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January 01, 2022

“Avatar: The Way of Water” Makes the Wrong Kind of Splash

The Avatar film franchise has been lauded, deservedly so, for its pro-environmental protection stance. With the release of the new film Avatar: The Way of Water, many in the marine conservation field were looking forward to another sci-fi blockbuster with a powerful “blue world” message.

Yet director James Cameron, who is a dedicated vegan, is making waves, not for his fantastic film but for a huge marketing misstep. For the recent film premiere in Japan, he and his cast held a press conference at Maxell Aqua Park Shinagawa in Tokyo, laughing and clapping along to a captive dolphin show.

Cameron introduced the dolphin show with a flourish, saying, “Welcome to Pandora,” but a captive dolphin facility is absolutely nothing like Avatar’s fictional world. Most of the dolphins at Japanese facilities like Shinagawa come from the brutal “drive” hunts featured in the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove.”

Dozens of dolphins are driven into the killing cove with boats, whose crew members bang metal pipes held underwater to terrify the pod to shore. Unblemished young animals are set aside for sale to dolphinariums, while the rest are slaughtered for human and pet food, as well as fertilizer.

Dolphins are self-aware beings - the killing cove is awash in blood and echoes with the screams of the dying. The survivors are traumatised for life. The performance of such terrorised animals in shows is not something to applaud.

I very much want to believe that this was indeed merely a misstep, a failure to connect the dots. Cameron has a reputation as someone in Hollywood with a strong conservation ethic and a love for animals.

On Monday, 19 December, Louie Psihoyos, who directed “The Cove,” posted a response from Cameron on his Facebook page. In it, Cameron explained that he was “seething” when he arrived to find a dolphin show at his premiere, since he had received no advance notice. He called it a “blunder on the part of the Disney promotion and publicity group.”

Cameron had an opportunity to get out ahead of this public relations debacle but chose to remain silent.

The drive is happening right now, starting each year in September and going until March or April. The Shinagawa facility should no longer be acquiring its dolphins from the drives because the Japanese professional association governing zoos and aquariums banned its members from using this source in 2015, due to public pressure after The Cove’s release.

But prior to 2015, all its wild-caught dolphins came from the drive hunts, and the breeding success of these survivors of carnage is poor. There is also no way to confirm if the ban is being effectively enforced. A burgeoning market in China and the Middle East is keeping the drive alive, and certainly any wild-born dolphins in that show who are older than 8 to 10 years of age were drive-caught.

I strongly urge Cameron to consider some redemptive gesture, to assure those who are well aware of the cruelty of dolphin capture in Japan that attending Avatar: The Way of Water would not somehow compromise their principles.

A public apology, directed not just at his friends but the wider audience who were shocked at this situation, would be a start. Better still: a sincere effort to learn more about the inherent incompatibility of far-ranging, social, intelligent, long-lived beings such as dolphins with confinement in small concrete tanks.

I was really looking forward to seeing the new film; as a marine biologist, I couldn’t wait to go underwater on Pandora, and it looked cinematically gorgeous. But as a dolphin protection campaigner, I can’t enjoy it now, not after witnessing the graceless collision of the film’s strong environmental message with wildlife exploitation.

I really hope Cameron and the cast of the film take a deep dive into the dismay being expressed on social media right now. I hope they don’t simply dismiss it. The dolphins they saw perform in Tokyo deserve so much more from them.


Dr. Naomi Rose is the marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

Image by Guido Hofmann.