Jim Wickens reports on the brutal killing of dolphins for use as shark bait off Peru’s Pacific coast
The car glided swiftly out of Lima, skimming past brightly-lit barrios before plunging into the darkness of the desert road. We were heading for a midnight rendezvous with a shark fishing boat. The owner of the rough and ready vessel had agreed to show us how they catch sharks in Peru: by killing dolphins and using the bloody chunks as bait.
Rumours of an illegal dolphin harvest have swirled around Peru for years, a secret slaughter involving thousands of dolphins, dwarfing the high seas drama of the annual whale hunt in Antarctica. Known as “sea pigs” by fishermen in Peru, dolphins are reportedly harpooned and diced up on deck, before being skewered onto hundreds of hooks strung out on long-lines at sea to attract sharks. It’s a bloody business but it can save fishermen hundreds if not thousands of dollars in costly fish bait every trip. Dolphin meat is particularly enticing to sharks, and while substitutes are available, to the hard-bitten men who brave these high seas, all that matters is that it is free.
Until recently, nobody was ever able to get close enough to prove the Peruvian dolphin hunt exists. The fine for getting caught would bankrupt a small fisherman. And so the hunt remained no more than a rumour, denied at every opportunity by both the fishing industry and the government in Peru.
I have made multiple trips to Peru — but the dolphin hunt has always remained elusive. Then in June, whilst I sat with my family in Brighton, I received the call I had been both hoping for and dreading: my fixer had finally coaxed a shark captain to take us out on a hunting trip with them, in exchange for help with fuel costs, and on strict condition of anonymity.
A week after receiving the call I found myself standing nervously on a quayside in a deserted fishing port at midnight on the Peruvian coast. I was heading for a week in the Pacific ocean with illegal dolphin hunters, embarking on a voyage that would eventually prove that the hunt is real — but that very nearly cost me my life.
Into the unkown
Our vessel for the week was a tiny wooden 40 foot vessel, open-decked but for a little wheelhouse and a cramped hole in the bow with four tiny bunks for six people.
Far from the prying eyes of the police force or customs, the rickety boat crept out of port and into the heaving swell of the Pacific ocean. Despite the discomfort I slept immediately, adrenaline, jetlag and fear temporarily overcome by the lull and sway of the vessel as it began the 600km trek south to where the sharks lie.
By first light, all reference points of land and civilisation had gone. I awoke disorientated in a grey fog of clouds, drizzle, waves and wonder; every hour that passed taking us south and into the storm swell that had closed the ports shortly after our departure. Overcome with seasickness, day and night slipped into each other. Somehow time passed: nauseous hours spent on deck, gazing at the blank horizon, or lying in my bunk, dreaming of better places.
When planning the expedition, I’d had naive visions of stringing up a hammock; reading books; or shooting clever images of the fishermen at work while we slugged our way out to sea. It was a hopeless fantasy against the cold, damp reality of life at sea on a Peruvian fishing boat. Food twice a day in a dog bowl-shaped silver dish; nowhere to sit, nothing to do.
Peru’s parched desert coastline cascades into the cold waters of the Pacific ocean; nutrient-laden currents providing sustenance to vast shoals of anchovy; which in turn attract whales, seabirds and sharks from across the Pacific to feed in these rich waters.
These waters produce 10% of the world’s fish catch, predominantly in the form of Peruvian anchovy, a tiny oil fish and a cornerstone of the trophic pyramid that is sucked out of the oceans by the millions of tonne every year for use in salmon, pig and poultry feeds around the world. Much of the meat and smoked salmon that we eat, will have been fed on fish from the waters I am riding upon. It is a controversial practice, a crucial ingredient to factory farming meat systems producing the world over, but one that is gradually eroding the health of the ecosystem in Peru say conservationists.
Drawn to the cold upwellings of plankton, the vast shimmering shoals of anchovy create enormous buffets for other animals to thrive upon. Journeying through this great feeding trough of the Eastern Pacific, there were moments to lift the heart: light pouring through the grey and illuminating one of nature’s great feeding spectacles – thousands of seabirds dive-bombing anchovy shoals in the ocean while dolphin pods corralled and fed from around the sides; air and ocean-bound predators, utterly at home in the hostile grey waters. Fleeting companions in the isolation, they would merge back into the grey as quickly as they first arrived.
The crew kept themselves busy, fixing ropes, scrubbing decks, storing food provisions, and preparing an enormous steel harpoon that lay on deck. We were settling into a routine, the days were ticking by. Then a cry came up that changed everything.
‘Chenchos!’ screamed the captain from the wheelhouse, literally ‘fat pigs’; the name that Peruvian fishermen give for dolphins and the plentiful meat that they can supply. It was our third day, and the boat was passing another shoal of anchovy under siege from diving seabirds and dolphins. Only this time a pod of dolphins had broken away from the feeding grounds, and was heading for our boat to bow-ride, half a dozen of them leaping in turns through the water racing to our boat. Within seconds the music in the wheelhouse had been turned down and the crew was poised. The captain stood on the bow clasping a steel harpoon tipped with a double-edged razor-sharp point, attached to rope held by another crew member on the side of the vessel. My cameraman, Ale, and I leapt into position to film, positioning ourselves just behind the hunters. Waiting by the gunwale I could hear Ale on the bow behind the hunter, cursing as he struggled to tried to tie himself to a rudimentary harness with one hand whilst holding the camera with the other as the vessel soared and sank in the lumpy swell.
The dolphins were under the bow, taking it in turns to surf the wake that the boat was creating. In all other circumstances a beautiful sight- but this time would be different. The crew member clutching the harpoon stood silently, arms outstretched and ready to strike, familiarising himself with the rhythm of the dolphins as they surfaced for air. A momentary pause, then he threw it down — 30kg of razor sharp tubular steel plunging into the arch of a dolphin’s back as it swam alongside the bow. A cry went up in excitement from the crew, and seconds later everyone was scrambling about, Ale and myself gazing on in horror as the line flew from the boat.
A dolphin beak emerged 50 yards from the boat, tugging at the taught rope, trying to swim away, it’s efforts diminishing as it became gradually enveloped in a thick cloud of it’s own blood. Two of the crew dragged the line in, the dolphin still desperately kicking its fins, but there could be no miracle escape from its bloody fate. As the boat drew closer, a shiny steel gaff hook was plunged into the soft skin of the dolphin’s head, and it was hauled aboard, intestines pouring out of its twitching body. A crew member sharpened a knife and casually began to slice off the fins, tossing them into the sea before peeling the skin off the dolphin’s back in long strips, amidst a thick puddle of bright red dolphin blood.
The engine revved up and the crew resumed their work. The salsa music came back on the speaker and a cry for lunch came up from the cook. Crouched next to the warm skinless carcass, a crew member handed me a bowl of soup. I vomited, struggling to contain my emotions amidst the intimate brutality of what I had just witnessed. Ale and I gazed at each other in silence, making eye contact from across the deck, but unable to communicate how we felt about the killing or portray any emotion. To do so could be dangerous, even lethal in the tiny tinderbox-like conditions of the fishing boat 100km from shore. Our vessel ploughed on, sailing ever further out into the dreadful grey swell, en-route to the thin sliver of temperature gradient on the chart that was the best fishing ground for sharks. The boat had it’s bait.
The perfect bait
As we neared the fishing grounds, the crew became more focused. The deck was hosed down, supplies repacked and ropes carefully coiled before the bait could be cut up. The dolphin lay flensed in the corner, a long section of the corpse sliced out of it and carefully chopped into long slivers ready for the bait box. Whilst one team diced the dolphin, another pair cut up the fish they had brought with them, salted mackerel bought at considerable expense, that would be halved before being tossed in with the dolphin in the bait box. Our captain explained the benefits of using the dolphin as he watched over the proceedings from the wheelhouse.
“Dolphin meat is effective for the blue shark. When you cut it it bleeds a lot. And the blue shark likes fat, and the dolphin is pure fat. I understand that to hunt the dolphin is illegal. But for me, it’s a necessity, I do it to keep my bills down..I can minimise my costs, because the bait for shark is very expensive. The majority of boats that fish shark carry the speargun with the spear ready to use”.
We had watched one being killed. But the captain was planning to kill at least two on this trip if he had the chance, one of a dozen voyages for sharks over the year that he planned to undertake. With over 500 shark boats across Peru at the last count, the figures for this illicit dolphin hunt clock up to almost unthinkable numbers. Experts suggest at least 10,000 may be killed every year in Peru alone, making it by far the biggest cetacean hunt on earth, around 10 times higher than the Japanese dolphin drive in Taiji for example, made infamous in ‘The Cove.’
An upsurge in shark meat consumption over the last decade within Peru, the high price paid for shark fins from the Far East combined with the ever-rising cost of mackerel for use as fish bait — another species exploited for use as a feed ingredient in factory farms — all play a part in beginning to understand the prevalence of the widespread Peruvian dolphin hunt today.
By dawn we had arrived. With a signal from the captain the first buoy was dropped into place and two crew members crouched in the stern, carefully skewering mackerel and dolphin intermittently on the leaders attached to miles of longline, as the boat slowly chugged away from the first buoy. Two hours later and the hooks — a thousand of them — were spread out in the water. Everyone slept, crammed into the bow as it lulled with the engine off, floating alongside the longlines 100km from shore. In the light of the setting sun, the crew donned Waterproofs, welly boots and drank Maca-enriched soup, an energy-giving Peruvian root, to prepare themselves for the sleepless night ahead. Shakira soundtracks serenaded us from the wheelhouse speakers, and the the crew took up positions ready for the haul.
Ale and I watched in the darkness, cameras ready, as the longline, leaders and empty hooks were picked up and coiled by the crew until the first shout came up. The engine slowed and spotlight shone down into the dark waters below. Our first shark. A svelte, silvery-blue shape gradually appeared in the waters; half-drowned the blue shark appeared drunk, lazily kicking away at the line which drew it ever-closer to the surface. Swimming underwater, the blue shark is astonishingly beautiful, an archetypal ocean wanderer, whose soft-fin features, blue tubular torso and wide eyes endow it with a gentle elegance rarely afforded to sharks.
Hauled over the gunwale, the shark slammed on the deck surface, thrashing in the waterless environment for an instant before the team set upon it. Brandishing a knife, a crew member pinning it down with his knees before slicing off the snout just below the shark’s eyes. It’s entire jaw had been cut away beneath it’s soft wide eyes. A long thin rod was rapidly inserted inside the gaping hole all the way down its spinal column and the thrashing ended. It’s belly was cut, the insides washed away and the shark was tossed to the leeward side of the deck, the first of a dozen sharks they would catch, kill and butcher during the night. Far from the romance afforded it in recent years from a spate of celebrity chef food programs, industrial fishing is little more than a seafood slaughter line, and a bloody brutal one at that.
An hour into the haul the engine slowed amidst excited shouts from the deck hands. All four of them dropped their work to help tug in the line. Excitement built until a vast black shape appeared from the depths. A full grown thresher shark, several hundred kilos in weight with an elongated tail fin measuring in excess of 6 feet. A football sized crater shone deep red in it’s head, a wound that I took to be another shark feeding on the line, but in fact was caused by Humboldt squid, a large and aggressive species rising from the Pacific depths at night to feed close to the surface, an animal that the crew told us they quietly feared more than the shark.
By three in the morning, an hour when reality begans to slip, Ale and I found ourselves crouching by the mast, fighting sleep and the cold winter wind. Then the cry for squid came up. Struggling to pull the monofilament, the crew grappled and swore, heaving until a dark mass came into view. A humbodlt squid in the flesh. Elusive hunters from the deep, this one had risen to feed and had ensnared itself on one of the hooks. As soon as it reached the surface the 6 foot squid began to hiss, its flailing tentacles ready to pounce. The crew made us moved back, carefully approaching the creature as it lay rolling on the deck, its ghoulish beak opening and snapping ready to bite it’s attackers. Within minutes it was butchered, sliced and thrown to the back of the boat, a 6 foot sized slab of calamari dispatched to the growing pile of carcasses at the lee of the boat.
Another blue shark came up to the surface, thrashing in the water, but in a cruel torturous twist, it had vomited up it’s swim bladder. Rapidly sliced and diced, I watched as the belly was opened up. Dozens of perfectly-formed baby sharks slid out of their mother’s entrails, writhing in the waterless expanses of the deck. It was too much for Alejandro and I, having sat back for days and passively observed proceedings on the boat. We both waved at the crew, pleading with them to put the live baby sharks in the sea. It became a comedy for the crew, a novelty as the baby sharks were rounded up and tossed over the side, a torchlight following their first clumsy movements in the ocean. Watching the pregnant mother fight so hard to prevent the killing of her offspring was deeply disturbing. A catch too far. It was 5 am, I descended to the cabin exhausted, unable to watch or trust myself safely on deck anymore amidst the blood-soaked deck, writhing sharks and hooks that were flying around.
At dawn the captain agreed to take us back to shore before carrying on with their two week fishing trip. The mood lifted as we neared the coast, the crew chattering away in their bunks about the best chicken restaurant they planned to briefly dine at before returning to sea, and no doubt relieved at the prospect of being finally rid of the camera team who had filmed their every move for the last week. As land neared, two humpback whales surfaced by the boat, we cheered and the light dropped.
Three km from land, I stood on the bow scanning the horizon whilst the crew lay in their bunks chattering away. Two more whales appeared 100m in front of us, their silhouettes just visible amidst the dying light. My heart dropped. The whales were motionless. Land. Rocks. I shouted, the captain turned the vessel sharply left and summoned the crew from their bunks. Pitch black now, we motored gently forward. Then a distant roar sounded. Sensing what was about to happen, the captain turned the boat hard to port as the outline of a towering wave appeared in the searchlights of the boat, building up ever higher over a submerged rock directly in front of the bow. The enormous wave rose high above the vessel and broke on top of us. We were all thrown off our feet. A moment of watery silence sliding around in disbelief, and then terror. The crew began to scream. The boat lay limply in the rocky waters, water logged amidst a shoal of rocks and pitching at a horrible angle.
Another wave built up and broke onto us, tearing through the rigging, smashing through the wheelhouse windows and throwing the entire vessel onto rocks. My shoes and glasses has been ripped off by the force of the breaking waves, and in the panicky blur I rushed to Ale who was struggling to hold on to the torn remnants of the steel mast. We interlocked arms ready to be thrown into the water with the next wave. I looked around in the darkness calculating as best I could. Cold dark waters, unpredictable currents and a host of predators that I had spent the last week documenting, lay within. I rushed to the stern of the boat and made a soggy phone call to our crew on land. Rocks. Ship wrecked. Emergency.
The crew were using poles to lever themselves of the rocks and then, mercifully, a smaller set of waves lifted us off the rocks — floating us away from the danger into the night calm as suddenly as we had been thrust upon them. We scanned for more rocks while the crew frantically dug through the stores, ice, salt, fish thrown overboard in a desperate bid to locate and patch up leaks in the hull. Cold, wet and bruised, unpredictable waves of shock ran through the people on the boat, fighting for our lives. Anger that the captain had brought the vessel so carelessly into rocks, silence from the horror of the giant waves and pain from the torn muscles ripped from holding on to the boat with each crashing wave.
Eventually a small boat appeared on the horizon, summoned by our land-based team, guiding us into the port and onto shore. One hour later we bade farewell to the crew. Dolphin hunters, deep sea butchers and now, strangely, friends as well, we hugged and bade the briefest of farewells; before being ushered into a waiting car and driven out of the eye of the port authorities into the silence of the desert.
The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Blue Voice and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting whose financial backing and assistance helped make this project happen.