Sundance 2019: Sea of Shadows: Yet Another Area of the World Being Recklessly Destroyed by Greed
In the age of an overwhelmingly large human population across the world, demand for everything from food, gas and even fresh water has exploded. Because of this, the entirety of the earth is suffering. Animals, plants, minerals and even entire ecosystems are deteriorating from human consumption and greed. Since humans consider themselves to be the most important species on Earth, they stop at nothing to save themselves even to their own detriment.
Sea of Shadows, directed by award winning documentarian Richard Ladkani, explores the decimation of the Totoaba fish for its bladder in the Sea of Cortez, and how this fishing is affecting other species.
It’s All About The Money
Following the beautifully made The Ivory Game, which exposes the illegal ivory trade from Africa to China, Ladkani brings forth another extraordinarily made film in the quest to conserve the world’s animals and expose their exploitation for human greed.
The film immediately draws the audience in with it’s action packed opening, featuring a crew from the conservation organization, Sea Shepard, in the midst of catching totoaba poachers, off the coast of the Gulf of California, at night. Using night vision and a drone, we see how this crew locates the poacher’s speed boats, identifies it’s contents and communicates with the Mexican Navy and smaller crew boats, to attempt to capture the poachers and remove their illegal netting.
We are then thrust into a flashy, Mexican news show that relays the information about the widespread political, police and military corruption and the criminal underworld responsible for the trafficking of totoaba fish bladders to big buyers in China. Totoaba bladders are believed to have special healing properties worth more than gold to the Chinese. Because of this, totoabas are known as “the cocaine of the sea”. Each bladder can fetch up to $100K on the black market.
Poaching these endangered species is already illegal in Mexico, but due to their demand/money potential, it has been all but impossible to stop. The totoaba bladder trade has become an international, multi-million dollar business and has managed to infect the legal fishing trade off the coast of San Felipe.
Literally caught up in all of this greedy mess, are a number of species who live and thrive in this richly populated area of the sea. The most endangered is that of the Vaquita, the smallest living whale species, found only in this area. There are believed to be less than 20 Vaquita left on earth, and they are literally being killed off by the miles of illegal nets that litter the Sea of Cortez.
The San Felipe coastline, labeled the “Aquarium of the World” by legendary conservationist Jacques Cousteau, is one of the richest ares for oceanic biodiversity on Earth and all of the species there are threatened and affected by this poaching.
Along with organizations like Sea Shepard, Ladkani follows Andrea Crosta, who also appeared in The Ivory Game. Crosta is a conservationist, the Director of Operations of Wildlife Crime for the Elephant Action League and the founder of WildLeaks, a website to report illegal poaching across the world. Crosta has created a team of ex-Special Ops who specifically investigate crimes like these that threaten wild animals and our environment.
Working in tandem with them is investigative journalist Carlos Loret de Mola; a popular news anchor and host of television show Despierta. Loret de Mola is furious about the idea of the Vaquita extinction and has made it his mission to find out who is responsible for the trafficking of the fish bladders out of Mexico. Starting in San Felipe, the bladders are sent to Mexicali, then over to Tijuana to be imported to China for distribution. He and Crosta search for the elusive Oscar Parra, the one man in control of the illegal fish bladder trade operations in Mexico. They both work on finding and exposing those responsible, including corrupt officials in the police and military, who are paid off to “ignore” the illegal fishing, in the hopes of stopping it altogether before the Vaquita becomes extinct.
Cynthia Smith, a marine veterinarian, launches a campaign called “Vaquita CPR”. The hope is to find, capture and rescue the remaining Vaquitas and put them in an oceanic sanctuary to keep them safe until the illegal fishing can be stopped. Vaquitas are generally shy and slow to breed, so the sanctuary would also provide them with a protected area for proliferation. But will it be possible to capture and contain a wild creature best suited to roaming in the open sea?
Most of the film is spent with de Mola and Crosta as they speak with locals; undercover snitches and local law enforcement in pursuit of Parra. As the search deepens, they discover an elaborate syndicate of fraud and double dealing that extends across the Pacific and into China. The people who come forward risk their lives to give the investigators information. All the while, legal fisherman are rising up against the fishing ban, as it is affecting their livelihoods and their ability to feed their families.
Risking It All
To say that the jobs that all of these heroes do is dangerous is an understatement. Every single day they put their lives on the line and face insurmountable odds. Whether it involves fighting crime syndicates and the never ending power of the greedy; attempting to save endangered creatures who resist rescue; trying to work with governments tainted with corruption or placating the local public to agree to new law implementations, this job is never done.
Recently, Sea Shepard shared with the press, post Sea of Shadows filming, a video of an attack by local poachers on one of their ships in a protected Vaquita refuge area. In it, we see the poachers race along side the Sea Shepard boat, thrusting huge rocks and smashing in a window. They also toss Molotov cocktails, setting the boat aflame. These advocates also risk being shot at for all of the enormously critical work they do. In Sea of Shadows, the drone they use to locate poachers in the dark falls victim to a shooting.
The investigators on land risk their lives to get undercover evidence of the crimes happening in real time. From the ports of Mexico to the shores of Hong Kong, no distance is too far to go to solve the mysteries and put an end to the corruption.
In All Honesty…
This is a compelling, poignant film. It plays out like a detective/action film, but with real people poised to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the species and ecosystems of our world. Using captivating imagery, fast-paced intrigue and authentic ticking clocks, Sea of Shadows captivates the viewer from scene one. We feel part of the investigations and experience the heroes exploits, in their never-ending quest to thwart lawlessness, while maintaining the delicate balance between the needs of the seas and the local people it serves.
Ladkani is the very definition of an artist who uses his talents for the good of the world. I salute him and all of the brave, passionate individuals who fight for our home with their lives on a daily basis. Sea of Shadows is a film not to be missed. It will keep you captivated and absorbed throughout, and pulling for the heroes involved. It restores hope by showing us that there are people everywhere, battling tirelessly, to make what’s wrong, right again.
It also opens our eyes to the fact that there is no part of the world greed and the pursuit of money doesn’t touch. Humanity’s irreverent voracity is destroying the world from the inside out. We must come together and make concerted efforts to appreciate the richness and bounty that the Earth offers us in all of it’s natural resources, before it’s too late. Let us share, with one another and the rest of Earth’s natural inhabitants, the abundance of creation by living more simply and taking only what we need. Let us use our gifts to give back to the world and hold accountable those who seek to selfishly destroy it.
For there is far more harm and risk in remaining idle and looking away, because the next species to be extinct may very well be us.
Sea of Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival January 27, 2019, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. It has recently been picked up by National Geographic Documentary Films. Follow Terra Mater Productions’ website for future release information.