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As of this writing, Taiji, Japan remains ground zero for the capture and distribution of wild dolphins to amusement parks, dolphinariums, and swim-with-dolphin programs worldwide, fetching as much as $200,000 for a trained dolphin. At the same time, Taiji is a place where hundreds of dolphins, pilot whales, false killer whales, and other dolphin species are murdered and slaughtered every year from September until March; supposedly for human consumption, but also to rid the local waters of this so-called “pest.” A slaughtered dolphin brings in only a few hundred dollars.

Video: Liz Carter / Sea Shepherd

The Government of Japan and Taiji sanctions these activities, claiming them to be a centuries-old tradition. Yet, the capture of marine animals, such as dolphins, and marine animal parks only originated some 50 years ago.

As of Tuesday 25th of January, 2017, 100 more dolphins were taken for this industry.  This is their story.

On Friday the 20th of January, 2017; the “fisherman” or dolphin-hunters of Taiji, Japan, left the harbor in their banger boats at approximately 06:50 in the morning, local time, to search for dolphins.  This was considered by many observers to be unusual behavior due to the terrible weather conditions and poor visibility with gray skies, wind, and rain.

Rather than fanning out as the hunters typically do, in all directions, the large majority of the pack turned south. The departure and suspicious behavior point to a “tip-off” that the dolphins were nearby.

A short three hours later, the banger boats were lined up in a drive formation, creating a loud, cacophonous wall of sound, and were quickly forcing the dolphins towards the harbor.  The images do not lie, this was an incredibly large super-pod of dolphins, with many individuals.  It turned out that this was a super pod of bottlenose dolphins; the species of dolphin dolphinaria prefer, and the species of dolphin the hunters seek.

What we know from experience is that, often, the more juveniles and babies in a pod, the quicker they can be driven in.  This may be related to the fact that juveniles and babies cannot hold their breath for nearly as long as adult dolphins, and therefore cannot dive deep or under the boats in attempt to evade them.

By 10:50 local Taiji time, this superpod of dolphins, now thought to be over 300 individuals, lost their freedom and were netted into a very shallow, very narrow, and very cold cove.  For pelagic dolphins, used to the open and deep ocean, the noise, the stress, and the shallow cove is extremely disorientating.

By 11:00 local time, the dolphin hunters left for the day, went back to the harbor, and left the terrorized, terrified, and stressed dolphins netted in the cove, to spend the first, of what would end up being 4 very long nights and 5 very long days locked up in the cove.

Immediately, it was evident that there were many babies and juveniles in this super pod of bottlenose dolphins.  They swam in tight circles around each other in an attempt to figure out their surroundings and comfort each other.

Overnight, temperatures plunged down into the low 30s (Fahrenheit).  These dolphins were left without food, without shelter, and without water, as they obtain their water from the fish and other small sea-creatures they consume.  It would be like running a marathon at top speeds, running for your life, and then being starved, tortured, and kept without water.  This is what the dolphins went through in attempt to escape the dolphin hunters.  Research shows that this level of exertion and stress is extremely deleterious to the health of an individual dolphin, often referred to as capture myopathy.  This exertion is enough to kill an elderly or young dolphin, and there are perhaps many unaccounted for deceased dolphins at the bottom of the cove, or the ocean path taken to drive them there.

The next morning, around 06:45 local Taiji time Saturday 21/1, the dolphin hunters returned to the cove.  They then proceeded to separate out dolphins into several groups to be inspected by dolphin trainers.  Many of these trainers are a part of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA).  They stand in the shallows of the cove with tape measures, and other checklists, looking for young, untarnished, usually female bottlenose dolphins; as they are typically easy to train.

On day 1 of captive selection, 30 dolphins were taken from this pod and sent to a lifetime of imprisonment.  They were dragged onto the beach to be measured, and if selected, were attached to the side of a skiff with a sling, forever removed from their only family.

Dolphins screeched in fear, became tangled in the nets, some possibly drowned, many others stolen.

After seven hours of this captive selection process, which they did not volunteer for, the hunters and trainers left again for the day, leaving the innocent, remaining dolphins, to be imprisoned for another night in the cove.

On day 2 of captive selection, 22/1, the dolphin hunters and trainers again returned to the cove.  On this day, many dolphins thrashed around so hard, blood could be seen on some of the skiffs.  Young juvenile dolphins were torn away from their mothers, and boats could be seen driving straight through smaller sub-pods of dolphins, driving straight on top of some of the dolphins.  By the end of this day, a total of 57 dolphins had been taken from this pod, to be lifelong prisoners of dolphin amusement parks.

On day 3 of captive selection 23/1 (day 4 of the dolphin’s imprisonment), a repeat of the prior days occurred again.  Dolphins could be seen as more sluggish, swimming in slower circles, more labored in their breathing, and some even succumbed to death as the stress, exertion, and fear overwhelmed them.  A very young baby was noticed among the pod, not yet taken.  Its dutiful mother next to it, trying to help it breathe.  A baby this young requires milk every few hours.  Without sufficient water or food intake, it is difficult for the mother to maintain her milk supply.  This was just one of the many “stories” that could be seen in this pod.  By the end of this day, 80 dolphins had been taken from this pod for a life of captivity and slavery.

On day 4 of captive selection 24/1 (day 5 of the dolphin’s imprisonment), 100 total dolphins had been stolen from this superpod of dolphins.  What was perhaps most telling about the relationships among a dolphin pod was that one dolphin was spotted outside the nets.  It was “free.”  It could have swum away to open ocean.  But, it did not.  It stayed next to its podmates all day, and all night.

By the end of the day on 24/1, a total of 4 dolphins died.  Not from slaughter, but from sheer exhaustion and terror.  One hundred had been stolen from their family to be indoctrinated into a lifetime of begging for food, doing unnatural tricks, and acting as a puppet for the captive industry.

Once all the dolphins the hunters and trainers wanted were taken, the nets were removed and the banger boats showed up by the cove.

This exhausted, traumatized, starving, thirsty, and stolen-from pod of dolphins, still likely at least 200 strong, were then driven quickly, with cacophonous walls of sound, back out into the open ocean.  If the drive into the cove did not kill them, and the 5 days of starvation and dehydration did not kill them, it is still possible that this drive out and the stress and exertion of this may be a tipping point.

Many of them have been tagged, but it will be impossible to know the fate of the remaining pod members.  And, for those who were taken, they will become a number in the captive industry.  They will replace a fallen dolphin, and they will be replaced by another dolphin upon their death.

The captive industry all over the world is responsible for the destruction of family pods of dolphins.  Taiji and IMATA are complicit.

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