The Bloody Truth Behind The Taiji Dolphin Drive Hunt

A new season started on September 1. Entire families of dolphins will be devastated for aquariums to draw crowds.


Just after 6am, a fleet of 11 fishing boats left Taiji harbour on Japan’s southern Pacific coast. Within an hour, the boats were lined up in a formation, encircling a pod of 18 Risso’s dolphins and forcing them into a cove. Nets were set to trap the dolphins, and soon after, seven dolphin trainers from the Taiji Whale Museum arrived.

One by one, the divers caught the dolphins and took them under grey tarps that were meant to shield their work from the scrutiny of outside observers. Under the tarps, the dolphin trainers examined the sex and size of the dolphins, estimated their age and selected two for sale to aquariums — appearance and suitability for training are usually key factors. They were placed on stretchers and taken to sea pens set in a nearby bay.

Just an hour earlier, these dolphins had been swimming freely in the ocean with their family. Now, they were facing a life in a small concrete pool, performing tricks to entertain people who rarely think about how the dolphins ended up there.

The fate of the 16 unchosen dolphins was even more cruel. Hunters struck them with a sharp metal spike into their necks just behind the blowholes, making them suffocate in their own blood, turning the ocean water around them red. Their dead bodies were dragged into Taiji fishing port, soon to become meat products.

In a matter of a few hours, an entire family of dolphins was destroyed as part of what some local fishermen and Japanese politicians call a “tradition”.

Inconvenient truth

On September 1, a new season of cruelty will begin. The small town of Taiji made global headlines after the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary film, The Cove, highlighted Japan’s little-known dolphin hunting practice. While the film was highly acclaimed worldwide, it received a backlash in Japan as conservatives called it an attack on the country’s culture.

More than a decade has passed and the world has changed. Climate change is considered humanity’s biggest challenge. Governments and corporations around the world are working towards sustainability goals, including wildlife conservation. Sadly, in Japan, dolphin hunts continue as they did earlier, while the world’s attention has faded away.

During the six-month hunting season each year, I’m confronted with a truth that’s inconvenient for many people considering the enormous popularity of dolphins at aquariums. Dolphins form strong family bonds, moving together to protect the young and old who cannot swim fast enough when chased by hunters. Dolphins are also generally gentle and do not attack humans even to defend themselves. This makes it easy for hunters to catch entire pods.

Our investigation revealed that at least 563 dolphins were taken from the wild in Taiji alone during the 2021-22 season, of which 498 were slaughtered and 65 were kept for aquariums. The dolphin hunts are conducted across Japan, often using spearfishing. Taiji is particularly notorious because hunters here usually catch entire pods, leaving no chance for families to recover and causing a devastating impact on the dolphin population.


Already, the number of dolphins that hunters are trapping is declining — it has dropped almost to a quarter of the 2,077 dolphins caught in 2000 — even though they go out to the ocean searching for their prey every day during the season. Today, hunters are unable to meet the annual government-set catch quota of 1,849 dolphins.


A wild animal exporting industry

It’s a little-known fact that hunting really started only in 1969 with the establishment of the Taiji Whale Museum in order to display live dolphins. This was around the time when the United States was booming with dolphinariums driven by a popular TV series Flipper, in which a dolphin was a lead character.

A live dolphin is sold for as much as JPY 5 million ($36,000) overseas, while it only fetches JPY 50,000 ($360) as meat.

The Japanese government has defended the hunt as part of local culinary tradition, but hardly anyone in the country eats dolphin meat. In reality, this is about the trade of dolphins to aquariums for entertainment across the world, hiding behind “tradition”. In essence, it’s an animal export industry.

In fact, our research revealed that as of March 11, 2022, 269 dolphins and small whales were being kept as inventory in a massive set of sea pens in Taiji’s Moriura Bay, waiting to be sold to aquariums across Japan and the world. The hunt only continues because of the demand for human entertainment.

Change is coming

There is reason for hope, though. In March of this year, Sweden’s Kolmården zoo, the largest zoo in Scandinavia, announced it will end its dolphin shows. The decision by the zoo, which holds 12 captive dolphins, is symbolic of a new attitude towards animals around the world. Last November, the French parliament passed a bill that bans dolphin shows as well as wild animals used in circuses. A similar ban has been in place in Canada since 2019.

Coastal countries, such as India, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil, also ban or restrict the captivity of dolphins. Expedia is the latest among travel agencies to stop selling tickets that include dolphin shows.

In Japan, too, there are signs that attitudes are beginning to shift. In May, a Tokyo-based aquarium became the first such facility in the country to end its dolphin show. It claimed financial burden as the primary reason, but it also mentioned the global trend in recent years. And the following month, another aquarium announced that it will discontinue sea lion shows.

Change is coming, slowly but surely. Until then, I will continue my work in Taiji to tell the people of Japan what we are doing to the animal we claim to love.

This article by Ren Yabuki was first published by Aljazeera on 31 August 2022. 

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A Dolphin Deemed ‘Too Fat’ To Perform Slammed His Head Against Tank Before Lonely Death

In 1996, Makaiko the Dolphin was driven from his pod in Japan and forced into a life of captivity – hauled from venue to venue in painful conditions and starved in a cruel bid to teach him tricks.


Driven mad by years of loneliness, Makaiko took to smacking against his tank in a heartbreaking act of self-harm.

Snatched from his family in 1996, the poor bottlenose was starved and forced to perform for human crowds – but ran out his final years alone after being deemed “too heavy” and “foolish”.

He died a lonely death some ten years ago after being snatched from a life in the sea with his 80-strong family pod – that were either murdered or taken too. No one noticed he had got tangled in a net at the dolphinarium and quietly drowned.

Makaiko  — meaning  “inner strength” — was born in 1996 in the waters of Taiji, Japan, where she socialised with other pods and spent carefree days playing and roaming the wide-open spaces of the Pacific Ocean.

His former trainer Lorena Kya Lopez recently opened up on his heartbreaking tale in a grim warning about the wildlife trade, which “subjects millions of wild animals to suffering every day”.

Born in 1996, Makaiko roamed free with other pods, playing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Taiji, Japan.

One day, however, the sound of motorboats approaching the group left mothers desperately scrambling to gather up their young.

Hunters threw down heavy nets, scooping up dolphins to harvest for their meat or to sell into the tourist entertainment industry.

“While the water turned red from the blood of the dolphins who tried to escape or were killed, Makaiko was lifted out of the water, unable to move in the net,” Lopez told World Animal Protection.


“Makaiko had been captured. And so began the rest of his life in captivity.”

Alongside his sister Kumiko, the young animal was sold to a dolphinarium in Japan.

During transportation, he was painfully laid out on a stretcher and sprayed with water to keep his skin from drying out.

It was days before the pair were given any food. When they finally arrived at their temporary home, Makaiko was put in a small tank treated with chemicals to keep it clean.

“It wasn’t until they went to the surface and people approached them and started throwing dead fish at them that they had a chance to eat,” explained Lopez.

“The dead fish were not as nutritious as the food they would normally get in the ocean, but at that point, it was better than nothing.”

The meals came with a catch – the trainers would only feed the dolphins if they obeyed orders to perform tricks.

Weak and disorientated, Makaiko learned to jump and pushed trainers around the tank for hours on end.

After 10 months, the siblings were suddenly moved into a pitch black transportation box. For over two days, they were unable to see anything.

Hauled out on to a stretcher, Makaiko was treated with a cream to stop his skin drying again, but he was left in agony – visibly bleeding.

Eventually, they landed at the Six Flags dolphin venue in Mexico, where Lopez first came across the distressed creatures.

Here, trainers continued to teach them the tricks they had struggled with in Japan, but Kumiko was depressed and sadly died soon after.

Makaiko was once again moved, this time to the island of Isla Mujeres.

While the tanks here were bigger, the dolphins were still given punishingly little food and Lopez took sympathy.

“I would always come back at night to give them some extra food so they wouldn’t be as hungry,” she said.

“The water was too warm, leading to skin irritations and fungus infections. The sun was too bright, causing skin burns.

“The dolphins were getting weaker each day.”

Concerned about the animals’ welfare, Lopez supported a rescue mission which failed.


The trainer was fired over her involvement and was only allowed to come back one more time to say goodbye to the dolphins, which was “one of the hardest days” of her life.

Distressed dolphin dumped for being ‘too fat’

For Makaiko, however, the stakes were even higher.

When it came time for his pod to be moved again, he was said to be a “foolish” performer who refused to listen to orders and was deemed too big and too heavy.

While the rest of the animals were transported to another island, he was left behind – increasingly lonely and depressed.

“He stayed alone for some time, without food, and with a growing sense of anxiety he started banging his head against the walls,” said Lopez.

“At some point, people would come in with dead fish, and to clean the water. This was the only time Makaiko wasn’t alone.”

Makaiko’s fortunes changes after an intervention by the Mexican government.

He was rescued and placed with a company called Aqua World, where Lopez was able to lead a rehabilitation process.

Yet the years of mistreatment had left a deep impression on the distressed dolphin, who continued to self-harm.

He was finally transported to Dolphin Discovery at Isla Mujeres, where he would see out the last four years of his life.

While he was able able to swim in the ocean once more, it was only in a confined area and he was required to perform for crowds again.

One day, following Tropical Storm Emily, tragedy struck.

“Nets had been put down due to the destruction and Makaiko got tangled up in them,” said Lopez.

“The people looking after them didn’t see any of this, so Makaiko died. He lay tangled up in the nets in the dolphin venue where he was exploited to entertain thousands of people.”

Image Credits: Rocio Cue

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