BETWEEN SEPTEMBER AND MARCH, the coastal town of Taiji, Japan, plays host to a gruesome theater: Fishermen drive dolphins into a small inlet and close off the exit. A dealer selects a few animals, selling them to aquariums around the world, then the leftover dolphins are herded into a secluded side cove and harpooned for meat. The fishermen defend the slaughter as traditional practice while local police guard the cove from the public. But in 2005, an unlikely duo decided to shed light on Taiji's secret. That's when activist Richard O'Barry, who made his fame training the TV dolphin Flipper, and Louie Psihoyos, a photographer and the executive director of the nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society, teamed up to make a documentary about the dolphin harvest. They raised $2.5 million, enlisted a team of activists and freedivers, and snuck Hollywood-engineered cameras into Taiji. Result: The Cove, an eco-espionage flick that won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters July 31. Here's how the drama unfolded.
1. Japanese fishermen herd dolphins into the inlet.
2. A local dealer picks a handful of dolphins to sell to aquariums and animal parks.
3. Fishermen harpoon some 2,300 dolphins per year in the killing cove.
4. At night, a film crew for The Cove, dressed in black, sneaks into the surrounding hills and plants surveillance cameras housed in fake rocks to record the slaughter.
5. Also at night, elite freedivers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack plant two hydrophones at 55 feet to record the dying dolphins' cries.
6. Cruickshank and Krack plant an underwater "blood cam" close to shore.
7. Hidden onshore cameras capture Japanese free-divers retrieving harpooned dolphins from the bottom.
8. Filmmakers attempt to launch a 30-foot, camera-equipped Minizepp blimp shaped like a dolphin. Police stop the crew near the main inlet. The blimp doesn't get any aerial footage, but it provides a diversion.
9. Meanwhile, six surfers, including actress Hayden Panettiere and Aussie ASP rider Dave Rastovich, paddle out and form a board circle to honor the dolphins, further distracting authorities.
10. A helicopter, shipped in pieces from the States, zips over the fracas, scoring the film's climactic shot.