An image showing two divers swimming with a dolphin is at first glance heartwarming, but moments after it was taken the scene became “chaotic”.
Dolphin Project volunteer Tracie Sugo continued snapping away with her camera using a long lens.
Her hand began to shake as mothers were separated from their babies.
The waters became choppy as the wetsuit-clad hunters used ropes and nets to lift the thrashing, wild dolphins onto their boats.
“It was a nursery pod and they were quite panicked – it was very clear with how tight together they were swimming and just piling on top of one another,” Ms Sugo told Yahoo News Australia.
“One of the divers got into the water, and the trainers arrived and all chaos broke loose.
“They were trying to swim away, trying to find somewhere to escape to.
“They were swimming into the nets, swimming on top of each other and bumping into each other.”
The scene that Ms Sugo witnessed on Wednesday is a regular occurrence during the dolphin hunting season which runs from September to March in Taiji, Japan.
Every year, trainers from dolphin parks around the world converge on the town to select the most beautiful dolphins and whales to be taken into captivity and trained to perform for tourists.
“We saw like four or five divers go after a single dolphin and there was a lot of thrashing when the dolphin was grabbed, and when the dolphin was put into the net to be dragged over to where the trainers were,” Ms Sugo said.
“They ended up taking four dolphins out of the pod.
“It can get a little nerve-racking just witnessing the suffering that the dolphins are going through.”
Dolphins reportedly selling for over $100,000
The majority of dolphin buyers come from China, where large numbers of animals are purchased to fill marine parks which cater to the entertainment needs of the country’s growing middle class.
Bottlenose dolphins are particularly prized by dolphinariums and once trained, Dolphin Project allege the animals can fetch prices upwards of $100,000.
Quotas are set each year for the hunters, stipulating how many can be sold into captivity, but also how many can be butchered for meat.
Activists argue that if dolphinariums stopped buying animals from the hunters, the slaughter would no longer be financially viable.
Japanese protests growing
Ms Sugo, who has been in Taiji since the beginning of January, said she has been buoyed by a growing number of Japanese coming out to protest the slaughter.
“Last Sunday, several of the Japanese activists came up to the lookout above the cove with us, and they were yelling down at the hunters and the trainers begging them to stop,” she said.
“I don’t think that has ever happened before.”
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