The Director of ‘Sea of Shadows’ Faced Down Cartels to Show the Fight to Save the World’s Smallest Porpoise

Director Richard Ladkani captures the struggle against violent groups who are threatening the Vaquita with extinction.
Sea of Shadows Shows Fight to Save the World's Smallest Porpoise
"Sea of Shadows"

Sea of Shadows” is director Richard Ladkani’s second “eco-thriller.” It’s a documentary ostensibly about scientists, activists, and law enforcement agents who are all trying to protect one of the most endangered species on Earth, but it plays more like a popcorn-friendly narrative feature thanks to the fact that Mexican drug cartels and the Chinese mafia are all intertwined in the story.

“Sea of Shadows” follows the intertwined plights of the the Vaquita porpoise and the totoaba fish in the Sea of Cortez as Mexican drug cartels erect illegal gill nets to catch totoaba to export to China, where there is a thriving illegal market for their bladders, which are purported to have medicinal properties (and a single one can fetch $100,000). But those nets also catch the extremely endangered vaquita porpoise, posing a threat to the Sea’s entire delicate ecosystem.

The new genre in which the filmmaker has been working is something he and collaborator Kief Davidson came up with when documenting the illegal ivory trade in Africa in “The Ivory Game.”

“It was very early when we started thinking about films that should have an impact on our audiences and the world, and also wake people up and shake them into action and inspire them to do more for our planet and to think about what’s going on around the world. We said, Well, we have to make films that are actually seen by a wide audience that are not just speaking to the documentary regulars, or to people who are only interested in the environment and the tree huggers or whatever. We need everybody. We like a movement of change. We need to inspire people who do not watch documentaries, who watch feature films. How do we bring them in? How do we get them to see a very dark topic, a topic that actually people will shy away from? … Well, if you like this film, the takeaway should be, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea, what can I do? How can I find out more or maybe help these organizations be more effective?'”

It was the same with “Sea of Shadows,” Ladkani said following a screening of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles. “Here I had this problem of two animals I had never heard about. When I was first asked by our executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, to make a film about this — he was also our executive on ‘The Ivory Game’ — I was like, excuse me, what? Could you repeat the animals? I never heard about them. It was very clear that we would have to again use the same concept of like, How do we make it engaging and beautiful and dramatic storytelling in terms of finding characters that are like real heroes that inspire people? So this is how I would say the eco-thriller is partly born.”

Then again, the subjects of “Sea of Shadows” — the scientists, conservationists, investigative journalists, and undercover agents fighting the cartels that are hunting the “cocaine of the sea” — are “real badass,” Ladkani said.

“This is like being with Jason Bourne, but the real one, embedded in the car — the language they use, the gadgets they use, the secret cameras,” he said. Subject Andrea Crosta works with a team of former FBI and CIA operatives who have dedicated themselves to saving the planet’s wildlife. “When he talks about 32 years of FBI undercover, it’s like in the movies, so you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re in this real thriller environment that I only know from fiction films,’ but that’s just how it is. So you can’t really shoot it any other way.”

Said Crosta after the IDA screening, “Environmental crime is the fourth largest criminal [enterprise] on the planet, $90 billion per year, and there is no intelligence at all. The result is that we’re fighting these kind of challenges, these kind of issues, like Boy Scouts — like amateurs. So as an organization, we’re always looking for a situation like this one, where … it was wrongly approached as a conservation issue, as an environmental issue for many, many years. When instead it’s a crime issue with serious environmental consequences.”

It is also an environmental issue, though, said scientist Dr. Cynthia Smith.

“This is a symbol of what’s happening all over the planet, and it’s complicated. Trying to save an endangered species in this way is complicated. And Richard was great at shining his light on that. We could talk a lot about marine mammals and all the other endangered species that are in a very similar situations, but the reality is that this is one really good example of a lot of other examples that exist today. So the more people that see this film and understand how complicated and how scary it is, hopefully the more people get involved in helping us turn it around.”

“Sea of Shadows” airs Saturday, Nov. 9 on National Geographic Channel.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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