The captain cut the boat’s speed as we entered the lagoon. We were coming back from a day spent slowly meandering up Monkey River in southern Belize for some birdwatching and hiking newly cut trails in the jungle. About fifteen minutes after our driver/guide had steered into the Placencia Lagoon, we were treated to the best part of the day: "Dolphins," he said. "This is where they play."

Dolphins? A lagoon? Disbelieving, we looked for signs of their diaphanous bodies, spots of grey, slender dorsal fins popping through the lapping waves. After lolling in the water for 15 minutes, lapping our circular path, we're rewarded.

A pod of six seemed to be following us, circling in a wide circumference around it and diving under the bottom. Bent over opposite sides of the boat, the four of us had our eyes peeled. These dolphins knew this brackish lagoon, outlined by mangroves, and knew the patterns of their environment. They knew what a slow boat meant. Before long, one sprung from the water in a majestic arch, giving us gawkers a good splash.

"Whoa! We could have touched him!"

This experience, an unexpected joy that happened while I was researching my book, Ocean, lingers even now. These dolphins knew what they were doing. I don’t believe they were looking for food; the lagoon is laden with abundant nourishment. Rather, these dolphins taunted, they teased. They announced their presence with a high jump and a plunge, an act they repeated. They were playing with us, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Yet half a world away, the animals that awed and amazed us are regularly slaughtered each year by fishermen in the town of Taiji, Japan, for their meat. 

Taiji Dolphin Slaughter 14 03 2014
Despite worldwide condemnation and criticism, hundreds of dolphins and small whales are rounded up and killed each year in the waters off the fishing town of Taiji. Image: Reuters

From September through the spring, local fisherman capture pods of dolphins by using sound to disorient them from their migration routes, luring them into coves, where they can’t escape. There, the most ideal-looking specimens are hand picked by trainers and sold to marine mammal parks for as much as $200,000. The rest? It’s not pretty. The fishermen drive rods into the spines of the non-selected, captured dolphins, using a pin to stop the bleeding, a practice they say kills the animals quickly.

But an article in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science published this year says this method would not produce a rapid death in such a large mammal. Instead, the dolphin is paralysed and dies through trauma and eventual blood loss. Furthermore, the paper, written by veterinarians and behavioural scientists, says the killing method does not conform to the recognised requirement for "immediate insensibility … and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world." 

Environmental activists are vigilant about trying to document the slaughter. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has posted livestream video showing the dolphins frantically trying to escape captivity.

“The Japanese government defends dolphin fishing by saying it is no different than any other slaughter for meat.”

Yet the killings – also documented in the award-winning film The Cove – continue. The Japanese fishermen are doing nothing illegal; international organizations such as the International Whaling Commission don’t protect dolphins. The Japanese government defends dolphin fishing by saying it is no different than any other slaughter for meat.

Not only do the Japanese consume dolphins, they consume fish – lots of fish, as often as three times a day. Fish comprise a major portion of the dolphin diet, so limiting dolphins could increase fish numbers. For the Japanese, dolphin fishing is considered a cultural tradition, that murky realm into which other countries often happily weigh in without fully understanding. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters at a news conference in January that dolphin fishing is "one of the traditional fishing forms" in Japan. Dolphins, he says, are "very important water resources."

Important water resource? I’ll say.

We know, for example, that dolphins sit very near the top of the food chain. Removing, or reducing, the number of near-apex predators causes disruptions down the line. If the dolphins aren’t consuming regular meals, the crustacean, squid and medium-sized fish populations can easily go out of whack. 

Dolphins Intelligence 14 03 2014
Their intelligence, surprising abilities, that iconic dolphin 'smile' … they're all reasons behind our long-standing fascination with these marine creatures. Image: Willy Volk, Flickr

We also know that dolphins use a sonar system, called echolocation, to find food and to navigate their migration routes. They emit high-pitched sounds and listen for them to bounce back, which tells them how far away a meal, boat, an undersea valley or mountain, or family member is. Those sounds are also used for identity. Each dolphin names itself with its very own signature whistle, which they blow when they want to reunite with other dolphins. A mother dolphin, for example, would whistle the name of her calf if the pair was separated. 

It’s the dolphin’s sonar system that has helped the U.S. Navy successfully retrieve unexploded missiles and locate mines. And the Navy will attest – they’re better at such retrieval than Navy divers.

And many of us have come to find the dolphin’s mammalian-ness, for lack of a better word, endearing and fascinating. Some researchers even believe dolphins show a human-like empathy for their own kind. Researchers have witnessed dolphins rushing to the rescue of fellow pod members by enabling the injured party to rest or breathe with ease. Reports of dolphins coming to the aid of humans struggling in the water or threatened by sharks make some believe we have a special bond.

True, much of what we know about dolphins comes from scientists observing them in captive, controlled situations – and dolphins are masters of adaptation. It’s largely captive dolphins in waterparks and movies that instigate our love affair with these beguiling creatures. Our enthusiasm for seeing dolphins in the flesh does encourage fishermen, such as the ones in Japan, to keep on rounding up dolphins each year. But it’s the opportunities to see dolphins live and in person that make us wonder, and care, about our fellow mammals.

As we continue to learn more about dolphins, perhaps a day will come when the idea of slaughtering such an intelligent, complicated creature will be unthinkable. And as dolphins continue to learn about our patterns – as the dolphins I witnessed in the lagoon certainly had – perhaps they’ll know enough to stay away from places such as Taiji Bay. 

Top header image: Michele W, Flickr