ECOLOGY: The making of this film is itself an integral part of a drama involving the Chinese mafia, Mexican fishermen pushed into crime, fearless activists, frightened policemen and a rare species of mini whales.
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor.
Published date: June 16, 2019

At a pre-screening of The Sea of Shadows at Soho House, West Hollywood, we met crewmembers of the anti-poaching activist ship Sea Sheperd together with the two other characters in the documentary, among them the Italian investigator Andrea Crosta and former CIA and FBI intelligence officer Mark Davis. Their organization, Elephant Action League (EAL) had formerly worked with Austrian director Richard Ladkani on the Oscar-shortlisted film The Ivory Game.

Crosta’s aim is to track down and help dismantle the international criminal networks trading illegal wildlife, now the fourth largest illegal trade on the planet: «For too long we have focused on the poachers and the buyers at the other end,» he says in his introductory talk, «The people running these illegal networks don’t care about either: they don’t care about confiscations, arrests or inefficient awareness campaigns. Their business is thriving, and nobody goes at them,» Crosta says.

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The first scene of The Sea of Shadows takes place at night, at sea, in a wild boat chase where poachers, armed and ready to attack try to shake off the environmentalists. Later, we see them firing shots at their drone, eventually losing the image from the night vision camera, and are left, with them, in the dark.

A global war to save the wildlife

The Sea of Cortez, which the activists try to protect, is at the Pacific coast of Mexico, in an area that marine documentary pioneer Jacques Cousteau called «the aquarium of the world». Like so many other precious places on our planet, this rich stretch of ocean, with its dolphins, whale sharks, and hundreds of species of fish is in decline and might be devastated in a few years. The main problem is not over-fishing, but the workings of global criminal networks.

The main problem is not over-fishing, but the workings of global criminal networks.

Sponsored by middlemen with connections abroad, the local fishermen buy gillnets that are perfect for catching Totoaba, «the cocaine of the sea». The swimming bladders of the Totoaba are sold at astronomical prices in China – up to $40.000 each, as they are believed to have healing powers. For Chinese mafia groups, this also makes them a perfect instrument for money laundering. As if this poaching wasn’t bad enough, gillnets also catch everything else: dolphins, sea turtles, and the tiny, elusive Vaquita whale, a species bordering on extinction. Increasingly, criminal organizations target natural resources no one seems to care much about and that are hard to control, count and protect.

A divided village

At the lower end of the international supply-chain are the poor fishermen, who are tempted by the profits. They get in trouble with brutal gangsters when the team, cooperating with the activists at the Sea Shepard, cut and capture the nets they have purchased through loans. We also follow frustrated legal fishermen, who cooperate with the team of journalists: «They are killing our sea», they say, «and then, later when all the fish is gone our town will die too». As the father and son go out with their boat in the morning, the poachers, some of them neighbors, make shooting gestures at them.

Sea of Shadows, a film by Richard Ladkani

Crosta and Davis, the intelligence officer, are setting up meetings with frightened villagers who nonetheless want to help them with information. As they talk with a local who says he saw the police taking money from some of the illegal fishermen, a drone hovers above their heads. «Whose drone is?», Crosta shouts. «Theirs, I think. They film whenever we talk to people like you», one of the locals replies. «Who are they» – «I don’t know, I don’t know». Blurred faces, distorted voices. The immediacy of these scenes gives a sense of how volatile the situation is. The protests of townspeople in San Felipe can turn into riots. Investigations at sea can cause violent attacks. Meetings on land can rouse the attention of silent, powerful enemies.

Sea of Shadows, a film by Richard Ladkani

Action and drama

By now, the investigator has gotten used to receiving threats. Someone has to take on this job, Crosta insists. It is a war, and that means you need intelligence work, which is a very delicate matter. He explains: «The NGO’s are afraid to do this because if they pry into corruption and criminal activities they get tossed out of the countries where they operate. You have to go higher up and cooperate with the governments, which is what we do, once we find evidence. Most people I talk to on local levels are either corrupt – or afraid – or both.»

The swimming bladders of the Totoaba are sold at astronomical prices in China

There is also human drama and tough dilemmas among the activists. As the count of the last Vaquita whales drops to twenty-something, marine biologists are planning a rescue operation under the leadership of veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Smith. With relief and great excitement, the team manages to capture a couple of the tiny whales and bring them to the maritime shelter. On arrival, however, one of the Vaquita panics – and before they can release her in the open ocean again, she stiffens and dies from a heart attack. «When we lost the whale it was a heartbreaking moment, and I wasn’t prepared to be on camera.» Cynthia Smith tells me «But Richard, the director, did it respectfully and showed that this failure was a crucial moment of realization». Which is that there is no plan B; the last whales will have to be saved in the open sea or perish.

Urgent efforts

«Five hours south of Los Angeles, criminal organizations are pushing a whale to extinction. We need to save these animals from going extinct under our noses, in order not to lose all hope», Crosta says at the beginning of the film. Even before the official premiere, before going to screenings for higher US officials, Crosta sees a ray of hope: After the film was screened at Sundance, the Mexican government couldn’t go through with their policy of pretending the Vaquita is already extinct. The Mexican marines have launched an initiative where warships cooperate with the coast guard. Which is good, we might assume, but far from enough to rest assured: We have been given a glimpse of the dark, deep criminal chaos where precious species are lost forever.