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monday musing ~ The Bloody Creek of Taiji

“…it was the same eerie place, that same cove, the same cruel people, only in a different time.”

The following article is from July 1987 issue of Reader’s Digest. My father had a small collection of this magazine and as a child, this collection was my library. It had been a while since I last visited this particular shelf but after watching a documentary film entitled The Cove, I was compelled to do so. Why? Because I realized the story in that film wasn’t something new to me. It sounded disturbingly familiar. I heard it before. I read about it years ago. And as suspected, it was the same eerie place, that same cove, the same cruel people, only in a different time.

Reading this article is like watching The Cove once again, just as watching The Cove is like getting immersed into this 5-page article written almost three decades ago. Both documented a heart-breaking reality.

Eyewitness at Bloody Creek

Condensed from PACIFIC


In 1982 the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on all whaling, set to begin in 1983. Japan, the world’s largest consumer of whales and whale products, joined Norway and the Soviet Union in refusing to honor the ban. Japan counts on getting its protein from the sea, and whaling is part of that—a $60-million-a-year enterprise.

In time open-ocean whaling will end, but even then the Japanese will continue to catch whales and dolphins off coastal Japan. They consider coastal whaling part of their fishing industry—fishing, not whaling. Oikomi-Ryo—in which schooling dolphins and small whales are herded toward shore by fishing boats, netted, beached and then killed—occurs in several areas along the Japanese coast. In the town of Taiji (pop. 4451), 250 miles southwest of Tokyo, whaling has been going on for generations.

Haruko Sato, a 22-year-old student, visited Taiji in February 1985. Her purpose was not to protest whaling but simply to document it and, thereby, perhaps help outsiders to understand. Haruko’s story is a chronicle of the Oikomi-Ryo. 

It was raining at Bloody Creek. Everything was soft, dark green, quiet. No fishing boats revving engines. No whales or dolphins splashing, spouting, squealing. It was hard to imagine that only two years earlier, walking along this road, I had seen the bloody aftermath of a slaughterhouse operation—whales and dolphins driven ashore and killed, men in black wet suits, carrying harpoons, wading through a crimson sea.  The locals call this small Pacific cove Hatajiri Bay, but to me it is the place where the blood flows—“Bloody Creek.”

Finding it empty, I hiked along the rocky shore for a tour of the port to see how the whaling season was doing. Walking through the fish market, I came to the Taiji Fishery Union, headquarters for the Oikomi-Ryo fisherman. A sign on the building proclaimed: “WE ARE ABSOLUTELY AGAINST THE INTERNATIONAL WHALING COMMISSION’S TOTAL BAN ON WHALING!”

 I wanted to talk to the manager, Yoshiaki Seko, whom I had met on my previous visit, about Oikomi-Ryo.

“The catch is down,” he said. “A few years ago, we were getting about 10,000 dolphins and whales a year. This season, we’ve caught only 3000 mostly striped and bottlenose dolphins, plus 400 short-finned pilot whales. We wish that Pacific white-sided dolphins and orcas were easier to catch—the aquariums want these species.”

Many of the aquariums in Japan that exhibit small whales and dolphins obtain their animals from Taiji. But aquarium needs are limited, and most of the Oikomi-Ryo catch goes to the fish market. A dead dolphin, a bottlenose, for example, yields on average 135 pounds of meat—about $113 per animal. A pilot whale, 25 percent larger, is worth more.

Besides the 28 men who work on the 14 Oikomi-Ryo fishing boats, Seko explained, the whaling industry supports 20 to 30 workers in the six processing plants. Another 50 to 60 still go to the Antarctic each year. In all, about 100 are directly employed by whaling.

The end of whaling will create only a tiny ripple in Japan’s economy, but it will have an impact in whaling centers like Taiji. Seko hopes that “minor coastal whaling,” as he put it, will be able to continue. But are there enough whales?

“When I was young,” he said, “I often sat on the hill of Taiji and watched whales and dolphins leaping all around. Now, we must search twenty miles or more for them.”

That night the rain increased. The following day was still cold and wet. I walked over to Bloody Creek again to see if whales had been caught. It was still quiet, rain-washed. Nothing happening.

But the next morning the rain had stopped, and fishing boats were coming and going on a grayish-blue sea. I stared out the window in my room. Did I see the dorsal fin of a dolphin? Minutes later I thought I saw more dorsal fins. Then I knew: these dolphins were part of the school and the fishermen were off in their boats corralling the others. It was Oikomi-Ryo. Soon boats appeared, driving the dolphins toward Bloody Creek. I grabbed my camera and ran for the cliff.

Just outside the cove, the dolphins—about 50 animals—milled around. The boats were drawing closer, forming a tight semicircle. Whalers were beating their skiffs with metal sticks: coc, coc, coc, coc, coc. The sounds were sharp, and the dolphins seemed bothered. They arched their backs, deep-diving, searching for a way to avoid the whalers and their terrible noise.

Soon the dolphins gave up their diving and just lay on the surface. They seemed to be confused. Half faced out to sea. Still hopeful? Half faced toward Bloody Creek. Resigned?

The whalers moved in, stepping up the coc, coc, coc. All the dolphins turned toward Bloody Creek, running from the harsh sounds. Three large dolphins led the way. In the pack behind them were calves and juveniles, their tiny dorsal fins tucked close beside their mothers. A last desperate dash. The whalers raced their engines in pursuit, and minutes later the dolphins were forced into the cove. Other whalers, waiting with the net, strung it across and tied both ends to the shore.

The dolphins stopped running and floated at the surface, breathing frequently. A few stuck their heads out of the water—tachimbo we call it, meaning “someone who just stands there.”

The whaling was over for the day.  The whalers departed. It had taken only 30 minutes to corral this herd. The whalers were specialists.

Next morning before dawn, I went to Bloody Creek to see if any animals were stranded in the shallows. In the twilight, the captives huddled, quiet except for the occasional puff and suck of their spouting.

A man wearing a black wet suit trudged down the beach, carrying wood to make a fire. “If you want to use your camera,” he warned, “better inform our chief.”

More men arrived, standing around the fire talking. The sun was now rising, though the wind kept it chilly. Some of the men took their skiffs out to the net near the mouth of the cove. In time a man wearing a black baseball cap identified himself as the chief. I told him my plan. He frowned: “I will permit no photographing of the killing scene. As you know, whaling is subject to severe criticism recently. Photos just make more trouble for us.”

“May I take shots just of the animals?” I asked.

He didn’t answer and, as soon as he got busy, I started photographing the dolphins, motionless in the pink light of dawn.

The firing of a boat engine brought them to life, made them scatter. The whalers in the skiffs each put a metal pipe in the water and began hitting it with a stick. The object was to drive the animals toward shore where men with harpoons waited.

The dolphins thrashed the waters, tracing the perimeter of the net. Frantic, some charged the mesh, entangling their flippers.  Then one dolphin shot out of the water and landed in the shallows. The water washed out—and the struggling body, sparkling on the beach, turned still. Two whalers walked up to the dolphin, harpoons poised. As they did, the chief yelled: “No more photos!”

For an hour, the blood flowed. The chief never left my side. Many dolphins willingly entered the shallows. Others, whimpering softly, had to be forced to meet the harpoon.  Gradually the green water of the cove turned bright red. Old and young, calves and juveniles, about 50 in all, were stabbed to death and stacked like cordwood in the skiffs.

“We don’t feel so well when we kill them,” the chief said. “These dolphins don’t cry much, but sometimes we hear loud crying. I feel sorry for them.”

A little later he added: “These dolphins make me sick. They eat lots of fish. Sometimes they even take it off our hooks—all but the head. They leave that for us.”

The Oikomi-Ryo action was only beginning. Part of the team had already left to chase some pilot whales sighted that morning.  The school of maybe 70 pilot whales and 20 bottlenose dolphins swam in a tight procession of thick black fins—the pilot whales—and tiny gray fins—the bottlenose dolphins. They never altered course.

Once inside the cove, already too late, they tested their cage, and panicked when they tasted the blood that stained the shallows.

There was one more “drive” that day. In all I counted 200 dolphins and whales captured. I knew the catches happened in cycles. The previous month nothing had been caught. Then the skies had cleared, the seas calmed, and all the factors that govern whale and dolphin distribution—food, ocean currents and temperature—had cooperated.

That afternoon dark clouds swept over Taiji. The whalers left their captives at Bloody Creek—alive for now—and I prayed aquariums might take some of the youngsters. The dolphins swam round and round the pilot whales, whistling to one another. The pilot whales, too, though less so. The sounds would sometimes cross in the air.

As I watched, the rain began. Soon the wind blew up, the waves rolled in. it got dark. Still I kept the vigil. I worried about the whales, blown against the shore and into the nets. The wind and the sea raged, muffling even the sounds of their spouts, my only clues as to where they were.

The following day, my last in Taiji, I paid my respects to my friends at Bloody Creek. The sky remained overcast, and there were no whalers in sight. A few animals were having difficulty. Steep swells pushed them into the net, forcing some to take the tachimbo posture just to breathe. The waves had battered an old female pilot whale and temporarily stranded her on the rocks. I could see fresh scars on her head, fins and tail flukes. Her blowing seemed weak.

The heavy rain and waves had washed the beach clean—no trace of yesterday’s blood-red stain. A turn in the weather would again make this beautiful little cove Bloody Creek but, for now, the rain had cleansed it.

I hoped the stormy waves might abate somewhat or perhaps increase and blow open the nets. I did not mind that the rain continued. I had seen enough of Oikomi-Ryo.

(From an article in Reader’s Digest issued on July 1987. Photo from Wikipedia.)

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