A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A slight departure for Vulpes Libris, but since we have broadened our remit to include films and television shows, I have a special report about a fascinating film that was brought to my attention last week. Minds in the Water is an independent documentary film made by a group called “Surfers for Cetaceans,” and the film had its mainland UK premiere in my home town of Newquay, so I went along to the screening and the question and answer session with filmmaker Justin Krumb and two of the film’s stars, Howie Cooke and Chris Del Moro.
Whaling is an emotive subject and it would be disingenuous of me to claim impartiality, but since Minds in the Water is a documentary film it will be necessary to engage with some of the issues surrounding whaling. When whaling crops up in conversation, people often appear to fall into either the camp of biocentrism (which extends value to non-human species and asserts that other species are not there simply to be used or consumed by humans, since humans are just one species of many), or anthropocentrism, which can be loosely defined as human beings regarding themselves as the most important species in the universe with the environment valuable only in so far as it serves human need. By this criterion, Minds in the Water and the author of this report are both firmly of the biocentrism mindset and I think it’s important to be clear about that from the outset.
Minds in the Water begins by focussing on Dave Rastovich – the principal narrator of the film – leading its audience to understand that he is a star surfer, a person with a following, a celebrity whose endorsement of products most definitely increases sales. Known to many simply as “Rasta” he is in the enviable position of being a free surfer, which is to say he isn’t paid based on competition results, he is paid to live the ultimate surfing lifestyle, surfing the best breaks in the world, using the best equipment and occasionally obliging his commercial sponsors with a photo shoot or video advertisement. The surf industry is worth about 7 billion dollars a year and as a sponsored figurehead, Rastovich has played his part in contributing to profits. And so at this point in the documentary we’re in comfortable surf film territory, with nice shots of the ocean, breathtaking waves and some impressive displays of surfing prowess.
Rastovich grew up around Australia’s Gold Coast and he points out that Australia in its post-whaling era is a nation obsessed with whales and dolphins, to the extent that images of them appear on everything from pub signs to toilet paper . . .
Rastovich was familiar with the sight of dolphins, some of whom would even share the same waves that he surfed, and he noted early on that there appeared to be something unique about these spirited and intelligent creatures which would seek human contact seemingly for play, and in his years as a star surfer for Billabong, Rastovich had many more such encounters with dolphins. Rastovich was busy thoroughly enjoying his surf-focused lifestyle, when he was one day made aware of the dolphin killing that occurs in places like Taiji, Japan. And it is here that the film makes the leap from surfing to environmental activism. Five years ago, soon after hearing about Taiji, Rastovich decided to give something back to the ocean that had offered him so much, and Minds in the Water is the story of Rastovich’s journey from apathy to activist. The action spans the globe as Rastovich visits the Galapagos, Alaska, Australia, Tonga and Japan, learning more about the importance (and unfortunate plight) of marine animals in each location.
The dolphin killing that occurs in Taiji (Wikipedia article here) is a commercial endeavour undertaken by a small group of fishermen who are fiercely protective of their right to continue what they see as a proud tradition and an act of pest control. The fishermen bang on metal poles to generate a wall of sound that propels the panicked dolphins into a long, thin cove that is surrounded by high cliffs on three sides. The manner of killing, though not seen as anything particularly shocking to the fishermen of Taiji, might well appear disturbing to a Western audience used to dolphins as symbols of intelligence, curiosity and playfulness. The dolphins are stabbed with long knives until the turquoise water of the cove runs bright red with their blood. It can take up to 30 minutes for the dolphins to bleed to death. The dolphin meat is eaten – it is most popular with the older members of the community – but some of the meat is exported further afield, with some reportedly ending up in pet food. The consumption of dolphin meat has attracted international criticism on grounds of cruelty but also because the meat contains high levels of mercury and therefore poses a health risk to consumers.
It was reported in The New York Times that many of the residents of Taiji were unaware of the high and toxic levels of mercury in cetacean meat. Some consumers of seafood worry about the mercury in fish such as tuna, but whereas a skipjack tuna can live until about ten years of age, a bottlenose dolphin can live up to 40 or 50 years old, which means its body has decades to build up high levels of mercury. Eventually some local councillors of Taiji took it upon themselves to have leaflets printed and distributed at their own expense in reaction to a plan to have dolphin meat used in children’s school lunches. If you’re interested in this, you might like to check out the article in The New York Times in which a resident of Taiji is quoted as saying that before reading the councillors’ leaflet she was unaware of the mercury problem, but also that there has been little or no information since then. For more details about the effects of mercury poisoning, it is also worth reading about Minamata disease – not really a disease but a devastating neurological syndrome that occurred when mercury was released in industrial waste water into the sea and found its way into fish that were eaten by humans and other animals. An interesting though terrible fact about methylmercury (the environmental toxicant implicated in mercury poisoning as a result of fish/cetacean consumption) is that before the emergence of Minamata disease, it had been thought that the placenta could protect a foetus from methylmercury, but unfortunately the opposite is true. The placenta removes the methylmercury and it is concentrated in the foetus, with the potential to cause severe physical and mental defects in infants.
Motivated to discover more about the hunting of whales and dolphins, Rastovich researches controversial eco-activist Captain Paul Watson and reads his book, Ocean Warrior. Captain Paul Watson was an early member of Greenpeace and is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Rastovich gets the opportunity to meet with him to discuss dolphin killing, illegal fishing, and the whaling that still occurs despite the 1986 moratorium.
Continuing his travels, Rastovich also meets with various artists, musicians and actors. One of the most memorable people interviewed in Minds in the Water is an artist, Peggy Oki, who had travelled to the IWC in Alaska and filled a tent with 30,000 origami whales with a view to illustrating how many of the great whales had died since the moratorium of 1986. The spectacle of so many paper whales is something that is not easily forgotten.
In an article for The Diplomat (based in Japan), it is reported that the demand for whale meat has dropped drastically in Japan in recent decades with a Greenpeace survey indicating that 95 percent of the population “never or very rarely” having sampled it and that many tonnes of whale meat remain frozen in warehouses. The Japanese government has reportedly been keen to reduce this stockpile, and has encouraged initiatives to include whale meat in school lunch programs. It is worth noting that dolphins and other smaller whale species like pilot whales, are not – and never were – protected by the whaling moratorium and that somewhere in the order of 23,000 dolphins are said to be killed every year in Japan. Consumption of dolphin meat is even less prevalent than consumption of whale meat, although it is popular in certain coastal areas like Taiji, where up to 2000 dolphins are killed annually. Most of the dolphins killed in Japan (about 15000) are offshore Dall’s porpoises (above and right), killed by harpoon along Japan’s northern coastline in Iwate Prefecture, which constitutes the world’s largest annual hunt of any cetacean species.
Whilst travelling and meeting with other conservationists, Rastovich continues his research and discovers the significance of dolphins and whales in many indigenous coastal cultures. He also learns more about dolphin behaviour and the complex societal structures of the groups in which they live. [Oh and if you’ve ever wondered how dolphins sleep, you might want to check out this page. Ed.]
Keen to generate awareness of the issues facing ocean animals, the team behind Minds in the Water created a petition to campaign against the hunting of cetaceans and a nervous Rastovich is filmed as he approaches other famous pro-surfers, asking for their support, which to his surprise and delight is unanimously offered. Rather than traditional signatures, the petition requires images: supporters take a photograph of themselves holding an image of a whale or dolphin and upload it to a website. Many high-profile surfers have chosen to support this Visual Petition, including ten times World Champion Kelly Slater, and the late Andy Irons. There was also support from actors such as Daryl Hannah, Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas, and musicians like Ben Harper and Jack Johnson.
In addition to the trip to the International Whaling Commission meetings in Alaska, Minds in the Water also focuses on a 36 day ocean voyage undertaken by Rastovich and four of his fellow environmental campaigners, including surfer and artist Chris Del Moro, in an attempt to create awareness of coastal pollution issues and to emphasise the problems facing humpback whales. This odyssey, aptly named “Transparent Sea,” involved paddling seven hundred kilometres along the migratory paths of humpback whales in single-seat trimaran kayaks. The footage of this endeavour is quite extraordinary. The activists encountered dolphins, sharks and whales in what must have been the adventure of a lifetime. The team made frequent stops throughout their journey, coming ashore at beaches to meet local people and engage with the environmental issues affecting their particular areas, such as sea pollution resulting from agricultural practises, and the effects of commercial fishing on marine plants and animals.
It would be impossible to mention Minds in the Water without also mentioning The Cove. The Cove, if you’ve not seen it, is the Academy Award winning documentary that also shines a spotlight on the dolphin killing in Taiji. This is a film that has long been on my radar but one I had been putting off viewing, reluctant to see the harrowing footage of dolphin killing in all its bloody gore. Minds in the Water references some of the same material as The Cove, most notably the paddle out ceremony in which a group of surfers (including Heroes actress Hayden Panettiere) paddle into the cove and sit on their surfboards in a circle, as a gesture of remembrance and quiet protest. On the first occasion there are no dolphins present, but word reaches the group just a day later that dolphins have since been driven into the cove. A much smaller group of surfers complete a second paddle out but after a daunting and dangerous encounter with the fishermen, they are forced to come ashore leaving the pod of distressed dolphins to their fate. This was captured on film and made television headlines around the world. There is a poignant moment in Minds in the Water where Rastovich describes this paddle out and the seconds in which he locks eyes with a young fisherman. Rastovich (something of a celebrity in Japan) suddenly has a strong sense that this young man is a surfer, looking at him at first in recognition but then in utter confusion, as if to ask “what is this all about? Why are you in the water?” leaving the audience to wonder if this gulf of incomprehension between them can ever be bridged.
Even if you don’t care for whales and dolphins (and it is clear that plenty of people do not), Minds in the Water is worth watching for its message that everyone is important and everyone can make a difference, or as it’s referred to here: “The Power of One”. The film urges its viewers to use their own particular skill set and strengths to make the world a better place. If that means demonstrating at the International Whaling Commission, or picking up litter on a beach, or remembering to place cigarette butts in a bin (cigarette butts being the most ubiquitous piece of litter on the planet – an estimated 4.5 trillion of them enter the environment every year and they are sometimes eaten by marine animals including whales, dolphins, sea birds and turtles. The filters – which are not made of paper, but a type of plastic: cellulose acetate – can remain in the environment for years and when immersed in water they can leach toxic chemicals including cadmium, lead and arsenic. For more information, do visit the Surfers Against Sewage site here) or another means of conservation, then Minds in the Water urges you to do it. This is a philosophy that might actually have a chance at beating apathy, because if you allow yourself to believe that one individual can make a difference in the battle to protect the environment and marine animals, it becomes far more difficult to justify doing nothing.
Minds in the Water is as much a quest film as a documentary and like all good quest films, it does not forget to put on a good show, even whilst it goes about its business of educating and inspiring its audience. The visuals are stunning, the soundtrack is beautiful and there are plenty of tense moments to keep the audience emotionally invested in the unfolding drama. It is a film that is at times upsetting but overall it is hugely uplifting and hopeful. Dave Rastovich comes across as a thoughtful and likeable individual motivated not by fame but by a desire to come through for the ocean animals most in need of assistance. Although Minds in the Water is ostensibly the story of one man who becomes energised to help cetaceans, is also more than this; it is a rallying cry to all of the people who care about the environment to actually do something to protect and conserve it, however they think they are best suited to do so.
There’s no doubt that Minds in the Water has an agenda and it is upfront about that. Furthermore, it is arguably one-sided in as much as it sees no benefit to the killing of dolphins and whales. It campaigns for change, for thought, for compassion, for protection of marine environments, and for the immediate end to cetacean killing. It asserts that change can be made and that one person can make a difference, and its sincerity and its belief in individuals is contagious; on a personal level, Minds in the Water has inspired me to arrange a clean-up of my local beach, where before I could only complain of litter.
For an illuminating look at the politics and history of Japanese whaling, see this article from Japan, published in The Diplomat.
For a report on the killing of Dall’s porpoises in Iwate Prefecture, visit Save Japan Dolphins, here.
For multiple viewpoints on whaling, see this short article from The Japan Times: “JAPAN AND THE WHALING BAN. From the inside looking out . . . “
For insight into the Japanese government’s position on whaling, see the Question and Answer page on the Japan Whaling Association’s website. You will not, however, find any mention of mercury.
The images used above of cetaceans are in the public domain, excepting the porpoise market photograph, which is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Clicking the images will load their source page. The images of Dave Rastovich are courtesy of Hilton/S4C.
Lisa has been interested in the plight of whales since 1985 when the World Wide Fund for Nature sent her some rather gruesome pictures of whale killing, which was the same year that she defied her parents and became a vegetarian. One year on, as an excitable six-year-old, she danced around her room at the news that the international whaling moratorium was in force. Ten years after that she became dispirited and hopeless in the face of on-going commercial whaling conducted in the name of “research”. Last week she rediscovered her hope and allowed herself to believe that through the collective power of motivated individuals there will one day be an end to the killing of cetaceans.