“Salt Water Tears”

I’m pleased to say that my book on the Taiji dolphin drive hunt slaughters has now been released.

“Salt Water Tears” – Check out the website  www.saltwatertears.net for on-line ordering

The book is also available from various outlets on-line (Google – Salt Water Tears Len Varley)


Home is where the heart is

Today is a perfect summer’s day in Perth, on Australia’s west coast. Late morning and it’s already a somewhat muggy 33 ° C and a far cry from the brisk 7° daily temperatures in Taiji. My washing line looks comically unusual for a mid-summer’s day with it’s array of hoodies and winter gear baking in the bright sun. I smile to myself as I make the correlation. It is out of place. Like me.

A panoramic view of Taiji harbour

I’ve now been back from Taiji for four days and I am disconnected, physically and emotionally. The physical side is perhaps a little self-inflicted and maybe one day I will tell the full story. Suffice it to say the cliffs around the cove area are steep and I “took one for the team” with a knee injury! I joked to a couple of the other activists – I wonder if I can sue the Taiji town council?! It is the emotional disconnect that concerns me more. Driving back to Osaka was heart-wrenching, and as my mid-morning flight climbed out of Kansai airport on a perfect winter morning, I could only stare fixedly out past the mountains to the distant point where I knew Taiji lay, before the aircraft banked lazily and  hid the coastline from view, as if closing the curtain on my adventure. I thought the feeling may pass as I re-adjust to “normal life”, but even today it lingers on. If home is where the heart is, then right now I’m a resident of Japan’s picturesque Wakayama prefecture.

Snow falls in the mountains above Taiji

My devotion on the shrine wall - Hirou Shrine

Nachi-cho temple with waterfall in background

There is so much more that needs to be said with regards to the dolphin drives. There is so much I would like you to hear and to consider, and in the coming days as I collect my thoughts I will share these with you.

For now I would like to share some insights from an email I sent the other day :
“In any situation where there is a conflict of opinion, I always try to take the approach of trying to understand the other parties side, so my intent in Taiji was to firstly bear witness to the slaughter, but also to learn as much about the culture and people as I could. In doing that I can say that I fell in love with Japan and it’s people! As you mentioned, they are indeed polite…I think I have a sore neck from bowing so much! I learned as many handy phrases in Japanese as I could and spoke Japanese as much as possible, and they recognised and appreciated my efforts to pay them that respect. It left me wanting to learn more of their language to tell them they didn’t need to run around after me and treat me as something special!
Their spirit made me realise something, with regards to the dolphin situation. They genuinely don’t understand why we are so upset and concerned about the dolphin slaughter. Japan relies heavily on the sea for their food…simply put, they see the dolphins as fish, and so they draw the parallel with westerners slaughtering cows. Although that argument is fallacious for a couple of reasons, I can see why they make that connection. The road to understanding and change will be a long one, and will involve the voices of youth – the younger generation of Japanese. The winds of change are starting to blow in Taiji. And as far as western input goes in this process, I think the cause will be won with love and understanding, not hate and aggression.”

For Japan’s wild dolphins and those in captivity.


The luck runs out

Sunrise seems to sneak up suddenly here in Katsuura. As the sun rises, part of my morning routine is to check the weather from the hotel balcony as I drink my morning green tea. Today was a carbon copy of the past two days…clear skies with light winds. It’s going to be another of  “those” days. I pack the gear and make the drive to Taiji in the chill morning air. Sure enough Taiji harbour is emptied of drive boats, and again I muse at the fact that such a beautiful place is turned so ugly by all of this.

Up the road to the point lookout out and the fleet is already out to sea a mile or two offshore, jockeying from position to position. Bob has dubbed the dozen drive boats the “12 Deadly Sins”…a very apt description I think to myself as ugly puffs of black smoke rise from their funnels as they methodically change position with an evil intent. The surface of the water is calm and smooth and I scan the waters for signs of dolphins breaching. Nothing. I hope it stays that way. I would love nothing more than to see the entire fleet parade back to harbour empty-handed like yesterday. Today I want to wave as they come in, I tell Bob. I continually check my watch. 9.30. Still nothing. The standard drill is for the fleet to call it quits and return if they have no luck by late morning.

The fleet finds the pod near the harbour mouth

At time ticks by I start to feel more confident that the day will be a happy one. The fleet is driving closer to the coast and still no sightings. I note that two boats have hydrophone poles in the water. Bastards. It’s like watching an evil ballet out on the water. Not long after 10.00 the luck runs out. I pick up the slow breaching of a small pod of dolphins. They are packed close together and breaching only very occasionally. I scan the fleet…perhaps they haven’t noticed. No such luck…like leeches the drive boats home in. Then the hammering of the poles commences – the sound is like defeat to me. We run to the car and head to the cove. It turns out to be a pod of five rissos dolphins.

Close to the cove the pod turns unexpectedly and I am physically and mentally willing them to find the way back to sea.

Again the hammering starts and the nets positioned. It evokes feelings of anger and of defeat. Nonetheless I stand motionless with shoulders back. I know that behind me, up on the footpath above the beach two fishermen are watching me from behind. One day I swear that hammering is going to stop. I am developing that “poker face” that characterises the Japanese.

5 rissos were lost today.

For the dolphins.

The net is drawn around the pod

The pod almost escapes but the boats are there

The skiffs enter the cove

Cove guardian Libby faces down the last boat

The positives in Taiji

I apologise for the grim tone of the previous day’s entry. In starting this blog I had decided that rather than simply report on events, I would endeavour to provide a slightly different perspective on things. That being said, I felt it necessary to provide readers with an insight into the mechanics of the “drive hunt” here in Taiji. I discussed my intentions with a friend a few days ago and she said something that summed it all up nicely – “Show me the solution, not the problem”.

I’m pleased to say that there is a positive spirit amongst activists on the ground here in Taiji, with many working on various initiatives with the Japanese people. What goes on here is being widely documented, and now there is a need to focus on the positives and work towards future change.

石の上に三年   Ishi no ue ni san nen 

It takes a long time sitting on a stone before it becomes warm”

A killing machine

Tuesday dawned to cloudless skies and light winds. It meant good conditions off-shore for the dolphin hunters and my uneasy feeling was confirmed as I passed by Taiji harbour. The drive boats, normally sitting in a long line around the harbour were absent from their berths. From the high point overlooking the harbour mouth, the ten drive boats could be seen describing lazy circles not far off-shore. The slow turns, with some boats stationary, told me that no pods had been sighted yet, and I prayed a silent prayer for their return empty handed.

The pod is driven towards the cove

When striped dolphins travel they tend to leap acrobatically and will somersault when riding ships bow waves. I love them for their exuberance and free spirit and sadly I could only feel spite for the men that took it upon themselves to take that freedom away from such majestic creatures. It is the striped dolphin that appears in the frescoes of ancient Greece, where they were held in such high regard that it was illegal to do them harm.
As the pod was shepherded towards the cove I bit back tears for the umpteenth time this week. Unlike bottlenose dolphins, this species does not “take” to being trained in captivity and nor are they comfortable so close to land, so there could only be one grim outcome for the pod. I resigned myself to standing vigil and being there for them.
By the time I reached the cove the escort boats were in the bay and the net was played out to seal the exit to sea.
With 14-15 police and coast guard officials observing I paced across to the beach.

Holding net is put into place

A skiff removes the bodies under tarps

It is not my intention to labour the point on specifics here. There were no trainers to select specimens. There were approximately forty dolphins coralled into the cove – none were spared. There were several juveniles amongst the pod. The despatch took longer than usual, mainly because striped dolphins will resist and fight.

I’m thinking of the word “trainer”. We are presumptious beings that we think we have something to teach these dolphins. Do we stop to consider that maybe we have something to learn from them?

Here is what I will take away from today’s events – the striped dolphin teaches me to rejoice in freedom and to have the courage to fight for what is important.

For the dolphins.

The pain of those left behind

The dolphin hunter’s drive boat fleet have remained on their anchors in Taiji harbour the past three days. Weather conditions have not been ideal with strong winds gusting from the north. Sunday’s skies are a clear watery blue and the windchill factor is high. Taiji town is eerily still and the cove beach car park is deserted as I pass by. After the chaos of the “japarazzi circus” yesterday the cove has a surreal feel to it. That isn’t strange though..each time I pass by I feel the knot in my stomach tightening and my gut churning. I think what makes it even worse is that this is far too beautiful a place to be desecrated by what goes on here.

A pod returned to the cove 16-01-11

Out on the waters beyond the net with it’s white buoy markers, movement catches my eye. The surface is broken and churned by numerous fins and the unmistakable blow of dolphins. Being alone with no-one else in sight I’m a little wary of stopping but I want to know what is going on. I pull up, make sure the car is secure and cross the road to the beach. I estimate that there are almost a dozen dolphins turning in confused circles in close proximity to the security net. But what is keeping them there? Their behaviour is far from normal for a pod and there is no net holding them, to cause their erratic circling.

Then it occurs to me why they are there, and tears well up in my eyes. The past week had seen a couple of bloody slaughters at the cove and the dolphins I was watching had presumably returned looking for the missing members. It broke me heart to watch them circle, then run the length of the net barrier. So I stood there and kept them company. And that was all I could do.

What makes this so painful is that I know just what an incredibly intelligent and self-aware creature a dolphin is. In Western Australia, to the north of my home city of Perth is a place called Shark Bay. The resident dolphins of Shark Bay exhibit behaviour not seen elsewhere in the world.  They have been observed holding sea sponges in their beaks which they use as soft, protective “gloves” to shield their snouts as they dig around for food on the rough sea floor. Furthermore this skill is then taught to the young pod members by their mothers.

Shark Bay dolphin with sea sponge

Here in Taiji, with blatant disregard, these dolphin pods are torn apart. And it’s not just the slaughtered that suffer. Tell me again…..who is the most intelligent species here? I really do wonder.

The nail which sticks out….

Deru kui wa utareru. “The nail which sticks out gets hammered down

The Japanese love order and conformity. I notice this the most while I am driving. Despite the fact I’m in a new place – in a foreign land – I’m more relaxed driving here than in Australia. No-one speeds or drives erratically, and I can anticipate every move. For someone as anal and precise as me this is seventh heaven! I bet there is no road rage in Japan. However when there is dis-order or dis-harmony, the Japanese tend to become confused and edgy. (I can relate to this too, as my friends will no doubt confirm!)

Today I witnessed the hammer at the cove. The drive boats have been in harbour the past two days, following the bloody events of the previous two days leading up to my arrival. Today however, the parking lot at the cove was full of cars as I pulled in on my way back from the harbour. Two groups of four Japanese stood at each end of the parking lot. A few others wandered the area, to all intents and purposes like tourists, but the way they carried themselves said otherwise. These are not curious onlookers. Or protesters, or passing tourists. A police vehicle trawls it’s way through the car park, pausing momentarily presumably to record my car’s registration number.

Japanese Coast Guard vessel in Taiji harbour

Bear in mind that I am not here to protest. Or break laws. Nor do I wear the colours of any organisation.

I parked the car and quietly observed the scene. Minutes of blase scrutiny pass and then suddenly my car is descended upon by six people. Three stand behind peering through the back window, holding up video cameras, a little like a Japanese paparazzi. ( Or is that japarazzi?!) A further three make their way to the driver’s side window and one attempts some broken English. When I greet him in Japanese he takes a backstep then speaks a quick stream of Japanese at me. I can’t pick a word out so I explain in Japanese “Sorry, English. I don’t understand”. Another takes his place. This one speaks reasonable English, though I respectfully answer as many of his questions as possible in Japanese. His demeanour is polite and the questions are standard…Where am I from? How long are you here for? Where are you staying?  When asked for my passport, I proffer it two handed, with a bow, following the etiquette of respect in Japan. He then asks “How did you learn about this place?” I answer him truthfully…”From television and newspapers. Most people who read the newspaper know about this place.” There is a genuine look of surprise on his face. Asian races are not as quick as Westerners to show facial expression, so I know that his look is one of genuine surprise. In truth, the first I saw of  Taiji was a 6 page colour spread in the Sunday Times newspaper. I still have the copy at home. I explain this to him and he relays the details to his companions who are also surprised. I politely offer to send him a copy when I return home. He thanks me for my answers and tells me that this won’t be necessary. I return his thanks and tell him that I will be passing by each day, but I have no intention of showing disrespect by breaking laws. I politely hand him my business card with a bow. He bows his thanks and they depart.

Drive boats berthed in harbour

I am left amazed by the circus I have just witnessed. A dozen authorities and as many cars. I have an image of the human body – when an infection enters the bloodstream, hundreds of white blood cells mill around until the threat is neutralised. The nail which sticks out must be hammered down.

After the tension at the cove I drive the 5km’s back to my hotel in Katsuura and go for my late afternoon walk through the town. I am greeted by smiles of recognition and polite bows from these lovely people that I have only known  for a couple of days. A fisherman at the Katsuura fish market waves me closer to look at the day’s tuna catch. He didn’t ask to see my passport. Or stick a camera in my face. Go figure….

Katsuura fish market