The documentary Sea of Shadows has gained a prominent advocate as it steams into awards season.
Renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall is praising the film, which tells the story of dramatic efforts to save the last few remaining vaquita whales—an adorable dolphin-like creature native to the Sea of Cortez off Baja California.
“Sea of Shadows is so important,” Goodall, who was not involved in the production of the documentary, tells Deadline. “Not only does it bring awareness about the existence of this little whale, and I must say I’d never heard of it, but in addition to that, those people who are out there trying to save the vaquita, risking their lives.”
Goodall, her gray hair pulled back neatly in a ponytail, held a plush toy vaquita in her lap as she spoke with Deadline at a hotel in West Hollywood.
“I think the importance of the vaquita lies in a challenge to us. Do we care? Are we prepared to work, to save even a species as little known as the vaquita?” she questioned. “We are in the middle of the sixth great extinction. We’re losing animals and plants at a terrifying rate. And the vaquita is just one challenge. Are we going to let this very unique, very beautiful little creature just go or are we going to fight for it?”
The population of vaquita whales is down to a little over a dozen. They’re perishing in gill nets strung illegally across the Sea of Cortez by traffickers attempting to ensnare a fish called the totoaba, known as the “cocaine of the sea.” The totoaba possesses a swim bladder prized in traditional Chinese medicine, which fetches huge prices on the black market.
“It can go for up to $100,000 per swim bladder,” notes Andrea Crosta, a subject of the film and co-founder of the conservation group Earth League International. “These nets put in the ocean to catch totoaba are actually killing everything else. They are killing machines basically—dolphins, whales, sharks, birds, turtles, everything. So it must be stopped.”
Mexican drug cartels are immersed in the lucrative trade, coordinating with Chinese accomplices in Tijuana. The film shows Crosta and associates attempting to infiltrate those operations, at great personal risk.
“We have a mix of teams that are more overt and other teams that are completely covert,” Crosta explains. “Some of them pretend to be buyers and traffickers themselves. Our objective is very clear—to understand who does what, how, when, why. In other words, [gathering] intelligence or even actionable intelligence that then law enforcement can use immediately to hit the right person in the right time and the right place.”
Sea Shepherd, the international marine wildlife conservation organization, is also fighting to protect the remaining vaquita. It has a vessel patrolling the Sea of Cortez, yanking as many deadly nets out of the water as possible. That has made the crew, including drone operator Jack Hutton, a target of well-armed poachers.
“Since Sundance [where the film premiered in January] the ship has been attacked five times. We’ve been boarded [by poachers], we’ve had molotov cocktails hit the side. We’ve had up to 30 boats come out and smash our windows in,” Hutton tells Deadline. “We’re getting as many nets as we always have…My every day is pulling a net out of the ocean, cutting animals out of that net, getting chased by poachers, doing drones activity. That’s every single day there. It’s a very intense campaign.”
National Geographic acquired Richard Ladkani’s film at the Sundance Film Festival in a deal worth $3 million. It won the audience award there for World Cinema Documentary and is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming IDA Awards. Sea of Shadows will air commercial-free this Saturday on the NatGeo channel.
Among the film’s executive producers is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose production company Appian Way joined Terra Mater Factual Studios to produce the documentary. DiCaprio attended the Los Angeles premiere of Sea of Shadows in July, watching from the audience as Dr. Goodall introduced the film.
“Every species out there in this amazing tapestry of life has a role to play,” Goodall said in her introduction. “We don’t now exactly what role the vaquita plays but it’s part of an amazing ocean ecosystem. So of course it’s desperately important that efforts are made to try to save it.”
Goodall views Sea of Shadows in the larger context of environmental damage humans are inflicting on the planet.
“We are trying to disconnect ourselves with the natural world, but we can’t. We are part of it, we depend on it,” she comments. “Isn’t it odd that this most intellectual of all creatures to probably ever walk on planet Earth is destroying its only home. It seems there’s a disconnect between the clever brain and the human heart, love and compassion. And, you know, we’re making decisions not like it used to be, how will this affect future generations, but how will it affect me, now? And that’s what’s leading to the enormous danger for the survival of the vaquita.”