcas determination to strand, the tursiops' sense of frenzy tends to affirm their resolve not to swim through that metal gate. Fishermen have told me that it can take a full day for a pod of tursiops to pass through the gate of their own accord. For that reason, once the outer net is secure, most of the fishermen head back to Katsumoto. They have learned from experience that almost no amount of shouting, shooting, coaxing, or spearing, is ever going to force the tursiops through the gate and into the shallow killing cove unless the animals themselves are ready to do so of their own volition. Until the fishermen learned this basic fact, they forced the issue by drawing the outer net forward in an attempt to push the animals through the metal gate. It caused dolphins to descend into a panic, overturning boats and ripping many holes in the expensive net. Once, a wide tear in the net allowed an entire day's haul of dolphins to escape to the open sea again. Another time a man was nearly disemboweled when a panicked dolphin ploughed into his abdomen, beak first.

iki3Unlike pseudorcas, the tursiops or bottlenose dolphin possesses little history of voluntary group stranding. They are a coastal species, with much familiarity with shoreline and its inherent danger. If the species seems to be stranding more often these days, including along the east coast of the United States, it's due to increased pollution in their shoreline habitat, and not from any change in species behavior. 

Lying on the beach now, unfamiliar sensations vie for the pseudorca's attention. The imponderable pull of gravity enacts its burden, jamming innards tightly against the spinal column. The exquisitely sensitive skin immediately starts to harden, shrink, and later, crack under the glare of the late afternoon sun. Body heat cooks them from within. The ten fishermen who remain along the shore to await the tursiops entrance into the shallows are already wielding spears and knives in anticipation of stabbing and hacking them to death. But they leave the pseudorcas alone. These Japanese fishermen seem to comprehend a pseudorca stranding as voluntary, the cetacean equivalent of seppuku. So even as the Iki fishermen prepare themselves for a gory process in a frenzy of economic frustration and blood lust, they interpret the pseudorca stranding as an act worthy of their respect. It is a state of grace to be admired.

Pseudorcas heave their torsos upward for breath, occasionally lift their flukes as if testing a remembrance of locomotion, dropping them like an afterthought, with a splash and a resounding thud that echoes off the rock face that looms above the beach. Watching them struggle, I weep openly, deeply discouraged over my observer's role, unable to change anything occurring on this beach. I am confused that some of these dolphin killers are my own acquaintances. A few days earlier I had been introduced to them in a local Karaoke bar, and laughed until my sides ached to hear one of them sing "ta a yero rib u un" (Tie a Yellow Ribbon). That same singer is now standing onshore, leaning on his lance like an athlete preparing to heave the javelin. He strolls down the beach to stand over the pseudorcas who likewise watch him in silence through their dark brown eyes.

Mr. Obata recently described for me his first experience of a pseudorca stranding. He described it as “wondrous, but discomforting to observe no clear expression of their agony. If not suffering, if not pain, then what is it that the pseudorcas are experiencing? Their dying seems so smooth, so free of stress. They just drift away.” As I now watch, a fisherman leaning on a spear kicks a pseudorca whose only crime is forcing him into eye contact. There is something deeply communal about that stare, as if the whale is asking: "won't you join the dance?" A few other fisherman gather to stare at the pair in curiosity. The pseudorca looks them over as well. It must be unnerving, this gaze of death. The fishermen giggle a bit, like teenage boys trying to assuage a situation that mostly makes them feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that I am watching.

I conclude that after years of trying to understand the dolphin’s gaze, the fishermen no longer know what it is they are witnessing, or how to behave, or what vocabulary to use to discuss this troubling act among themselves. During the brief moment when eye contact is sealed, the pseudorcas demonstrate their awareness. In that revelation, ordinary men abruptly recognize themselves as murderers. Last year, a man confided to me that a pseudorca stranding can not possibly be a mindless act perpetrated by some dumb animal. It is conscious, willed, a cetacean ceremony that invites death into their oceanic heart, not unlike a fisherman praying to his Shinto gods to guard the safety of the fleet.

A minute passes. The man leaning on his spear finds a flat stone, throws it in the water, lights up a cigarette, turns to stare at his friends and neighbors, men just like himself who are waiting to enact a carnage down the beach that will transform the killing cove into a bloodbath of thrashing tursiops. Finally, pilgrimage complete, he nods once at the pseudorcas lying before him, then turns around, walks casually back down the beach to join his fellows, wrenching his mind and his heart away from the sense and civility of his ordinary life, to start the horrific task set before them.

Almost too quickly, two juvenile pseudorcas turn on their sides, mouths agape, eyes glazed over, rocking back and forth in the gentle lap of the waves. Dead.

How did they ever manage to go so quickly? Did their livers hemorrhage from the sheer weight of their own body? Or is it something else? I learned long ago that cetaceans possess voluntary control over their own breathing. This respiratory trait inspires as much conjecture by dolphin mythologists as the large brain, the altruistic behavior, the stranding. Some conjecture that dolphin breathing must be a form of Yoga, a be-here-now meditation that leads to supernatural control over physiological function. The ultimate implication is that when a dolphin inhales to hold its breath, it can will itself not to exhale, and therefore die as it wishes. No need to shove a gun barrel in your mouth or jump off the Golden Gate bridge. Just stop breathing. Go out consciously.

Lying on either side of the two little carcasses, older podmates choose to hold steady in the conscious meltdown. Mr Obata has recently informed me that, depending on the intensity the sun, most stranded pseudorcas  take about twelve hours to expire. The fishermen can tell when the end is near. Muscles start to spasm. Breathing becomes short. They relax into a vortex too powerful to resist. Do they experience the long tunnel described by human refugees of the near-death experience? Do other long-departed pseudorcas swim about them in greeting? The body spasms one last time. White light. Delight. It is in such a manner that I imagine the pseudorcas drifting off the sands of Tatsunoshima. Gone.
And this afterthought. So many people ascribe reason and thought to these animals. Yet if so, why is it that throughout the long, deadly afternoon, not a single dolphin has figured out the simple maneuver of leaping over the fence to freedom?



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