Calling an ecological crisis documentary “Sea of Shadows” sounds like a ruse, an attempt to add a noir element to an environmental situation.
The stark reality this documentary depicts, however, turns out to be far darker than anyone could imagine. The result is a chilling real-life criminal thriller set in a save-the-seas world.
As related by director Richard Ladkani in this purposeful, impressive work, a twist of chance even a top suspense novelist couldn’t invent fatally intertwines the destinies of two species of fish with very particular qualities.
As a result, violent drug cartels, armed government troops and the need for 24-hour police protection all enter the picture.
Even saying that doesn’t do justice to the number of stakeholders and the complexities of the situation’s conflicting demands.
Winner of Sundance’s audience award for world documentary, “Sea of Shadows” has the gift of doing justice to all of the above.
The story’s setting is the Gulf of California, so overflowing with marine life that Jacques Cousteau called it “the aquarium of the planet.”
Perhaps the gulf’s most sought-after resident is the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is so valued in China for its supposed miraculous medicinal powers that its nickname is “the cocaine of the seas.”
These bladders sell for so much in China, upwards of $100,000 each, that ruthless operatives with connections to the Sinaloa drug cartel are getting involved and the use of illegal, habitat-destroying gill nets is rampant.
Caught in these nets, both literally and figuratively, is the vaquita, considered to be the world’s smallest whale and so elusive and mysterious that some fisherman think of it as a myth.
The vaquita, which lives only in the Gulf of California, is in fact real. But a side effect of the voracious pursuit of the totoaba is that the vaquita have dwindled close to extinction, with only an estimated 30 alive when the film begins, fewer when it ends.
Helped by funding and access enhanced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions, director Ladkani, whose last film was the Oscar short-listed “The Ivory Game,” spends time with a number of the players in this complex drama.
The film starts with the Sea Shepherd, a vessel dedicated to tracking down poachers who are illegally trapping totoabas and alerting the Mexican navy to their presence.
Then there is Mexican television host and investigative reporter Carlos Loret de Mola, incensed that a species is going extinct in Mexico, who follows links that lead to the drug cartels.
Also on the case is Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (formerly Elephant Action League), an organization that uses undercover operatives to trace links to traders in China.
And then there are the scientists, symbolized by Dr. Cynthia Smith, involved in an operation called VaquitaCPR that attempts to extract the remaining vaquita from the Gulf of California and place them in a sanctuary until a return to their habitat is safe.
Even more than this, “Sea of Shadows” talks to veteran fishermen in the town of San Felipe, ground zero for the totoaba trade.
These men are caught between a rock and a hard place, sympathetic to ecological concerns but needing to make a living and hampered by the ban on the kinds of nets they have gotten accustomed to using.
The blending of all these voices and concerns emphasizes what a multifaceted issue the fight to save the vaquita is, how the presence of large amounts of money and the corruption it inevitably breeds complicates the quest to do the right thing.
Still, horrified at what Crosta describes as “an extinction in real time entirely driven by greed,” no one is about to give up. While success is not guaranteed, “Sea of Shadows” dramatically demonstrates how and why the battle continues to be fought.
‘Sea of Shadows’
Rated: PG-13, for thematic material, language and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles