Full Frame features conversations and photo essays with photographers in the field.

Taiji is a picturesque fishing town on Japan's Kii Peninsula. It is also the site of one of Japan's annual dolphin slaughters, that occurs during a six-month hunting season. Twenty-six of the town's 500 fishermen will catch up to 2,300 dolphins, which is just more than one-tenth the national quota.

Outside the whaling museum in Taiji.
(Robert Gilhooly/GlobalPost)

Some of the dolphins caught, including the misleadingly named pilot whales, will end up in the freezers and fridges of the town's only supermarket, where a 200-gram block of the meat is priced at about $13. Other, more prized varieties, such as the better-known bottlenose dolphin, are sold to aquariums and dolphinariums in Japan and China and are reported to fetch as much as $150,000 per head.

Although there are several other catch sites around Japan, the international spotlight has fallen on Taiji mainly due to the release of the documentary film “The Cove,” which shows in graphic detail the notoriously brutal catch-and-slaughter method that is practiced by fishermen in Taiji and their efforts to cover it up.

My efforts to photograph the first cull of the season in early September were hampered by neurotic fisheries officials and police who seemed intent on misleading and distracting. Apparently they were worried that I might try and sabotage the cull as Sea Shepherd activists had done in 2003. One of those fisheries officials, a woman who claimed to be a dolphin trainer, followed me up a path leading up a steep cliff and instructed me that I could not take photos, even though I was standing in what was part of a national park. I eventually got away and although I could hear the goings on below it was almost impossible to find a vantage point from which to shoot.

Crawling gingerly along a narrow ledge thick with trees and other vegetation, I peeped down over an almost sheer drop and caught a brief glimpse of the bloody waters below. Grabbing a thick branch with my left hand, my camera at the ready in the right, I leaned out to get a better view, my right foot wedged between two rocks sticking out from the cliff face. It was from here that I was able to see the deep crimson waters that formed a stark contrast with the blue and green tarpaulin that had been drawn across the cove in an attempt to hide from public view what was going on beneath. Yet, momentarily a figure dressed in a wetsuit, his shaven head and upper torso clearly visible above the water, comes into view between the tightly drawn sheets, his right hand clutching what looks like a large metal meat skewer, his left the fin of a dolphin.

About the photographer:

Robert Gilhooly is a freelance photojournalist based in Japan. His work has appeared in publications around the globe, including Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, L.A. Times, International Herald Tribune, The Times and the Guardian. He was formerly a staff reporter at the Japan Times. He has also contributed to numerous TV documentaries and books.

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