St. Paul native part of crew behind controversial dolphin film

The Cove
The poster image for the Roadside Attractions film, "The Cove."
Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

A controversial new movie called "The Cove" opens in Minnesota later this week. It follows a crew of filmmakers trying to get evidence of an annual slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in Japan.

One of the crew is St. Paul native Joe Chisholm. He helped mastermind what became a huge clandestine operation.

Joe Chisholm grew up in St. Paul, but it was during the summers while vacationing as a boy near Alexandria that he fell in love with sailing. As an adult he earned his living sailing in the Caribbean, and putting on huge music shows in Colorado where he now lives.

He became an expert at dealing with large amounts of equipment, people and boats.

"My experience and my skills are such that I have a rather interesting skill set that gave me the opportunity to become involved in the Oceanic Preservation Society's projects."

The Oceanic Preservation Society is a group of filmmakers who came together after an appeal from Ric O'Barry. In the film he's introduced as the dolphin trainer who worked on the hugely popular 1960s TV series Flipper, which sparked a huge interest in dolphin shows as tourist attractions.

"I feel somewhat responsible, because it was the Flipper series which created this multi-billion dollar industry," he says.

The Cove in Taiji, Japan tucked away in a National
The fishermen around Taiji have fenced off the area around the cove, and even spread a tarpaulin to block outside observation of what happens there.
Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Now, he is now an activist working on behalf of dolphins.

O'Barry told the filmmakers about Taiji, a fishing community in Japan. There, every September, fishermen capture hundreds of dolphins. Some are sold to dolphin shows for tens of thousands of dollars. The rest are slaughtered for meat.

The whole operation is done in a cove hidden away from outside eyes and O'Barry wanted to expose the hunt. Two of Joe Chisholm's old friends were already in the group and they in turn asked him to help.

"I would do just about anything these guys asked in a professional capacity and a personal capacity," he said.

So Chisholm signed up. It turned out the crew not only had to outwit the fishermen, they also had to avoid local police and government officials.

They realized the only way to film was to have to hide cameras around the cove and leave. They used a huge assortment of equipment ranging from thermal cameras and underwater recording gear, to a camera on a blimp.

"It was indeed frightening. There is no question about that."

They had Hollywood scenery makers create camera mounts shaped like rocks. Highly-trained free divers secured gear underwater. What Chisholm had to do was make sure all the right things and the right people were in the right place at the right time as they went to hide the cameras.

"It was indeed frightening," Chisholm said. "There is no question about that. We were in communication on two-way radios that, in the places where we were, didn't operate necessarily 100 percent of the time because of the geography that we were in.

"We had to operate under the cover of darkness, under the assumption that there were guards and dogs and other things of that nature that may keep us from putting our cameras and recording devices in the places we wanted; all under the cover of darkness and really with the clock ticking," he said.

Watching the film is like seeing a real-life episode of Mission Impossible.

They managed to leave the cameras running and then retrieved them the next night. Chisholm said they didn't know what they had until they rolled the tapes in their hotel room.

"The images that we captured are stunning and overwhelmingly beautiful in a tragic horrifying sort of sense," he said.

The seawater turns crimson as the fishermen kill one dolphin after another.

Hidden cameras
The crew for "The Cove," spent months preparing to hide cameras near the Japanese coastal community of Taiji to capture images of dolphins being slaughtered.
Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Chisholm is hopeful that "The Cove" will raise enough of an outcry that the annual September slaughter in Taiji will stop.

While the story about getting the footage is central to film, "The Cove" is a carefully researched film examining the cultural and scientific basis to the relationship between humans and dolphins.

The crew talked to local people, to Japanese officials and scientists. Chisholm said the crew shot 600 hours of footage for the film, looking at the global situation as well as in Japan. They found many Japanese people knew nothing of the dolphin killing

"It is not our desire to participate in some sort of Japanese-bashing and create the image that all of Japanese culture is about this, or that they are unwilling to change when the evidence is brought to their attention," he said.

Joe Chisholm will be returning to the Twin Cities later this week to promote the film. After that, he's not sure what's next, although he is hopeful that if "The Cove" is successful, there could be more similar projects to follow.

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