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Back in 1964, Ric O’Barry helped to popularize dolphins by catching and training the charismatic aquatic animals for the hit TV series, “Flipper.”

Since the show first aired, aquatic shows featuring trained dolphins and other sea mammals have sprouted up around the globe.

For the last 35 years, O’Barry had waged a personal battle to end dolphin captivity and to expose a yearly slaughter that takes place in Japan.

His efforts are captured in a riveting and extremely disturbing new documentary called “The Cove.” The first film by famed National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, “The Cove” is a brave bit of investigative activism that doesn’t shy away from ugly images in an attempt to make its case.

O’Barry is of the opinion that dolphins are of such extreme intelligence that they ought to be treated differently than other animals. They’re self-aware, have a highly sophisticated ability to communicate and have been known on many occasions to aid humans who were struggling in the water.

O’Barry explains that the perpetual “smile” that mother nature put on dolphins is misleading. Like humans, they’re prone to depression in captivity and try desperately to communicate their unhappiness to humans who fail to understand them. He’s convinced that one of the dolphins he trained to play Flipper committed suicide in his arms.

But captivity is only one problem. Once a year in the waters around Taiji, Japan, thousands of dolphins are herded into a remote cove. There, personnel from aquatic shows around the world pick out the ones they want for $150,000 each. The remaining rejects, some 23,000 a year, are slaughtered.

To expose this dolphin holocaust, Psihoyos and his crew employ some Mission Impossible-style heroics to get clandestine footage of the carnage.

But that’s not the whole story. The film shines a light on the political machinations and economic manipulations that revolve around Japan’s dolphin and whale hunting industry. A case is also made that what passes for whale meat on store shelves is really often dolphin, and that dolphin meat is unhealthy for humans to consume because of the extremely high levels of mercury it contains.

While all of this is interesting, “The Cove” could still have been a dry, matter-of-fact documentary. But it is compelling because it plays like a thriller. Psihoyos, O’Barry and the other volunteers who participated in the secretive shooting literally put their lives on the line. The tension the movie creates is derived from real danger.

“The Cove” is an unsettling film that seethes with both fear and anger. (PG-13) Rating: ****

* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it

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