'Sea of Shadows': Film Review | Sundance 2019

SEA OF SHADOWS Still 1 - Sundance Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Heroic and heartrending.

Richard Ladkani's eco-thriller ventures into the front line of efforts to save the planet's most endangered sea mammal.

Having memorably tracked the dire situation for elephants in The Ivory Game, director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani turns his nimble, action-oriented lens on an even more endangered mammal, one whose population has dwindled to a grand total of a dozen: the vaquita porpoise. The world's smallest and most elusive whale, it's found (for now) in only one place, Mexico's Sea of Cortez, a branch of the Pacific that Jacques Cousteau called "the aquarium of the planet" for its extraordinary biodiversity. Today, that sea is a death trap where commercial development and overfishing are wreaking havoc, and where a number of brave souls are fighting for its protection.

Riding along with Sea Shepherd patrol ships, military operatives, journalists and undercover investigators, Ladkani's Sea of Shadows is a stirring adventure — inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure. One powerful sequence in particular, which brings together a team of hopeful scientists and a single frightened vaquita, is an almost unbearable emotional roller coaster. 


The small porpoises, it turns out, are collateral damage in a high-stakes black market for another endangered species — the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a highly prized Chinese delicacy. Trawling for the totoaba with gillnets — the cost-effective and illegal way to fish — turns many other Sea of Cortez natives into accidental casualties. Ladkani's cameras are there when the Sea Shepherd crew pulls up nets from the depths. It's an undertaking that perfectly encapsulates the constant balancing act between progress and setback: Some of the trapped animals are dead (the lifeless figure of a huge, magnificent turtle is awful to behold), and some are lucky to be freed from the netting and returned to the water.

Known as the "cocaine of the sea" because a single bladder can fetch as much as $100,000, the totoaba bladder has a lot in common with the elephant tusk; it's the focus of an international black market. In this case, following the money means connecting the dots from local poachers to Mexican cartels to Chinese traffickers. The local players who speak to the filmmaker are heavily pixelated, their voices disguised. The watchers are definitely being watched, and a sense of danger hangs over the environmentalists' night missions and camera-drone operations. Poachers' boats circle the Sea Shepherd vessel closely, their intimidating maneuvers signaling their disapproval.

In the cooperative spirit, courage and determination of the vaquita's would-be saviors — among them a prominent Televisa news anchor, Carlos Loret de Mora, and Elephant Action League executive director Andrea Crosta — the documentary taps into a deep vein of hope. That encouraging energy is at the core of this story. So too are the bleak facts: the irreversible destructive effects of human activity on the natural world.


Conveying just how fraught and delicate conservation efforts can be, logistically and emotionally, an extraordinary sequence unfolds as a pursuit on the water, placing the viewer smack in the midst of it. A group led by marine veterinarian Cynthia Smith is putting VaquitaCPR, a bold international program spearheaded by the Mexican government, into action. The goal is to track down the remaining vaquitas and house them in protected sea pens until their habitat is deemed gillnet-free and safe.

Given that the vaquita is so elusive that it's never been filmed underwater (some fishermen, albeit those who resent the intrusion of ecological concerns on their ability to make a living, question its very existence), this is an especially ambitious venture. On top of that, it's unknown how the animal will react to being in captivity. It's an accomplishment just to spot one of the porpoises, and when the group does, the energy is high but tempered with caution. 

In the unforgettable events that that follow, the group's (and the viewer's) optimism is boundless yet charged with a terrible tension. Hope and despair are inextricably entwined in this urgent, suspenseful dispatch.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Terra Mater Factual Studios in association with Malaika Pictures and Appian Way Productions
Director: Richard Ladkani
Producers: Walter Köhler, Wolfgang Knöpfler
Executive producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Phillip Watson, Scott Z. Burns, Dinah Czezik-Müller, Michael Frenschkowski, Laura Nix, Rebecca Cammisa
Director of photography: Richard Ladkani
Editors: Georg Fischer, Verena Schönauer
Composer: H. Scott Salinas
Sales: Submarine

In English and Spanish
104 minutes