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Snapshot: Rob Lorkiewicz
Center snapshot: Rob Lorkiewicz. Image above: Rob Lorkiewicz is a videographer at NASA Langley who is using skills honed in his profession in support of saving dolphins. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The film is harrowing. It's billed as a cross between "Flipper" and the "Bourne Ultimatum," and it hit Rob Lorkiewicz like a harpoon through the heart.

With wife Christie, he is an animal lover. They devote a great deal of time to volunteering with the Virginia Beach SPCA, in the kennel and raising money.

"We really like cats and dogs," said Lorkiewicz, a videographer at NASA Langley.

But when he saw "The Cove," an Academy Award-winning documentary shot primarily in Taiji, Japan, everything Lorkiewicz had done for animals to that point seemed somewhat diminished.

Add dolphins to that cat and dog list.

"I had to kind of build myself up to watch the film," he said. "I'd heard about it and had seen some things."

"The Cove" was inspired by Ric O'Barry, who trained "Flipper" for the television show, but then decided that dolphins in captivity was cruel and inhumane entertainment, their antics in shows notwithstanding. A film crew shot the annual dolphin roundup in Taiji, but parts of it had to be carried out secretively because it's the only way filming could be done.

In the roundup, dolphins are driven into a cove in Taiji, with the most appealing animals separated from the others and sold to aquariums and marine parks world-wide for as much as $150,000 each.

Dolphins that aren't selected are taken to an adjacent cove and slaughtered for their mercury-tainted meat.

Lorkiewicz saw the film and decided he had to go to Taiji and see the dolphin roundup for himself.

"With the Video Services department here at NASA Langley, I'm typically videotaping research demonstrations, capabilities videos for various directorates or educational and outreach programming," he said. "It's a job I very much enjoy, and I'm privileged to work with a team of tremendously professional and creative people. I must admit I have a bit of fun telling people on the outside I work at NASA. It’s pretty cool to think I’ve actually walked inside a wind tunnel, or seen the construction of a test article that might possibly determine the next step for our nation's space program."

So he stepped out of the work realm, taking his skills as a videographer to Japan.

"Part of me wanted to go to Taiji because I knew the best way to help was to do what I do professionally: to shoot video, to take pictures, to give a first-hand account of what I saw," he said.

As he speaks, Lorkiewicz grows more animated, his voice rising and falling, alternatively sad and angry. He occasionally points to photos and videos on his computer screen. They seem to choreograph his emotion.

"It's not illegal to do this," he pointed out. "There's a quota issued by the government. It's approximately 20,000 dolphins and other small cetaceans nationwide. Taiji's quota was approximately 2000."

He went in February, joining a group from Sea Shepherd, an organization trying to stop the roundup.

"Sea Shepherd essentially put out an invitation and said if you want to come join us and document, take pictures, blog, use the social media to get the word out, come on," Lorkiewicz said. "So I shot video."

He also wrote a blog that seemed to grow in intensity with each of the six days he was in Taiji, each time he saw a pod of dolphins captured or herded into the cove. Overhead tarps cover the beach where the dolphins are slaughtered. The only evidence in clear view is the blood that begins to emerge.

No trespassing signs and barricades also prevent photographers or anyone else from getting an unobstructed view of the killing cove.

Lorkiewicz tried to understand the culture.

"Their argument sometimes is: 'You eat cows, pigs and chickens. We eat dolphins and whales,' " said Lorkiewicz, who actually is a vegan. "It's hard to go and say you should stop doing your job. You should stop collecting your income. But this can't continue. This has serious ecological consequences for our oceans, as well as the fact that dolphins are highly social, intelligent, sentient beings.

He admires Izumi Ishii, a former dolphin hunter in Futo, Japan, who now runs dolphin and whale watching trips in his hometown and advocates against the dolphin roundup.

And Lorkiewicz recognizes that to some extent he lives in a glass house.

"Does this happen in this country to dolphins? No," he said. “The issue in this country is more one of captivity. Are there animal welfare issues with farm animals that are bred and slaughtered for our consumption? Sure. We have our own slaughterhouse issues that we deal with."

The extent of which he has been impacted is evident. What happens now is another story.

"My question coming back from Japan is what do I do next?" he said.

The roundup starts again on September 1.

"For me to go back then probably isn't going to happen because we're expecting our first child on August 6," he said. "Still, I want to go back.

"I still want to work with the SPCA. I still want to support Sea Shepherd. I know I'll go back. There's no question about that. It's just a matter of when."

And his job at Langley continues to drive him.

"Working here at NASA Langley, I get to see the work researchers are doing to make airplanes and automobiles safer, more efficient," Lorkiewicz said. "The scientists that study shifts in weather patterns and the effects of changing climate. It’s important for the public to know about the research and development NASA does that impacts their everyday lives. It’s not just about putting someone on the surface of Mars."

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