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Sea of Shadows , made by Richard Ladkani and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a window into the path of extinction of the sea-kittens, small cetaceans that live in the Cortez Sea, Mexico. All because of illegal fishing for “sea cocaine”. Documentary premieres this Thursday on the National Geographic Portugal channel.
acques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, the “aquarium of the world” – and to view images of the documentary Sea of Shadows is not hard to believe. Calm and crystal clear waters, fish, marine mammals and birds in abundance, a heavenly postcard. This is the only refuge for marine vaquitas, a species of small cetaceans of which less than 30 individuals remain, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The film, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, opens this Thursday at 11 pm on National Geographic Portugal and wants to make known this endangered animal.
The marine vulture ( Phocoena sinus ) is from the porpoise family, small cetaceans and fugitives. Until Richard Ladkani filmed one during the production of Sea of Shadows , it had never been captured on video or portrayed in close photographs, which led to the development of a narrative that denied its existence. According to the IUCN , these animals are in “critical danger” of extinction, which is happening “in real time” in Baja California Mexico.
You can’t talk about the survival problem of vaquitas without talking about another marine animal, the totoaba ( Totoaba macdonaldi ). The swimming bladder – a balloon-like organ that helps fish move at different depths – is a delicacy much appreciated by Chinese, who believe in its medicinal powers. Since totoaba fishing is illegal in the Cortez Sea off the west coast of Mexico, the black market sells a kilo of swim bladders for $ 100,000 (about 90,000 euros). The nets, thrown illegally at night by poachers’ boats, catch vaquitas, which eventually die as they fail to emerge to breathe.
“The sea of Cortez is under attack. Thousands of illegal fishing nets create a death wall to catch the threatened totoaba, ”begins the documentary. “A multi-million dollar black market destroys all marine life along the way,” then trafficking the fish organ to China in what appears to be a true cartel. The totoaba is dubbed by Mexican fishermen as “sea cocaine” as capture and trafficking entail organized crime, corruption, violence, political conflict and poverty.
“It was the most dangerous movie we ever made,” admits Richard Ladkani, a documentary filmmaker who tells more than 50 films in his resume, in an interview with P3. “We thought it would be one more about the extinction of a species in the wildlife log. But very quickly we realized it would be a crime story. We felt the danger and the threat as soon as we arrived in Mexico, ”he recalls. For nearly nine months, the 12-person team jumped from hotel to hotel to escape the intimidation of Totoaba traffickers and was forced to hire bodyguards.
“Because it is so valuable, totoaba swim bladder trafficking replaces the illegal cocaine trade in the area because it is much easier to fish and sell fish than to smuggle cocaine out of the country,” says the director. Sea of Shadows won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and, according to US media, is in the running for the 2020 Oscar nominees list.
After the documentary has been screened at festivals and movie theaters, Ladkani says there is “good news and bad news” for the sea vultures. “A month ago, a team of scientists identified six animals, two of them young. When there are babies, it means the ecosystem is healthy, ”he says enthusiastically. Also recently, the Mexican Government deployed 600 members of the armed forces to the Cortez Sea Zone, including 14 warships. The bad news, however, is that the “cartel is stronger than ever,” so there will be a “real battle,” believes the director. The Sea Sheperd environmental organization – which has three vessels in the area to protect vaquitas and remove as many nets as possible from the sea – has identified 60 totoaba poachers.
Sea of Shadows is the second collaboration of Richard Ladkani and Leonardo DiCaprio, through actor and environmentalist producer Appian Way (the first was in The Ivory Game , a documentary denouncing the ivory trade). But it won’t be the last: the director and DiCaprio are already working on a new documentary, also about an “important environmental issue” that cannot yet be revealed.