On the Frontlines: The Dolphin Project Cove Monitors

Becoming a Cove Monitor (CM) for Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project isn’t for everyone. It requires a special skill set, effective coping mechanisms, and the ability to quell emotions for the sake of accurate reporting. Being at the Cove in Taiji, Japan, is a lesson in diplomacy and preparation, so if you’re considering applying to become a CM, you need to read this article. Our most veteran Cove Monitors — along with our newest, share their insights into what they think it takes to stand as witnesses for the dolphins and whales.

Cynthia Fernandez

Cove Monitor: Cynthia Fernandez

“Physical health,” says Terran Baylor off the bat, “you have got to move around!” It’s an asset that one could easily overlook when representing at the Cove, but physical fitness is becoming more and more of a requirement now that Taiji fishermen have stepped up efforts to shut down local observations points.

Some days, you might find yourself alone and covering everything, just like Vicki Kiely — discovered recently. Unable to drive in Taiji, Vicki did a LOT of solo running back and forth. Despite the setback, Vicki performed admirably and even brought a fresh perspective through her reporting. Still, she definitely advises others thinking of heading to Taiji, to get an international driving license first.

Ric O'Barry at The Cove in Taiji

Ric O’Barry stands watch at The Cove in Taiji Photo DolphinProject.net

“You have to be willing to put the rest of your life on hold for these dolphins,” says Leilani Münter, who made three trips to Japan in 2010 and 2011 as a volunteer for Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project. Leilani is one of the busiest CMs we know. Her career as a race car driver and a recognized leader in the environmental community, is a respected one. “You fly to the other side of the world,” when visiting Taiji she explains, “and the other aspects of your life at home: career, family and friends, have to take a back seat.”

I think the most important quality a cove monitor must possess is passion. Being a monitor can be difficult in so many ways, and what you witness will stick with you forever. For me, the hardest part of a slaughter is going back to the hotel to review footage, and desperately search for the words to write that will give the most meaning to the lives that were lost. But when you have a sincere passion for this cause, it gives you the strength needed to continue to be a powerful voice for dolphins, day after day. — Heather Hill

All practical considerations aside, “there are many things people don’t consider when coming to Taiji,” said Tim Burns, who heads our Cove Monitor program. “You’re in a remote part of Japan where most people speak no English and don’t have the same mindset that we have.” Most acknowledge that it’s impossible to try and change what you don’t understand, so our CMs tip diplomacy as one of the most essential skills to have.

People here consider dolphins to be on the same level as the pesky, feral cats in the neighboring town. They have no understanding of why we are there. You have to understand their point of view and work within those ideals. That’s probably most important. — Tim Burns

You need to be friendly and willing to communicate with locals, when possible. You must be nonjudgmental and respectful of the local people in Taiji and all of the people in Japan. — Cynthia Fernandez

Respect of the local people — Vicki Kiely

Diplomacy for dealing with local law enforcement and representing the Dolphin Project at all times — Melissa Thompson Esaia

Diplomacy is a necessary ingredient for a successful Cove Monitor, but equally essential, is the ability to report accurately. “This is a hot topic!” Burns says, “and crucial when we are in another country taking up a fight and trying to start a movement among Japanese people.” As several Japanese observers recently told Australian Journalist, Sam Vincent, “Japan isn’t pro-whaling, it’s anti-anti-whaling.”

Burns emphasizes that Taiji Town officials, the local people and even the Fishermen’s Union, “all talk around the water cooler,” and they follow closely what is posted on social media. “When they read inaccurate posts,” Burns explained, “I’m pretty sure it fuels their ability to justify their stance on our presence.”

Fernandez agrees. She adds, “many people are reading the updates and you don’t want to give them false information. I never say what species the dolphins are unless I am 100% certain.”

Kiely argues that for her personally, accuracy is imperative. “Post only what you actually see,” she says. “Better to be vague than wrong.”

Accuracy is the most important aspect of this job. Not only does it give us credibility and then hopefully respect from Taiji locals, but it’s our job to report the truth. I have seen first hand how some people grossly exaggerate the truth to generate more of a reaction. It might result in more likes and shares on social media sites, but ultimately it harms our relationship with locals. More importantly, the truth is bad enough. Exaggerating events is an insult to the dolphins and implies that their suffering wasn’t great enough to take a stand against. — Heather Hill

Baylor and Fernandez explained that the role of a CM should be similar to that of a journalist. “You are like a news reporter,” suggests Fernandez, “you must give accurate information — even if it means waiting awhile to be sure.” It helps to avoids speculation and sensationalism. “Misinformation can dilute the overall message,” added Thompson Easia. “Even worse,” she added, “it can compromise our credibility.” The latter is a crucial component of the message. “If activists on the front lines cannot be trusted to be honest,” explained Münter, “then unfortunately people will be suspicious whether any activist there is reporting the truth.”

One of the reasons I have gotten so involved with Ric, is his constant push for accurate information. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Ric say, “once you hit enter, no matter if you delete it, it’s out there forever” — Tim Burns

Inside Tips for New Cove Monitors 

Many of our CM’s are veterans who have been at the Cove several times. As such, they are the best source to tap for advice to new Cove Monitors. They use one another constantly for support and as sounding blocks, but most importantly, as friends. But the father of them all, is Ric, who is never more than a phone call away. “We always have Ric to call on, if and when we need his advice,” says Baylor. “No other group has his experience here in Taiji to lean on and learn from.”

Mole at the Taiji Whale Museum with CM Vicki Kiely. Photo: DolphinProject.net

Mole at the Taiji Whale Museum with CM Vicki Kiely.
Photo: DolphinProject.net

Taiji is a tough place to handle. You know what happens there, you might have seen what happens through photographs and livestream, but the experience of it, can only be witnessed personally. “There are times when we are witnessing slaughters for weeks in a row,” Burns explains, “these animals mean something to us, and to witness this bloodbath for weeks at a time, you have to find a way to escape, or you will go insane for sure.”

For Burns, his release is a special book or a hiking trip to the mountains. For Thompson Easia, it’s all about knowledge and balance. “Learn everything you possibly can about the issue prior to going to Taiji, and do everything you can to balance out all the darkness,” she says. “You witness horrible acts … balance is the key.”

Almost every Cove Monitor emphasized the importance of tapping one another whenever support was needed — emotional or otherwise. At a practical level, the advice offered varied from focusing on what you are there for to preparing yourself for the “journey” to come:

Try not to think about what may or may not happen, just document and report on the activity. Provide an accurate account of what is happening. Just sticking to those ideals will help you when the worse things occur. I’ve seen some fairly strange things, such as one of the fishermen pulling a dolphin over the net (to safety) instead of pushing it back into the killing area. We’ve also seen the release of dolphins back to freedom. Report it! Don’t dismiss the good things that can happen here, WE PRAY for the fishermen to have emotions and decide to quit. — Terran Baylor

Bring food! Make sure you get a good night’s sleep every night as you never know what’s going to happen each day. Stay calm, and have someone to talk to should you witness a drive or just feel lonely in general. — Vicki Keily

If at all possible, arrive before the Cove Monitor leaves so you can trail them for a couple of days and learn the ropes. — Leilani Münter

Really soak in the experience. Learn from others around you who have been here before. Be respectful of all people that you meet. Talk to the police, they can be very helpful. Listen to them when they tell you what you can and cannot do. Never break the rules. Learn all you can about both sides of the issue. Remember, most of the townspeople of Taiji are not involved in the hunts and are very kind people whose town has been invaded by foreign activists for six months of the year, be respectful of them. — Cynthia Fernandez

Nothing can prepare you for what you will see. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen or live-streams you’ve followed, watching a slaughter happen first hand will affect you in a way you could not prepare for. The best advice I could give would be to remember all the people standing behind you. Our Dolphin Project pod is an amazing support system, and we are here to help each other get through the tough days. — Heather Hill

Everyone has a way to clear things for them, and you must use this as often as you can or you will become very jaded, making it easy to get off mission fast! — Tim Burns


In the Academy Award-winning film ‘The Cove’, Ric says, “I have to see this end in my lifetime.” As soon as he said that, I knew that I was going to Taiji to help him. — Leilani Münter

Every CM has their own reasons for going to Taiji. These might change once you’ve been there, but inevitably being at the Cove is a tumultuous experience never to be forgotten. “It’s nothing like the movie,” says Burns, “it’s not an action thriller, it’s a depressing, brutal act, that goes on day after day. You have to prepare for it to change you for the rest of your life, and for most, it does!”

The Dolphin Project offers full support for all of its new CMs. “Know you have many people standing behind you — including Ric O’Barry,” Baylor says. “You are part of a group (a pod), dedicated throughout the globe to honoring the wild nature of cetaceans. We all love the people here in Japan, and we only want the best for them. The town of Taiji has some really amazing citizens and they are truly good people.”

Karla Sanjur Taiji cove Monitor

Dolphin Project Cove Monitor Karla Sanjur at infamous Cove in Taiji, Japan Photo DolphinProject.net

Melissa Thompson Esaia calls being a CM an honor, and classifies it is as one of the most powerful experiences in her life. “Being in Taiji is very difficult — physically, emotionally, mentally,” she explains. It’s also frustrating she suggests, “sometimes you feel so helpless knowing there is nothing you can do to save them.” But she knows that by documenting the hunts, spreading the word, and conducting education in and around Taiji, that the Cove Monitor program is helping. “This WILL end,” she says.

I think it’s important to focus on the dolphins as much as possible. Many people will turn frustration towards others and that’s what the conversation becomes about – us vs. them, and that isn’t the issue. We have a good rapport with many locals including police, and by keeping the focus on dolphins we avoid accusations of racism and it allows for constructive conversations to take place. — Heather Hill.

Like many activists who follow the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, several of our CMs came to represent Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project after seeing the documentary, ‘The Cove’ — “I was outraged,” Vicki Keily said upon viewing it for the first time. Fascinated with the ocean and an avid scuba diver, she was further inspired by her son’s refusal to visit Hong Kong’s, ‘Ocean Park’. In September of this year, Kiely met up with Ric and the Dolphin Project crew for their annual Sep. 1st trip to Taiji. “I knew I had found my place and purpose in life,” Keily explained.

For Heather Hill, becoming a CM was something she had to build up to. Fearing ‘The Cove’ movie would be too difficult to watch, she put off viewing it initially. Once she did, it prompted Hill into wanting to help, but she still remained reluctant to go to the Cove:

I quickly dismissed that idea like so many do, blaming a job, a husband, and bills as reasons why I couldn’t go myself. But as time passed my passion burned more and more deeply inside me, until finally I decided I would find a way to do it. I contacted Dolphin Project because Ric was my inspiration and I wanted to help him. I also found my views to be in line with Dolphin Project’s; I don’t believe that hurling insults and creating hatred will benefit the dolphins in any way, I think the way Dolphin Project works to end this has the best chance of helping dolphins.

Leilani Münter

Leilani Münter

At the heart of any Cove Monitor’s mission is the desire to help — in any way they can, the whales and dolphins that they love, and the horrors inflicted upon them by members of their own species. Being a CM is not for everybody and there is certainly no judgment levied against people who already know that. Everyone has different strengths and only you, know where those strengths truly lie. When asked by people, “what can I do to help?” Ric inevitably answers, “I don’t know, what can you do?”

But If you do have the strength and the sense of purpose to lead you to the Cove, then we’d love to have you consider applying to our Cove Monitor program. We would be honored to welcome you as a member of our pod and a representative of the Dolphin Project.

Apply Now | Download The Application HERE


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I was absolutely supposed to do this.  I had been trying to figure out a way to use my skills (film-making, editing, etc.) to help the dolphins and to contribute to the Dolphin Project. And so I knew immediately that being a Cove Monitor was one way that I could do that. — Melissa Thompson Esaia.

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt


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