National Geographic’s new documentary “Sea of Shadows,” which will premiere commercial-free on Saturday at 9/8c, is about an endangered animal you’ve probably never heard of: the vaquita. But this is not a simple story of impending extinction. The world’s smallest whale, the vaquita has become collateral damage in an illicit trade between Mexican cartels and the Chinese mob for the swim bladder — aka the “cocaine of the sea” — of another fish, the totoaba, which also resides in the Sea of Cortez with the vaquita off of Baja California.
“We have, in this case, organized crime attacking planet Earth. Very few people know that the wildlife trade is the fourth biggest industry in the world in the black market,” “Sea of Shadows” director Richard Ladkani told Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Documentary panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “These organized syndicates around the world are feeding off our precious animals, making millions of dollars and nobody’s even aware, so these animals, they’re not going to be facing the issues of climate change because they will have disappeared before that even takes effect.”
There are fewer than 15 vaquitas — which Ladkani describes as a “beautiful little creature, straight out of a Disney movie” — left in the world as a result of the cartel’s illegal fishing for the totoaba swim bladder. “They actually kill anything that swims in the ocean. They drop thousands of nets into the ocean; they’re like balls of death and they clean the ocean of life,” Ladkani continued. “All the cartel cares about is to get that one fish, cut out its swim bladder, and they send it to China, where it can fetch $100,000. So this war is happening right now.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Ladkani risked his life to expose the trafficking. In order to get access to and talk to whistleblowers, Ladkani and his team created cover identities and cover stories, telling people that they were just in town to film a nature documentary. “We had to always pretend to be natural history filmmakers, like, ‘We’re just here to film some beautiful vaquitas, don’t mind us,’” he revealed. “But in reality, we had a full undercover operation going. Of course, we knew that at one point we’d get exposed and people would know who we are and what we were really after.”
That moment arrived after a massive riot broke out following the arrests of a couple of illegal poachers, which is featured in the film. That night, the underlings of Oscar Parra, the cartel boss, came to the house where Ladkani was staying and told him that Parra would like to speak with him one-on-one before telling him that he could bring one other person with him.
“This guy had just shot a soldier three weeks ago in the streets, which you see in the film. He’s an out-of-control, very dangerous guy. But it was this moment of like, what do you do?” Ladkani said. “The filmmaker side was like, that’d be incredible to get some time, but then on the other hand, he’d probably kidnap me or do something very bad. So I said no, and at that time, we became the enemy. They came back at night and they circled the house. And then we knew now we’re really in trouble. We left that night at 4 a.m. with a military escort, and that was the last day of the shoot. That, I think, was the most dangerous moment.”
After the release of his 2016 doc “The Ivory Game,” China banned the trade of ivory. Ladkani is hopeful that “Sea of Shadows” will have the same effect on the totoaba trade after some promising screenings at the United Nations.
“The Mexican government has understood that the world is watching. Before that, it was something nobody had ever heard about, nobody cared about. It was kind of their backyard, but who cares? It’ll go extinct, but nobody would even have known they were there. But now the world’s attention is on this,” he shared. “They are under immense pressure to deliver results and they are stepping up their efforts like never before. They just committed 600 additional troops to the area, they have dedicated 14 war ships to protect the refuge from the cartel. We’re in close touch with them now. They are targeting the Chinese mafia that is running the trade. … So we are very hopeful. But the best part is six weeks ago, six vaquitas have been seen and two of them were babies. So they are reproducing. … They’re still there. They’re fighting for survival and we’re trying to amplify the situation and give them the spotlight they deserve.”
Video by Andrew Merrill
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