Directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, parts of the documentary were filmed secretly during 2007 using underwater microphones and high-definition cameras disguised as rocks.
Producer Fisher Stevens thanked the Academy tonight, saying, "I just want to say that it was an honor to work on this film and to try to make an entertaining film that also tries to enlighten everybody. I have to thank Jim Clark, who financed the film and was also kind of the guiding wisdom behind the film. Paula DuPre Pesmen, my producing partner. And my hero, Ric O'Barry, who was not only a hero to this species, but to all species. And the man who came up with the idea, Louie Psihoyos."
"The Cove" follows former dolphin trainer O'Barry on his mission to document the largest dolphin slaughter in the world in Taiji.
Taiji fishermen slaughter dolphins (Photo courtesy Campaign Whale)
The documentary exposes the slaughter of more than 2,000 dolphins and porpoises in Taiji every year, and how their meat, containing toxic levels of mercury, is being sold as food in Japan and other parts of Asia, often labeled as whale meat.
O'Barry's involvement with dolphins dates from the 1960s when he captured and trained the five wild dolphins to play the role of "Flipper" in the hit television series of the same name. When one of the dolphins voluntarily closed her blowhole in order to suffocate, that O'Barry realized how much suffering was being inflicted on these performing dolphins.
Since then O'Barry has worked as an advocate on behalf of dolphins around the world.
In the film, after meeting with O'Barry, Psihoyos and his crew travel to Taiji, a whaling town on the Pacific Ocean in south-central Japan. There, in an isolated cove surrounded by wire and warning signs, fisherman use sonar to confuse and trap dolphins by the thousands.
Ric O'Barry displays mercury-laced dolphin meat in a Japanese store. (Photo courtesy The Cove)
Some of the trapped dolphins are sold into the lucrative aquarium trade and the rest have been slaughtered and sold fraudulently as whale meat in the Japanese market. While each dead dolphin sells for about US$600, those captured alive are worth as much as US$200,000 when sold to aquariums and swim with dolphins parks around the world.
Although dolphin meat is dangerously high in mercury, this mislabeled food has been served to Japanese schoolchildren for lunch.
Together with the Oceanic Preservation Society, Psihoyos, O'Barry, and the film crew set out to document the truth about the bloody slaughter that takes place in the cove and why it matters.
Psihoyos said that at first he wanted to do the story openly with permission from the Japanese government.
"After a tour of the town with Richard [O'Barry], I contacted the Taiji mayor's office and the dolphin hunters' union. I wanted to get their side of the story and I wanted to do the story legally. I had noticed that I had picked up a tail; I had 24-hour police surveillance while I was in town. But the town was not interested in cooperating; they were making too much money with the captive dolphin industry to jeopardize it by having a journalist milling about. The mayor told me that I could get hurt or killed by getting too close to the dolphin hunters or the secret cove."
Psihoyos said that in the end the film had to be made in secrecy and the team was at risk all the time they were in Taiji.
"The OPS team made seven trips to Taiji and every time we went there we faced arrest, possible violence and I still get death threats. Night missions were laced with adrenaline and fear. I found out that filmmaking is hard enough in the best of conditions. I look forward to making a film where people don't want to kill you when you go to work."
"The Cove" Director Louie Psihoyos and Assistant Director Charles Hambleton in a camera blind in the cliffs above the secret dolphin cove in Taiji. (Photo by CinemaWarrior)
In addition to the Oscar, "The Cove" has won many other awards since it was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, where it won the U.S. Audience Award.
The film has been honored by the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the NY Film Critics, and the Toronto Film Critics organizations.
All the publicity surrounding the documentary stopped the September 2009 slaughter of dolphins in Taiji.
O'Barry says The town of Taiji came under "intense international pressure to end the practice of killing dolphins and selling contaminated dolphin meat to Japanese consumers" and this has resulted in a "new non-slaughter" policy.
Last September, no captures or slaughter took place while a team led by O'Barry, now campaign director of the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, and international media converged on Taiji.
Once the team left Taiji for Tokyo, reports surfaced that fishermen captured "about 100" bottlenose dolphins and 50 pilot whales.
A representative of the Taiji Town Council indicated that some of the bottlenose dolphins would be retained to sell on the world market to aquariums.
Instead of killing the remaining dolphins for meat, the town announced its intention to release any dolphins not selected for captivity.
The crew of "The Cove," from left: translator Goh Iromoto, Simon Hutchins, Joe Chisholm, Charles Hambelton, director Louie Psihoyos, Ric O'Barry, freedivers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack (Photo by CinemaWarrior)
O'Barry said, "The world is watching. We call on the Japanese Fisheries Minister and the Taiji Town Council to make the non-slaughter policy permanent, and revoke all permits allowing capture and slaughter."
"Stopping the slaughter and sale of dolphins would be a major victory for the people of Japan who risk eating mercury-laced dolphin meat, and of course the millions of people who have seen The Cove."
David Phillips, director of San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute said, "Our coalition staff has been in Japan since day one of this year's planned dolphin kill, and we're staying. We will expand vigilance in Taiji, and bring greater world attention to ensure that the dolphins are released and that the slaughter does not resume."
Dr. Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, said, "On behalf of the members of IDA, I congratulate Ric O'Barry, the members of the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, and Cove Director Louie Psihoyos for taking us one step closer to ending the slaughter of these sensitive and intelligent animals."
The documentary, which was originally rejected, was shown at the Tokyo Film Festival due to public outcry. Residents in Taiji are being tested for mercury poisoning, and for the first time Japanese media are covering the issue.
At the Oscars in Los Angeles Sunday night, one producer raised a banner stating "Text DOLPHIN to 44144." People who text that message sign a petition to end the yearly dolphin drive, join the mobile campaign for "The Cove" and receive updates on the campaign on their phones.
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