The film was directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos. Portions were filmed secretly in 2007 using underwater microphones and high-definition cameras disguised as rocks.
The documentary won the U.S. Audience Award at the 25th annual Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. It was selected out of the 879 submissions in the category.
The film follows former dolphin trainer and activist Ric O'Barry's quest to document the dolphin hunting operations in Taiji, Wakayama, Japan. In the 1960s, O'Barry helped capture and train the five wild dolphins who shared the role of "Flipper" in the hit television series of the same name. The show, very popular, fueled widespread public adoration of dolphins, influencing the development of marine parks that included dolphins in their attractions. After one of the dolphins, in O'Barry's opinion, committed a form of suicide in his arms by closing her blowhole voluntarily in order to suffocate, O'Barry came to see the dolphin's captivity and the dolphin capture industry as a curse, not a blessing. Days later, he was arrested off the island of Bimini, attempting to cut a hole in the sea pen in order to set free a captured dolphin. Since then, according to the film, O'Barry has dedicated himself full-time as an advocate on behalf of dolphins around the world.
After meeting with O'Barry, Psihoyos and his crew travel to Taiji, Japan, a town that appears to be devoted to dolphins and whales. In a nearby, isolated cove, however, surrounded by wire fences and "Keep Out" signs, an activity takes place that the townspeople attempt to hide from the public. In the cove, a group of Taiji fishermen engage in dolphin drive hunting. The film states that the dolphin hunt is, in large part, motivated by the tremendous revenue generated for the town by selling some of the captured dolphins, female bottlenose dolphins, to aquariums and marine parks and killing the majority of the rest. The dolphins that are not sold into captivity are then slaughtered in the cove and the meat is sold in supermarkets. According to the evidence presented in the film, the local Japanese government officials are involved in the hiding of the hunting, and the Japanese public is not fully aware of the hunt and the marketing of dolphin meat. The film states that the dolphin meat contains dangerously high levels of mercury and interviews two local politicians, Taiji city councilors who have, for that reason, advocated the removal of dolphin meat from local school lunches.
Attempts to view or film the dolphin killing in the cove are physically blocked by local police and the Japanese local government who treat the visitors with open intimidation, derision, and anger. Foreigners who come to Taiji, including The Cove's film crew, are shadowed and questioned by local police. In response, together with the Oceanic Preservation Society, Psihoyos, O'Barry, and the crew utilize special tactics and technology to covertly film what is taking place in the cove. The film also reports on Japan's alleged "buying" of votes of poor nations in the International Whaling Commission. The film indicates that while Dominica has withdrawn from the IWC, Japan has recruited the following nations to its whaling agenda: Cambodia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Laos, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. At the end of the film, O'Barry shows footage of the Taiji dolphin slaughter to a Japanese official, after the official repeatedly denies the incident; he is unmoved by the footage, and asks O'Barry where he obtained it. The film then cuts to a scene showing an annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission. O'Barry marches into a meeting of the Commission strapping a TV showing the footage on his chest (while the Japanese delegates are talking about how they have improved whaling tactics). O'Barry walks around the crowded meeting room displaying the images until he is escorted from the room.
The film used specialized camouflaged high-definition cameras that were designed to look like rocks. These hidden cameras helped capture footage and were so well camouflaged that, according to director Louie Psihoyos, the crew had a hard time finding them again.
The film received predominately positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars (out of four), calling the film "a certain Oscar nominee". Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times called the film "an exceptionally well-made documentary that unfolds like a spy thriller", going on to describe it as "one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the conservation movement". Other reviewers also played up the espionage angle of the film, including Time magazine's Mary Pols who said that The Cove "puts Hollywood capers like Mission Impossible to shame", and Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor, who called it "a rousing piece of real-world thriller filmmaking". Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 94% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon 125 total reviews, summarizing the consensus as "Though decidedly one-sided, The Cove is an impeccably crafted, suspenseful exposé of the covert slaughter of dolphins in Japan." At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 82, based on 26 reviews.
Some reviews recognized the film's entertainment value but did not view it as an "objective documentary". Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern labeled the film as a "quasidocumentary framed as a high-tech thriller" with an "agitprop style" that had "an excess of artifice and a dearth of facts". David Cox of The Guardian Film Blog called it a "piece of evangelism", and asked rhetorically: "Westerners... kill and eat cows. Easterners eat dolphins. What's the difference?". According to Michelle Orange of Movie Line "How much of this (The Cove) should we believe? As a piece of propaganda, The Cove is brilliant; as a story of ingenuity and triumph over what seems like senseless brutality, it is exceptionally well-told; but as a conscientious overview of a complex and deeply fraught, layered issue, it invokes the same phrase as even the most well-intentioned, impassioned activist docs: Buyer beware."
The whale and dolphin hunting season in Japan usually begins on September 1 each year; in 2009, the hunting began on September 9. Although activists tend to believe that it was because of the publicity generated by the film, it has been reported that the delay was due to the weather and rough seas. According to campaigners, out of the 100 dolphins captured on September 9, some were taken to be sold to marine museums and the rest were released, while 50 pilot whales were killed and sold for meat on the same day. While campaigners claim that it has become apparent that The Cove is having an impact on the way in which Japanese fisherman normally conduct the dolphin hunt, on March 23, 2010 the Japanese government stated "The dolphin hunting is a part of traditional fishery of this country and it has been lawfully carried out."
Upon the film winning the Oscar, the town mayor of Taiji and the chief of Taiji Fishery Union said "The hunt is performed legally and properly with the permission of Wakayama Prefecture [local government]." Taiji assemblyman Hisato Ryono, one of the two local legislators who broke ranks and publicly called for removal of dolphin (pilot whale) meat from school lunches, said he was lied to by the documentary's producers about what the film would contain.
Since the release of the film, a much larger number of activists, mainly non-Japanese, have visited Taiji to protest or film the dolphin hunts. The Taiji fishermen responded by constructing an elaborate structure of tarps to better conceal the drive-hunting activities in and around the cove.
SeaWorld spokesperson Fred Jacobs has responded by saying that, "We think we're being unfairly criticized for something we're opposed to." He adds that, "SeaWorld opposes the dolphin hunts documented in The Cove. We do not purchase any animals from these hunts. More than 80 percent of the marine mammals in our care were born in our parks. We haven't collected a dolphin from the wild in decades." However, Jacobs does not condemn those who purchase from the Taiji dolphin hunt. O'Barry has thus been criticized for emphasizing that dolphinariums are a large contributing factor to the economic success of the dolphin slaughter in Taiji and for encouraging boycotts of dolphin shows to protest the dolphin slaughter. The scene in The Cove that displays a map consisting of arrows emanating from Taiji and pointing to countries with dolphinariums has been said to be misleading since the majority of those countries do not currently have dolphins of Japanese origin. In the United States it is currently illegal to import dolphins obtained from a drive, including the drive hunt at Taiji, as it is considered an inhumane method. Since 1993 there have been no permits issued to facilities in the United States to import dolphins acquired through drive hunt methods. Marilee Menard, the executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, has also stated that she believes that the filmmakers are "misrepresenting that the majority of zoos and aquariums with dolphins around the world are taking these animals."
In August 2009, after the screening of the film in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane film festivals, the councillors of the Shire of Broome, Western Australia, voted unanimously to suspend its sister city relationship with the Japanese whaling port town of Taiji, as long as the latter continues its dolphin slaughter. The decision was reversed in October 2009.
The film was initially screened only at two small venues in Japan: at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo in September 2009, and at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2009 where it received mixed reviews. A Japanese film distributor, Medallion Media/Unplugged, subsequently acquired the rights to screen the film in Japan. The company hoped to begin a run of the movie in Japanese cinemas in June 2010. Medallion prepared the documentary for presentation in Japan by pixelating the faces of Taiji residents and fishermen depicted in the film. Nationalist protesters vowed to block the release of the film in Japan and dozens equipped with loudspeakers have demonstrated outside of the distributor's office in central Tokyo.
As of June 2010, the controversy over the film and the film's subject had received little press attention in Japanese-language media in Japan. Boyd Harnell of the Japan Times stated on May 23, 2010, that Japanese news editors had told him that the topic was "too sensitive" for them to cover.
In April 2010, Colonel Frank Eppich, the United States Air Force commander of Yokota Air Base, located near Tokyo, banned screenings of the film at the base theater. A base spokesman said that The Cove was banned because using a base venue to display the film could be seen as an endorsement of the film. The spokesman added, "We have a lot of issues with Japan ... and anything done on an American base would be seen as an approval of that event." In response, Louie Psihoyos said that he would give away 100 DVD copies of the film free to Yokota base personnel.
A screening scheduled for June 26, 2010 at Theater N in Shibuya was canceled after staff were harassed by right-wing protesters. Unplugged stated that it was in negotiations with other theaters to screen the film. Another theater in Tokyo and one in Osaka subsequently declined to screen the film. In response, a group of 61 media figures, including journalist Akihiro Ōtani and filmmaker Yoichi Sai, released a statement expressing concern over the threat to freedom of speech by the intimidation of right-wing groups. The Directors Guild of Japan also asked theaters not to stop showing the film, arguing that "such moves would limit opportunities to express thoughts and beliefs, which are the core of democracy."
On June 9, 2010, Tsukuru Publishing Co. sponsored a screening of the film and panel discussion at Nakano Zero theater in Nakano, Tokyo. The panelists included five who had signed the statement above. Afterwards, panel member Kunio Suzuki, former head of Issuikai, an Uyoku dantai (rightist) group, condemned the right-winger's threats against theaters and urged that the film be shown. "Not letting people watch the movie is anti-Japanese", said Suzuki.
In response to the cancellation of screenings of the film in Japan, Japanese video sharing site Nico Nico Douga screened the film free on June 18, 2010. The same week, Ric O'Barry was invited to speak at several universities in Japan about the film. O'Barry stated that he was planning on bringing several Hollywood stars to Taiji in September 2010 in an attempt to halt that year's hunt.
On July 3, 2010, six theaters in Sendai, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hachinohe began screening the film. Right-wing nationalists protested outside four of the theaters, but close police supervision prevented any disruption to the viewing schedules and ensured free access for viewers to the theaters. The two in Tokyo and Yokohama were successful in obtaining prior court injunctions prohibiting protests outside their venues.
A local Taiji activist group, called People Concerned for the Ocean, announced that they would distribute DVDs of the film, dubbed in Japanese, to all 3,500 residents of Taiji. The DVDs were to be distributed to the residents on March 5–6, 2011.
There has been some controversy over the depiction of the Japanese people in the film. Hirotaka Akamatsu, Japanese Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, said "it is regrettable that this movie is made as a message that brutal Japanese are killing cute dolphins". However, upon questioning, director Louie Psihoyos said of his sympathy for the Japanese people, many of whom are unaware of the situation at the cove, "To me, it's a love letter. I'm giving you the information your government won't give you." This did not sway critics who saw the movie and stated that "Not since Mr Osato accidentally killed a beautiful woman with poison that was intended for James Bond in You Only Live Twice have Japanese people been depicted so one-dimensionally on celluloid."
Close-up Gendai, an investigative journalism program on NHK, reported questions raised regarding the objectivity of the filming. One scene in the film was presented as having been manufactured for the camera. The segment then entered into a discussion with a commentator on whether the movie should properly be called a documentary.
Chiefly the points were raised by the Taiji fishermen themselves. The local fishermen complained that the film one-sidedly depicted their angry reactions at being chased by cameras, and did not adequately explain the backdrop that they had been harassed by activists such as the Sea Shepherd and individuals attracted by the bounty offered by this organization for capturing damaging footages. The NHK (on a different program) concluded that the activists did so in order to capture angry and wild expressions by the local fishermen in the film and in photos.
Louie Psihoyos, the documentary's director was interviewed by Close-up Gendai, but no response was broadcast regarding the allegedly scripted and acted scene. Elsewhere, Psihoyos has stated categorically that none of the scenes in the film were staged.
Tetsuya Endō, an associate professor of the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido has complained that the film has approached him under false pretenses. In one scene, he is actually holding a sample of dolphin liver (containing an anomalously high 2000 ppm level of mercury), but the film represented it as dolphin meat bought in Taiji. In reality, the town's fishermen's union banned sales of the liver in 2003 at the professor's prompting. Endo sought to have his scenes removed, but initial screenings went ahead without, and he sued the Japanese rights-holder, Medallion Media, and the distributor, Unplugged, for ¥11 million for damages to his reputation. The litigation opened in Tokyo District Court on December 1, 2010.
Towards the end of the film, the assistant chief of the whaling division at Japan's Fisheries Agency Hideki Moronuki is erroneously captioned as having been subsequently been "fired". The error was reported by the investigative news program Close-up Gendai, and Psihoyos when confronted conceded he might have misunderstood.
In 2015, filmmaker Keiko Yagi released a documentary titled Behind 'The Cove' which presented the side of the Taiji fishermen. The film was screened at the Montreal World Film Festival.
The Cove has won over 25 film awards. Some notable awards include "Best Documentary" from the Environmental Media Awards, Three Cinema Eye Honors for "Outstanding Achievement", and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on the 82nd Annual Academy Awards.
A list of nominations and awards the film has received is as follows:82nd Academy Awards (2010) – Best Documentary Feature (won) During the presentation ceremony, ABC cameras abruptly cut away to the crowd when O'Barry raised a banner urging the audience to "Text DOLPHIN to 44144". TV Guide labeled the moment as "Fastest Cutaway", and film critic Sean Means wrote it showed that the Oscar ceremony was "studiously devoid of genuine excitement".
Genesis Awards (2010) – Best Documentary Feature (won)
62nd Writers Guild Awards (2009) – Best Documentary Feature Screenplay (February 20, 2010)
Directors Guild Awards (2009) – Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary, Directors Guild of America (January 31, 2010)
National Board of Review – Best Documentary, (December 3, 2009)
15th BFCA Critics' Choice Awards (2009) – Best Documentary Feature, Critics' Choice Awards in Los Angeles (January 15, 2010)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association – Best Documentary
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2009) – Allan King Documentary Award (December 16, 2009)
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2009) – Best Documentary Feature (December 16, 2009)
Newport Beach Film Festival (2009) – Audience Award for Best Documentary
New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) – Best Documentary (December 13, 2009)
Sheffield Doc/Fest (2009) – The Sheffield Green Award (November 8, 2009)
Cinema Eye Honors (2009) – (Nominated) Outstanding Achievement In Original Music Score – J. Ralph (November 5, 2009)
Traveling through film festivals and social events all around the United States, The Cove has also received the best documentary nod from many critics organizations, including The Boston Society of Film Critics, San Diego Film Critics Society, Dallas/Ft. Worth Film Critics Association, Utah Film Critics Association, Florida Film Critics Association, Houston Film Critics Association, and the Denver Film Critics Society. As the film has received more and more recognition, the Oceanic Preservation Society translated their website into multiple languages to cater to interest from around the world.