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James Cameron breaks silence on Avatar 2 dolphin stunt: 'I was seething'

Director James Cameron has broken his silence over a controversial Avatar 2 publicity event in Japan that featured a live dolphin show, and sparked global backlash.

In an email sent to a number of marine mammal activists, Mr Cameron says he was left “seething” after being blindsided in the midst of a hectic publicity tour.

The situation was sparked after footage of the promotional show at Maxell Aqua Park Shinagawa was circulated outside of Japan to the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The video featured actors James Cameron, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington, and Mr Cameron clapping after the performance.

James Cameron gives a thumbs up during the press conference.
After the show, Mr Cameron asked if he could ride a dolphin and later waved to the animals as they gestured with their tails. Source: YouTube

Within days animal advocates around the world were focused on the promotional event, rather than the film. The three-hour, multi-million dollar CGI showpiece had taken 13 years to make and was supposed to celebrate the natural world and raise awareness about marine life.

James Cameron urged to travel to Japan to witness slaughter

Japan is one of a handful of countries to conduct drives in which wild dolphins are caught and sold to dolphinariums.

Less fortunate animals are slaughtered in their thousands, mostly at an inlet in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. While the dolphin park where the Avatar 2 event took place has agreed not to buy newly-caught wild dolphins, the origin of the animals featured in the show remains unclear.

A trainer is thrown into the air by a captive dolphin as the Avatar cast watches on.
James Cameron, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington watched a captive dolphin show in Japan. Source: YouTube

The Oscar-winning documentary The Cove chronicled the issue of dolphin hunting and capture in Japan. It followed Dolphin Project founder and activist Ric O’Barry, who wrote an open letter to Mr Cameron after news of the Avatar 2 event became public.

"To watch this particular group of filmmakers, whom I greatly admire and respect, applaud captive dolphins performing tricks in a tiny pool absolutely floored me," Mr O'Barry wrote. "I was hoping it was a mistake. It wasn’t, but it was a brutal wake-up call."

Now that Mr Cameron appears to be rethinking his participation in the dolphin show, Dolphin Project is urging him and the cast to join it in Taiji to witness dolphin slaughter.

Mr O'Barry's son Lincoln told Yahoo News Australia that "millions of people saw (Mr Cameron) attend the dolphin show online, now he has a chance to make it right again by coming to Japan and seeing what happens at The Cove itself or he could post a public statement to our website".

James Cameron's friend speaks out about dolphin debacle

Ocean photographer Brian Skerry worked alongside Mr Cameron on the National Geographic series Secrets of the Whales in 2021.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on Tuesday, Mr Skerry said he has been impressed by the Avatar 2 director’s focus on “planetary saving measures” and interest in “ocean exploration”.

“Unless he's really got me buffaloed here, I really think that he is genuine about this,” Mr Skerry said. “I cannot imagine that if he knew that there was going to be a dolphin show that he would have agreed to it. I think it was a bit of a blindside and a really unfortunate incident.”

What did James Cameron's email say?

After the dolphin park misstep in Japan, Mr Skerry, and the director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, received emails from Mr Cameron's email address. The pair both shared portions of the email publicly to Facebook.

A trainer riding a dolphin during the Avatar 2 show.
During the Avatar 2 dolphin show, trainers rode on top of the animals as the cast filmed the event. Source: YouTube

“We were on a whirlwind publicity tour for Avatar: The Way of Water across multiple countries, and I was getting whisked along from one appearance or interview to another for a week straight, literally doing twenty or thirty interviews a day,” the email attributed to Mr Cameron states.

“I got handed a schedule that showed, as my first of 6 stops of the day, a fan event at an aquarium. I was visualising something like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its great science and conservation programs. There was zero mention of a dolphin show. I literally found out there was a dolphin show AS we were walking out on stage. We were already out in the lights and fans were cheering.”

"I said something snide on-mike like, 'I’m sure the dolphins were all asked for their consent to be part of the show' or something like that. I was seething. But I didn’t want to create a big public incident. Maybe I should have, in retrospect. But my instinct is always to meet people where they are. Which is the whole point of Avatar: The Way of Water. To shift consciousness.”

Blood red water in Taiji as a hunter kills a dolphin.
Dolphins that are not taken into captivity by hunters in Taiji are slaughtered. Source: Dolphin Project.

In another section of the email that Mr Psihoyos said he received from Mr Cameron yesterday, the director places the blame for the situation on promoter Disney.

"When you see the movie you’ll see that it’s all about saving whales, and treating them with empathy as equals. It’s the pivotal message of the film," it says. "So there’s obviously no way I would have agreed to standing up in front of a show based on captive dolphins."

He then urges people to rethink their seafood intake, as "an estimated 650,000 dolphins and whales are killed or seriously injured by massive fishing fleets every year".

"So, if people really want to save the dolphins, they should put down the damn tuna melt," the email continues. "In fact, stop eating fish altogether and stick to plant-based proteins, as I have for the last 10 years. I wanted you to know this was a faux pas outside my ability to foresee or prevent, and that I’m sorry about it.”

The Cove director Louie Psihoyos calls for understanding

Mr Psihoyos directed the plant-based eating documentary Game Changers which featured Mr Cameron alongside an all-star lineup including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic.

Speaking with Yahoo News Australia on Wednesday morning, he urged Mr Cameron's detractors to try and imagine the pressure of promoting a film with an anti-whaling message in Japan - a country where they are still hunted for their flesh. Having taken The Cove to the Tokyo Film Festival, Mr Psihoyos understands the pressure of being in a place where people are "not necessarily being friendly to" your message.

"People think: Oh, if I was in that position, I would do X," he said. "It's a lot different in the heat of the moment when you find yourself in an uncomfortable position like that. You say stuff maybe you don't mean."

Mr Psihoyos said he doesn't know many other human beings trying to create social change and environmental awareness on the scale that Mr Cameron has. "He deserves our respect, he deserves our forgiveness," he said. "He's one of those most stellar human beings I've ever met on the planet."

He believes the criticism directed at Mr Cameron by other people advocating for marine mammal conservation "probably hurts more than anything". "You want to have the love and acceptance and admiration from the community that you've worked so hard for," he said.

PETA urges Avatar 2 director to issue public statement

Following the Avatar 2 dolphin stunt, some local activists feared it could reignite an interest in dolphin parks in Japan, leading to more animals being captured in the wild.

Animal rights group PETA’s senior vice president Lisa Lange was quick to share her shock after Mr Cameron attended the dolphin show, but now appears hopeful.

Louie Psihoyos shared part of the email he said he received from Mr Cameron to social media. Source: Facebook
Louie Psihoyos shared part of the email he said he received from Mr Cameron to social media. Source: Facebook

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia she said it confirmed her initial suspicion that he had been “blindsided” by the event. “As it turns out he was,” she said. “I would have been very surprised if he knew in advance that he was going to watch these poor captive dolphins, so this is a relief to hear.”

She now hopes Mr Cameron will go “one step further” and consider making a public service announcement against the captive dolphin industry. She hopes he could advocate sending healthy animals in dolphinariums to seaside sanctuaries and even consider funding one. “He has the means and he obviously has the desire, and this would be a great next thing to do after his misstep.”

Yahoo News Australia has contacted Mr Cameron's agent for a response.

Avatar 2's distributer Disney is a member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and has been approached for comment.

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