Animal rights activist Crystal Galbraith and a friend who spoke fluent Japanese racked up a bill of $600 at a Santa Monica restaurant, feasting on increasingly exotic dishes to gain the confidence of the waiters and chef.
During the October restaurant visit -- actually, an undercover operation -- the marine mammal activists posing as customers went to The Hump and ordered "omakase," which means they let the chef choose the choicest fresh fish. They also requested whale and pocketed a sample.
The young women worked with Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove," to record the meal with a hidden camera and microphone. Psihoyos took their findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which started an investigation.
Federal labs confirmed the meat came from a Sei whale, an endangered species protected by international treaties, documents said.
Criminal charges were filed Wednesday. Typhoon Restaurant Inc., which owns The Hump restaurant, and sushi chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, were charged with illegally selling an endangered species product -- Sei whale. That's a misdemeanor.
The Santa Monica City Attorney's Office is also looking into The Hump's menu choices.
The creative team behine "The Cove", this year's Oscar winner for documentary, first brought the matter to the attention of federal authorities and the news media.
"It was heartbreaking to eat an endangered animal, but I knew that I was doing it to save" the whales, said Galbraith, a vegan. "We were there eating for four hours. I felt so full and sick."
The waitress brought out a dish of whale sushi, identifying thewhale in English and Japanese, court documents said. The dish was listed as whale on the check and cost $85.
A conviction for selling banned whale meat carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for individuals. The maximum fine for an organization is $200,000.
"Someone should not be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species," said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. "Federal law has a variety of provisions, including criminal statutes intended to protect this planet's threatened natural resources."
Activists claim the whale meat came from Japan's scientific whaling program and was illegally exported, but the U.S. attorney's office is still investigating the source of the meat.
Japan kills hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters each year under its research whaling program, which has triggered violent protests by conservationists and caused strong objections by diplomats in recent years.
An attorney for Typhoon, Gary Lincenberg, said the restaurant accepts responsibility for serving whale and will agree to pay a fine. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $200,000.
Court records say agents interviewed Yamamoto, a Culver City resident and a chef at The Hump for the past seven years, and he admitted serving whale to two young women. Yamamoto's attorney, Mark Byrne, declined to comment on the charges, saying he hadn't had time to review them. If convicted, Yamamoto could face a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.