‘Can’t un-see it’: Dolphin activist reveals scene that still haunts him

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An 81-year-old dolphin activist has opened up about the toll years of campaigning has taken on his mental health.

Describing the last 50 years as like “one big bad movie”, Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry said he would prefer to be retired and sailing.

It’s hard to walk away from a lifetime of activism, while the “abuse” of dolphins continues around the world.

“Wherever I am you try and escape it,” Mr O’Barry told Yahoo News Australia.

“Those images don’t go away. Once you see it you can’t un-see it.”

Dolphin campaigner Ric O'Barry is haunted by scenes of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Source: Dolphin Project
Dolphin campaigner Ric O’Barry is haunted by scenes of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Source: Dolphin Project

He’s particularly haunted by the deaths of whales and dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

Vision captured by Dolphin Project gives insight into his experience: the ocean turning red with blood after dolphins and small whales are driven towards the rocky shore, then butchered.

“When you put your head on the pillow at night it doesn’t go away,” Mr O’Barry said of his time campaigning against the slaughter in Taiji.

“It’s like one long, bad dream, these last 15 years.”

‘It affects your family,’ O’Barry says of dolphin activist work

In his pursuit to free dolphins from captivity, Mr O’Barry has had his life threatened on many occasions, and lost count of how often he’s been imprisoned around the world.

Describing Japanese prison as torturous, he has avoided confrontation there, even when a hunter in the town of Taiji decapitated a dead baby dolphin in front of him.

“I think he wanted to shock me with a knife, that kind of stuff right in my face,” Mr O’Barry said.

“Blood splattered all over me”.

Mr O'Barry spoke to Yahoo News Australia from his home in Copenhagen. Source: Michael Dahlstrom
Mr O’Barry spoke to Yahoo News Australia from his home in Copenhagen. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

The work has taken a toll on him, but he believes it’s the people he loves have suffered most.

“It affects your family, it affects everybody around you,” he said.

“You miss your son’s graduation, I’m not sure I would recommend this to anybody.”

‘I wish I hadn’t taken that phone call’

Every time he leaves his home he’s walking into conflict, and that’s hard to leave at the door when he comes home.

Mr O’Barry’s work shot to prominence 10 years ago after his campaign to end dolphin slaughter in Japan was documented in the Oscar winning film The Cove.

Sometimes you have a split second to make a choice and it’ll literally change your life.Ric O’Barry

His work there began after receiving a call from another activist asking for assistance.

Mr O’Barry recalls he was told it was “dangerous” but they needed help.

Mr O'Barry (left), a skilled diver, said it is thrilling to set dolphins free. Source: Dolphin Project
Mr O’Barry (left), a skilled diver, said it is thrilling to set dolphins free. Source: Dolphin Project

“So, I bought an aeroplane ticket and I was there the next day,” he said.

“That was 20 years ago and I’ve been stuck (campaigning) there ever since.

“In some ways I wish I hadn’t taken that phone call.”

Dolphin Project’s work in the town of Taiji, has focused on not just the killing of dolphins for their meat, but also the hunters’ ties to the marine park industry.

Favoured species such as bottle-nose dolphins are captured and sold into captivity, particularly to Japanese and Chinese dolphinariums.

Dolphin parks linked to slaughter

With dolphin consumption not particularly popular in Japan, and known to be high in mercury, Mr O’Barry believes it is the lucrative sums earned from selling live dolphins which makes the slaughter financially viable.

While debate rages over whether dolphin killing is a tradition in Japan, the large scale culls and capture of these animals is a relatively new phenomenon.

Dead dolphins sell for as little as US $480, while a live animal can sell for 100 times that amount, according to Vice News.

Dolphin Project urges tourists to avoid dolphinariums. Source: Getty
Dolphin Project urges tourists to avoid dolphinariums. Source: Getty

The majority of those sold into entertainment are sent to China where there is an expanding middle class, with money to spend on dolphin shows, the Washington Post reported.

A growing number of Japanese nationals are protesting the hunt each year, and Mr O’Barry believes that ongoing education will see the practice phased out.

More

‘It’s all about showing up’: Key to dolphin activism

Despite describing himself as “always tired”, Mr O’Barry isn’t retiring any time soon, but he doesn’t know where his stamina comes from.

“I just keep doing it. It’s like breathing,” Mr O’Barry said.

“It’s kind of like asking me how do you keep breathing, I don’t think about that any more, I just breathe.”

In the world of computer activism, he believes change occurs by physically protesting, and resisting.

“I’m computer illiterate, I don’t even own a computer,” he said.

“It’s all about showing up. Real activists show up.

Progress being made as laws ban dolphin capture

Despite the depressing side of his work, Mr O’Barry said he can see progress being made.

He was particularly elated by news that the state of NSW would be banning the breeding and capture of dolphins, following similar legislation passed in France and Canada.

Mr O'Barry, pictured as a young man, transitioned from capturing dolphins to setting them free. Source: Dolphin Project
Mr O’Barry, pictured as a young man, transitioned from capturing dolphins to setting them free. Source: Dolphin Project

Paying penance for his time as a young man capturing dolphins for marine parks, and working on the 60’s television show Flipper, nothing now gives him greater joy than releasing dolphins back into the ocean.

His activism was directly sparked by the loss of Flipper who died in his arms. The very next day he flew to the Bahamas and was arrested after setting a dolphin free.

He’s particularly proud of the work they have done rehoming three dolphins in Bali, which had been kept inside a hotel swimming pool to entertain tourists.

“There are some days where we actually rehabilitate and release dolphins back into the wild,” he said.

“Words fail when I try to explain how I feel about that — you’re literally giving them their lives back.

“Most dolphins that are captured lose their lives, they don’t get their lives back.”

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