‘Sea of Shadows’ director Richard Ladkani, conservation team talk making of documentary, future of the vaquita

Illustration of Richard Ladkani
Ashley Zhang/Staff

Related Posts

There might be a joke out there where a scientist, a first mate, an investigator and a filmmaker all walk into a bar. 

But a lighthearted premise was not what brought Dr. Cynthia Smith, Jack Hutton, Andrea Crosta and Richard Ladkani to the same table in San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency hotel on July 15. Rather, their common ground was the criminal endangerment of two already critically threatened marine species. Their collective conservation efforts are the topic of the new National Geographic documentary “Sea of Shadows.” 

In Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the totoaba, a fish prized for its swim bladder in Chinese black markets for medicine, is being illegally hunted to extinction. By extension, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, is also threatened by the nets being used to trawl for totoaba and the fishermen’s encroachment upon its habitat. 

Director Ladkani, known for his 2016 eco-justice documentary “The Ivory Game,” had never heard of the term “vaquita” before he embarked on the project. Many shared his lack of familiarity, he said.

“It was a symbolic word,” Ladkani said. “You have organized crime that attacks the planet Earth and extracts millions of dollars in the black market to China. That is also happening with the tigers and rhinos and elephants, but here, it is happening in a very small place. And nobody knows about it.” 

Though both the vaquita and totoaba are protected under international law, their numbers continue to dwindle. “Sea of Shadows” documents the sprawling criminal web that constitutes the totoaba trade and the efforts of activists, scientists and investigators trying to put an end to it.

To capture the breadth of the issue, Ladkani spent about eight months in Mexico during totoaba season, interviewing local fishermen and shadowing activists from the Sea Shepherd crew as they monitored the Sea of Cortez, documenting any illegal activity they witnessed. 

Hutton, the ship’s first mate, called the crew’s mission “an aggressive, direct-action nonviolent operation.” Though the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not a law enforcement agency, its crew members’ line of work often places them in the direct line of fire. 

One tense scene in the documentary features Hutton and the camera-sporting Ladkani flattening themselves to the floor of the ship, expecting to be shot at by a boat whose illegal operations they captured via drone footage. 

Many at the table agreed that sharing visual documentation with the public is the way forward for conservational causes. 

“This film has become the most important conservation action that we have going right now,” Smith said. “The more people that see the film, the more people are educated about the issue, the more people are inspired to get involved, the more of a chance we have at saving the species.”

Smith, a marine scientist who heads the nonprofit National Marine Mammal Foundation, was a key figure in the Mexican government’s 2017 initiative to bolster vaquita numbers by raising them in captivity. As part of the rescue program, Smith and her team took to the waters for five weeks in October and November, with Ladkani accompanying them the entire way.

In the documentary, harrowing footage articulated the challenge of locating these elusive porpoises — as well as the thrill of finally spotting a black-tipped snout among the waves.

Later, the camera also captured the grief of the crew members when it was conclusively determined that the vaquita could not thrive in captivity. 

“That evening … is extremely heartbreaking, and the impact that it had on us will stay with us forever,” Smith said. “(Ladkani) had become such a part of the team at that point, we just forgot he was there. I forgot the cameras were rolling and the mics were on, and we just did the best we could that night.”

But as investigator Crosta explained, the story goes beyond vaquita rehabilitation. The fishermen and merchants operating illegally must be held accountable. The documentary also includes his undercover work. Crosta posed as a journalist for an Italian fishing magazine — “hiding in plain sight,” as he put it — and met with those profiting off the totoaba industry. 

“For many, many people, this kind of problem (is) about animals. That is an oversimplification,” Crosta said. “If the animals could talk, they (would) say, ‘Stop talking about how cute we are. Do something for us. Treat us as clients; be our lawyers.’ ”

Though vaquita numbers continue to fall — when the documentary was completed in 2018, there were estimated to be 30 left — Smith reassured that all is not lost. There is still hope for recovery, provided that there is a concerted global impetus to take action, she said.

“Sea of Shadows” has already been shown in multiple legislatures, from the U.N. in Geneva to Mexico’s Senate chambers. As the crew members prepare for the film’s public debut in Mexico at the end of August, they expressed their hope for changes in policy galvanized by public support. 

“This year we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of violence far worse than what we see in the movie. (The Sea Shepherd) got boarded. We got Molotov cocktails. We got shot at,” Hutton said. “We need something big to change, because this may well be the last fight that we have — and the last opportunity to save the species.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].