Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dolphins' slaughter caught on tape from underwater angle

Mandy-Rae Cruickshank has an astounding ability to hold her breath underwater with one giant-sized gulp of air.

The 33-year-old Vancouver woman holds the national record, clocking in at six minutes and 25 seconds.

Water is Cruickshank's natural habitat. "I'm more comfortable in water than on land," she says. "The water has always been my environment. It's what I've always loved."

A nationally ranked synchronized swimmer, she moved from Edmonton to B.C. to be near water.
She managed a dive shop on Granville Island and taught scuba diving for nine years. After reaching top certification, she began to crave a new challenge.

In 2000, she took up freediving under coach, and later husband, Kirk Krack.

Her quest to be the best has brought her a slew of world records.

She can swim the equivalent of two Olympic-sized pools in a single breath. One breath has also sustained her to a dive of 142 metres. A former asthma sufferer, her lungs can now hold about 6.4 litres of air, 160-per-cent more than average.

Her unique talents made her the perfect choice for a tense, military-style covert mission funded by Netscape founder Jim Clark to expose the dolphin drive in Taiji, Japan -- the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world.

It started innocuously enough. In 2005 Cruickshank was approached by Louie Psihoyos, founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society and a noted photographer for National Geographic, for a documentary about the beauty of marine life.

"It started with fairly benign topics, something on tuna dolphins, something quite beautiful," says Psihoyos, 50, from OPS headquarters in Boulder, Colo.

He wanted a female diver for scale and Cruickshank was ideal because she can do it without tubes and tanks. "She almost looks like a superhero in that silver suit she wears," he says. "And she's a lot easy on the eyes."

But by the time Cruickshank landed in Japan a year later, the focus had changed: Psihoyos's lens zoomed in on Taiji's gruesome dolphin hunt and its secret coves.

On her first night in a neighbouring town, Psihoyos told her: "We're not just doing tuna any more," and showed her a video of the dolphin slaughter.

"She saw the footage and started crying," recalls Psihoyos.

Then Krack turned to him and asked: "What do you want us to do?"

Before Japan, filming the documentary brought Cruickshank and Krack to the world's most beautiful diving spots.

They frolicked with humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas, Tahiti and the Dominican Republic.

For Cruickshank, who had never swum with marine mammals before, it was a humbling experience that blew her away.

"You can see all the intelligence in their eyes, checking you out," she says. "You know you're only there because they allow you to be there."

During one dive, a pod of white-spotted dolphins swam beside their boat, inches away from their faces.

Cruickshank broke one of her rules and stretched her arm out toward the wild creature. "The dolphin looked at my arm, to my face, then rolled into my hand," she says. "It was this totally wild dolphin and it let me rub it from nose to tail."

Psihoyos says dolphins are the only wild animals known to rescue humans.

He knows this first-hand. During a dolphin dive, the playful creature abruptly swam away. Puzzled, Psihoyos tried to see where it was going: It was chasing away a hammerhead shark heading his way.

The killing cove of Taiji, located in a national park, is spectacular.

Three cliffs verdant with foliage surround the U-shaped cove, creating a natural fortress.

The 3,500 residents of the seafaring village, a three-hour drive away from Osaka, are fiercely proud of their whaling heritage.

A whaling museum pays homage to the centuries-old tradition and everywhere in town are cartoon images of smiling, happy dolphins.

In Taiji's grey-green waters, more than 2,500 dolphins are killed from September to March every year.

Thirteen skiffs, each manned by two whalers, set sail at dawn, following the mammals' millennia-old migratory paths.

Once the whalers track down a pod, they surround them and insert long metal poles in the water and bang on the ends with hammers. The cacophony disorients the dolphins, cutting off their communication.

The panicked animals are herded into the capture cove, barricaded with nets, and left to calm down overnight.

At first light the next day, the killing begins.

Using sweep nets, the men herd the dolphins from the capture cove into the adjacent killing cove. Then, with spears and spiked steel bars, they stab and hack at the captive dolphins until they bleed to death and the waters glitter ruby-red.

Dolphin meat, despite having mercury levels so high as to be toxic, is sold in grocery stores as a local delicacy and served to village children in the school lunch program.

Some luckier dolphins are spared and sold to popular swim-with-dolphin programs.

The OPS crew had already been covertly filming in Japan for weeks before Cruickshank and Krack arrived.

It was a military-style operation, with high-tech gear including underwater cameras, night-vision goggles, a $50,000 infrared P-645 thermal camera and HD cameras camouflaged in fake rocks made by George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic.

But tailed by undercover police and harassed by union fishermen, the crew tried without success to plant recording devices in the waters of the killing cove.

Hiking rocky trails, dodging guards and getting in and out of the water within a half-hour time frame was difficult with 65 pounds of underwater breathing equipment weighing them down.

"I can't describe the fear," says Psihoyos. "It was a race against the clock. We didn't know how deep it was there in the water, and we thought: Mandy. She can go deeper than any woman in the world."

On a moonlit January night last year, Cruickshank and Krack made their move.

They suited up in black, hooded wetsuits and, along with Psihoyos and three others, piled into a van and headed to the cove.

A thermal-imaging sweep of the area found no security. The group sneaked past gates and barbed wire, ignoring the keep-out signs posted during whaling season.

Cruickshank and Krack skirted the sunken beach, traversed the rocky trails and clambered down boulders into the water.

With 15 pounds of lead weights strapped around their waists, the freediving pair swam 30 feet into the middle of the cove. Bobbing in the cold water, they triangulated their position using points of light made on the surface of the water by the distant lights of the village.

"All's clear, it's good to go," crackled through the radio. Cruickshank and Krack squeezed each other's arms, the go-ahead signal.

Their fins flew up as they plunged head-first into the pitch-black water, arms above their heads, as straight down as they were able.

Krack carried the hydrophone, an audio-recording device, and Cruickshank controlled a cable attached to the equipment.

The darkness made the dive "eerie," says Cruickshank. "We were going in blind. We didn't know how deep we were going to be. We had no idea what we were diving into, or what we would find in the bottom."

Cruickshank knew that slaughtered whales were allowed to sink to the bottom and were pulled up later. "I kept on hoping I wouldn't run into a carcass down there."

The cove was shallower than expected. At 45 feet deep, with only "little fairy sprinkles" of bioluminescence to break the darkness, she and Krack hit bottom.

They pushed the hydrophone into the sea floor, trying to anchor it into the sand, silt and mud.
After they surfaced and crawled toward the cliff, Cruickshank's heart almost stopped. Silhouetted against light from a vehicle was a guard.

She and Krack hid in the bushes. Ten minutes stretched out forever. Then the coast was clear.
The pair would repeat the dive three more times -- once to plant another hydrophone, and twice to retrieve them. Assistant director Charles Hambleton would later plant an underwater "blood-cam."
The devices would yield graphic footage -- the first to capture the slaughter from beneath the water.
Cruickshank and Krack's mission yielded "unbelievable sound," said Psihoyos. "That particular pod had about 200 striped dolphins. They were all screaming."

On her last days in Japan, Cruickshank heard the loud, drawn-out, high-pitched screams for herself.
She and OPS members were on the beach in broad daylight. A pod of 40 adult dolphins had just been herded into the killing cove, which was hidden from view. The sound, however, came through crystal clear.

"I can hear the dolphins screaming," recalls Cruickshank. "The water was almost bubbling. They were thrashing around so much trying to escape. It was a horror movie."

The documentary titled The Rising, scheduled to be released this summer, will only show a minute of the slaughter.

OPS plans to present the most graphic footage -- which can't be included in the film -- to the International Whaling Federation in Santiago, Chile, in June.

Cruickshank's experience has turned the dedicated athlete into a passionate activist.

"When [the film] comes out, I hope it will have a profound effect on people," says Cruickshank. "To see the horrors happening to [the dolphins], I feel it's our job to help protect them and let people know what's happening."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"