BY GRAHAM HUTSON
You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would cycle 15 times up Mount Fuji for the hell of it, and that includes Ollie Blackmore.
It is certainly a challenge that demands attention - Fuji is 3,776 metres tall - a single ascent would, surely, have been enough. But Ollie needed people to notice and his choice of mountain was no coincidence. He picked Fuji because it is in Japan and if he rode up it enough times, the people might listen to what he had to say about their treatment of dolphins at the notorious cove at Taiji, in Wakayama.
For six months every year, fishermen use speedboats to corral thousands of dolphins into the secluded cove to either kill or capture them. On a ‘red’ day when the fishermen are successful in driving a pod of dolphins into the cove, the water froths with blood as a killing frenzy ensues. Taiji has had a strong whaling and fishing presence since the early 17th century and despite international condemnation of the practice, passes it off as tradition.
“The way they kill dolphins and that whole process is beyond doubt one of the cruellest things that an animal can go through,” says Ollie. He says he became aware of the killings after discovering the Oscar-winning film The Cove when he was sent it randomly by LoveFilm. “I thought it was a deep sea action thriller and I started to watch it and could not believe my eyes. From that point forward I have been making myself aware and felt that strongly about it that I wanted to get involved.”
He set about organising his first trip to Japan, which was more of a tour of the country to raise awareness of the cove in Japan itself and also highlight treatment of captive dolphins, which often end up in tiny aquariums.
“I gained a lot of support for the first trip and that’s why this year I climbed Mount Fuji 15 times on my bike and then climbed to the summit on foot. Things like that get more attention than just saying I’m going to do London to Paris. Along the way I found people who respected what I was doing and why I was doing it and when you’ve got a jersey emblazoned with ‘save Japan’s dolphins’ on it, a few questions are asked and the conversation gets going.”
That conversation doesn’t always go the way Ollie would like: “It can sometimes be 50-50 whether people agree with what I’m saying. A couple of people have thrown the tradition side of it in there but you can show them photos and explain and they say ‘OK I didn’t realise that.’
“The trouble is that the culture is to not question authority in Japan. If you do, you can become ostracised from society. You could get your job taken away, and people have been listed on a terrorist website because they question authority over this very issue. This is the extent of the cover-up they’re trying to push on you. There are plenty of people there who don’t agree with this practice, they would just never say anything.”
Hunting is big business in Taiji. A single dolphin can command upwards of $100,000 when it is sold to an aquarium, says Ollie. Dolphin meat is sold by the kilo but catch quotas are by the animal which is why the young are released. “Rather than waste the quota on a baby that isn’t going to render too much meat they just drive them back to sea.
“But the suffering of the animals they let go is awful. They get to witness the horrific stuff that goes on to their family pod and they’ve got no chance of survival back in the pacific ocean because they are out there on their own and they are already starving hungry.”
Studies revealing the intelligence of dolphins and whales are well publicised, although the similarities in their nature to humans has only recently become apparent. A study in the New Scientist revealed that the evolution of these animals is driven by culture, the first time it has been proven in a species other than homo sapiens.
This was explained by the different hunting structures of orca whales: “Some herd fish, while others pick on seals,” the report said. “Biologists consider this a form of culture. New research reveals these cultural groups are genetically distinct, meaning culture has shaped their evolution. It’s the first time this has been seen in other animals. Killer whales are intelligent, long-lived, and social like us. Culture is one more reason to set them free.”
Dolphins and whales which are corralled into the cove are left for days without food before they are selected for captivity or slaughter. “Typically the fishermen will go out at 5am and they will all line their boats up on the horizon to try and find a pod and then they will chase them in. Last year was probably the worst report I have heard. They had been chasing about 60 to 70 pilot whales for about four hours. They had young in the pod and they got them in the cove and left them there for three or four days so they were distressed, starving and exhausted and then slowly they picked off and slaughtered the ones they didn’t deem any good, in front of the rest of the pod, took two or three out for captivity and then slaughtered the rest and the ones that were left they drove back out to sea.”
Ollie agrees that Taiji is not the only country that indulges in the mass slaughter of whales and dolphins but points out that Taiji fishermen hunt dolphins mainly for the purposes of captivity. “The reason for targeting Taiji is because a lot of the dolphins there are sold into captivity and it is that industry that drives demand. People go to Sea World and there’s an option to go and swim with them. Most people are unaware how that dolphin got there, what it is like in captivity.
“They capture them and train them and then they sell them to aquariums in Japan, Russia or all over Asia. You can’t send them to America anymore but the fact that America and places like Sea World have the marketing budgets to showcase all over the world is what sets the precedent. These other little places that set up in Asia, the dolphins are living in scummy tanks, they die, they replace them, nobody knows because one dolphin looks like the next dolphin.”
China remains the largest international buyer of captive dolphins. The fishermen at Taiji would argue that they hunt dolphins and whales mainly for the meat, but it has proven to be unpopular and contaminated.
“Hardly anyone in Japan eats dolphin because it is deemed to be not a very nice meat and is actually full of contamination, mercury and all the the other nonsense polluting the sea. Not to mention the fact that the sea around Japan is poisoned by radiation.
“The issue is the way they go about it in this particular case. It is not for tradition, they are using that as an excuse and a reason to get support in case anyone criticises them. It is the audacity behind it, it’s the sheer volume and also the complete smoke and mirrors game they play to stop people finding out.”
This, he says, extends as far as deporting prominent campaigner and former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry after holding him for two weeks on spurious grounds.
The killings attract so much worldwide media attention that tarpaulins are dragged over the cove to prevent them being filmed. “They kill the dolphins by ramming a steel rod into their blowholes in an attempt to sever the spinal cord. Then they shove a dowel into the blow hole to stop the bleeding.
“They only changed to this method to reduce the amount of blood in the water which can be seen easily. But video evidence shows dolphins writhing around in complete agony drowning in their own blood and suffocating. A lot of blood still fills the water, but less than when they used to cut their throats. It's horrific and upsetting to watch, these animals have been seen suffering for 20 minutes with their calves desperately trying to be with their dying mothers.”
Ollie believes his cycle trips are raising awareness of the cove. He regards this as vindication of the amount of time he spends not just on them, but in the planning and the training. “I have to dedicate a lot of time and money to make these trips and the training happen. My wife Kate cringes whenever I declare my next challenge ideas but supports me 100 per cent.”
It helps that he runs his own digital agency in Norwich, staffed by an understanding team, which must be used to this kind of thing by now. July’s trip was his second trip to Japan, in which he has spent 22 days in total. Prior to this trip the reformed 40-a-day smoker cycled Vancouver Island in Canada to raise money for Big C. He did that on a handmade Donhou gravel bike but Japan was ridden on a Specialized Tarmac. “Because of the nature of the challenge this year and last you don’t know where you’re going to end up. The Tarmac is light and built for climbing. I did 81,000ft in ten days.”
He considers all that climbing well worth the effort: “This is a cause I feel passionate about and want others to feel passionate about and since doing it I would say I’ve raised awareness a hell of a lot and people are more sceptical of captivity in general not just in dolphins.”
The drive season at Taiji begins September 1 and continues until April 1. During these dates around 2,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales will be killed or captured. The Dolphin Project has declared September 1 Japan Dolphins Day and has organised protests at Japanese embassies around the world in an effort to shame the Japanese government into doing something about the annual slaughter.