Ric O'Barry's life changed the day Flipper died in his arms.
"Suicide" is what O'Barry calls it, a bottlenose dolphin's desperate escape from a depressive existence.
O'Barry felt responsible. He kept Cathy — one of five cetaceans that played Flipper — in captivity as the lead trainer for the 1960s television show and later the Miami Seaquarium. O'Barry lived in a bungalow near their swim tanks, learning their personalities, becoming their friend.
O'Barry sensed something wrong when Cathy swam into his embrace on April 21, 1970.
Cathy looked in his eyes, closed her blowhole and slowly sank, never breathing again. Unlike humans, dolphins don't reflexively struggle for air when drowning.
"She committed suicide and it broke my heart," O'Barry said in a telephone interview. "I use that word suicide with some trepidation, but I don't know another word in the English language that describes self-induced asphyxiation."
The next day was the inaugural Earth Day. O'Barry said he celebrated by being jailed in the Bahamas for trying to release a dolphin from an amusement park, in memory of Cathy.
"I felt directly responsible for her death and decided I would do something about it."
An eco-activist was born. Thirty-nine years later, O'Barry, 69, still roams the world to protect lower-level whales such as dolphins and porpoises.
Yet his focus is always on a small lagoon in Taiji, Japan. It's there that an annual capture and slaughter of dolphins is hidden from the world, a bloody practice that's revealed in a startling new documentary.
Beyond cruelty, a health issue
The Cove, opening Friday at Tampa Theatre, chronicles one "killing season" in Taiji, when fishermen exploit the dolphins' keen hearing by clanging metal pipes in the water. The din frightens the mammals, herding them into the lagoon, where they are trapped behind a large net. Buyers for dolphin shows worldwide choose a few, paying up to $150,000 each.
The remaining dolphins are killed with harpoons, hauled onto boats and taken to fisheries, where they're carved and sold. One of the largest buyers is Japan's public school system. Dolphin meat is a staple of the nation's compulsory lunch program for children.
What few in Japan will admit, and what The Cove exposes, is that the meat contains toxic levels of mercury, according to studies. Japan's large population and limited space makes meat from whatever source into profitable food products. Protesting is difficult from an outsider's perspective.
"Historically, people have gone there and attacked the food culture issues," O'Barry said. "(Taiji fishermen) can say: 'Look, you eat cows, chickens and pigs; we eat dolphins and whales. Leave us alone.'
"They can win that argument, and maybe the cruelty issue. But they can't argue away mercury poisoning. It's the Achilles' heel. We're playing that card."
O'Barry concedes he knows little about mercury poisoning. But it may offer a strategy to shut down Taiji's dolphin trade, sustained by angry fishermen, Yakuza mobs allegedly backing them, and corrupt officials allowing it to happen.
All of whom make O'Barry a marked man while visiting Taiji each September when the killing season begins. He seems paranoid upon introduction in The Cove, wearing a surgical mask, hunched while driving to appear smaller. It becomes obvious that people are tracing his movements, conducting impromptu interrogations, suggesting he shouldn't be there.
O'Barry's arrival at the lagoon ignites taunts from fishermen hoping he'll do something to get arrested. That way, he could never return to Japan.
Or something else could happen. One activist previously died under mysterious circumstances. The Cove insinuates that O'Barry could be next. He shrugs off any danger.
"You don't realize what you're doing at the time," he said. "One thing leads to the next and before you know it you're dangling off a cliff with one arm and shooting video with the other while fishermen are trying to pull you off the side of the mountain.
"That's what I was doing before I met Louie. Those were the dangerous days because I was alone."
Team of commando filmmakers forms
Louie Psihoyos was a nature photographer who was thinking of making a movie when he attended a marine science conference in 2006. O'Barry was supposed to present video of the Taiji dolphin roundup, but the sponsor, SeaWorld, bumped him at the last minute. That got Psihoyos' attention. He called O'Barry and arranged the meeting in Taiji that opens The Cove.
"I found out later that when he hung up the phone he took a three-day crash course on how to make a movie," O'Barry said. "That's an incredible story, but it's the truth."
Psihoyos brought financial backing from Jim Clark, founder of Netscape and WebMD online services. Clark surrounded the director with solid talent, including film editor Geoffrey Richman (Murderball, Sicko) and actor Fisher Stevens as producer. They agreed that O'Barry's cliffhanging style needed reinforcement.
Psihoyos decided to sneak cameras and microphones into the lagoon, above and below water, with a clandestine, dead-of-night mission. He recruited an "Ocean's Eleven team": free divers without air tanks, fearless commando friends and equipment disguised as nature that was designed by Industrial Light & Magic, a special-effects company owned by filmmaker George Lucas.
The result is a real-life caper flick with horror elements, making its ecological message more entertaining than many summer blockbusters.
"There's something different about this film," O'Barry said. "I believe it's the fact that the film itself is the activism. It's getting people to jump out of their seats and say, 'What can I do?' It's spawning a whole new generation of activists."
One such viewer is actor Ben Stiller, who plans to join O'Barry in Taiji on Sept. 1, the start of dolphin herding season.
"We're trying to get the Japanese media to come to this remote village," O'Barry said. "You have to be a celebrity to make that happen, so Ben is coming with me. I might get arrested. There's a very good chance."
For Cathy and thousands of dolphins like her, O'Barry would go to jail again.
"This kind of extreme violence toward living creatures is absolute and one should oppose it absolutely," O'Barry said.
"That's all we're doing. We're not zealots or anything. We're just doing what should come natural to anybody and everybody who sees it happen."
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Find more comments from O'Barry on Persall's blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.