kenny hodgart

Blood in the water

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This article was published in Hong Kong Tatler

It would be easy to attribute Ric O’Barry’s slight irascibility to the fact that he’s been campaigning on the same issue for more than 40 years and still finds he’s not being listened to where it matters. Then again, it could be down to his jetlag.

The 73-year-old dolphin-lover and activist has been flown to Hong Kong from his home in Miami for a week at the behest of a student group at Hong Kong Baptist University and – surveying a sparkling Victoria Harbour from a restaurant on the 31st floor of the Regal Hotel – he’s just getting going on the environmental exigencies facing our oceans.

The contamination of fish stocks from industrial pollutants is one thing you might want to think about next time you order a tuna salad, he says taking off his Ray Bans, seemingly to get a better look at me. Over-fishing is another: “We’re stripmining the oceans. My daughter [O’Barry lives in Miami and Denmark with his wife and an adopted Chinese daughter] is seven. In her lifetime there won’t be any fish.”

Crikey. So the message he’ll deliver to the HKBU branch of the international student organisation AIESEC the next day is that conservation is doomed to failure? Well, not exactly. Years of frustration at a lack of global action to protect dolphins have failed to extinguish O’Barry’s idealism. With the sleeve of his smart Explorer’s Club blazer only partially obscuring a multi-coloured agglomeration of charity wristbands, he is a curious mix of old-school swashbuckler and modern activist-warrior. “It’s about people power,” he tells me. “Governments aren’t going to fix these problems. And right now you’re seeing legions of new activists.”

These days O’Barry travels the world trying to stop the traffic in captive dolphins, which he believes is linked to the killing of 23,000 dolphins in Japan every year. But his relationship to the species is more complex than his single-minded – some might say obsessional – dedication to its emancipation might suggest. In the 1960s it was O’Barry who, at the Miami Seaqarium, trained the five dolphins used in the popular US television series Flipper. “For seven years I actually lived with the Flipper dolphins,” he says.

His transition towards opposing dolphin captivity came gradually. “I used to take the television set down to the pool so that Flipper could watch Flipper on television and there was a self-awareness – they could see themselves. It’s really all about consciousness and where dolphins are concerned the porch light is on and somebody is home. When you become aware of that there’s a responsibility that comes with it.”

After leaving Flipper in 1970, O’Barry for a while went around “freeing” as many captive dolphins as he could, eventually landing himself in trouble with the law 13 years ago for releasing two dolphins off the coast of Florida which were ill-equipped to survive in the wild and sustained grievous injuries.

“I was initially motivated by guilt, because it was Flipper that inspired all these dolphinariums,” he says. “I went from training dolphins to trying to untrain them and put them back in the wild. What motivates me now, though, is seeing results – all the dolphinariums in the UK for instance are now closed.”

O’Barry’s major breakthrough in terms of bringing the dolphin’s plight to general notice came, however, with the release of the Academy Award-winning documentary film The Cove in 2009. Suspenseful and gripping, it follows the efforts of a team of divers, technicians and other brave sorts led by O’Barry to record and expose – under the noses of the local police – the annual drive hunting season in which thousands of dolphins are brutally slaughtered at a cove in the remote Japanese village of Taiji.

For all the film’s shock value, three years later the killing continues; but where it has been successful is in recruiting people to the cause. Vriko Séraphina Kwok, vice-president of the AIESEC group at HKBU, says it was seeing The Cove a year ago that inspired her to raise awareness locally by inviting O’Barry over. “The issue of dolphin conservation is one that is relevant to Hong Kong and the rest of Asia and we thought it should be promoted,” she says. “Change can’t happen immediately. Traditional ways of doing things don’t just disappear overnight; but it’s important to educate this generation.”

In common with O’Barry and – judging from a recent US Public Service Announcement a whole battalion of Hollywood celebrities – Kwok is opposed to the keeping of dolphins in captivity for the purposes of entertainment. But not all dolphin-lovers agree. On O’Barry’s visit, HKBU hosted a debate on the issue between him and Dr Allan Zeman, the billionaire chairman of Ocean Park. Zeman, citing a figure of 105 million visitors to Ocean Park since it opened, said such attractions had a role to play in connecting people with nature in ways that would otherwise not be possible. “One thing you can be sure of,” he added, “is that we really care for the animals. We only have captive-born animals and rescued dolphins and we’re a non-profit organisation so we put a lot of money into conservation – US$26m since 2005. We raise a lot of money and we educate children about conservation and we’ll continue to do so.”

A key assertion in The Cove is that dolphinariums around the world are connected to the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, and it is true that the whalers earn most of their money from the sale of a few live dolphins while the rest are killed and sold for their meat. However, while a thriving market for captured dolphins for entertainment exists in Japan itself, this is not the case in most other countries, where dolphinariums have their own breeding programmes. At the time of The Cove’s release, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, a trade group representing more than 50 such facilities in the US and elsewhere, accused the film-makers of “misinformation”.

When I press him on this, O’Barry responds somewhat tetchily. “The dolphins are captured with the trainers present – and they’re all connected, even to Ocean Park,” he insists. “They’re connected through the World Association of Zoos and Aqariums, through the Marine Animal Trainers’ Association. They’re all colleagues, they all know what goes on.”

Where he’s on surer ground is in his assertion that the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling has never been extended to smaller cetaceans largely because of Japanese opposition. And as he rightly points out: “The Cove exposed the IWC in a way that’s never been done before.”

Moreover, in his efforts to challenge entrenched habits, he takes encouragement from the recent removal of shark fin soup from menus at some of Hong Kong’s top hotels, and by the fact that – as recorded in Blood Dolphins, a Discovery channel spin-off from The Cove featuring O’Barry and his son Lincoln – dolphin whaling has been stopped in the Solomon Islands. “With money raised from the sale of wristbands worldwide, we were able to help people invest in bee-keeping as an alternative source of income,” he says. “People just want jobs. It’s economics.”

I venture to suggest that it’s that kind of pragmatism that gets results, but he’s already off on a more bullish egression. “We’re winning; we will stop the whalers,” he says. “It’s down to people like the kids who brought me here.”

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