Sea of Shadows (2019)
Directed by Richard Ladkani
When I was in high school, my dad was a fan of the Animal Planet series “Whale Wars,” where members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society fought off (without weapons) poachers who illegally kill whales for consumption. Well, the vigilante animal lovers are back in action (at least for a little while) in director Richard Ladkani’s documentary “Sea of Shadows,” which tracks the difficult mission to protect the last 15 or so wild vaquitas—the world’s smallest (and heckin’ cutest) whales—from extinction.
The Gulf of California is sometimes called “The Aquarium of the World” for its abundance of diverse aquatic life, which includes almost all of the world’s living vaquitas. Fishermen aren’t actually trying to capture the vaquitas, but when they leave nets out for totoaba, they often accidentally trap vaquitas, which usually die of strangulation or stress in the nets. (Totoaba is a large, ugly fish, but it is prized for its tasty, collagen-rich bladder. For this reason, the totoaba is also critically endangered.)
To combat the poachers who take small boats out at night to find and retrieve their fishing nets, the Sea Shepherds will fly a drone overhead, record them, or even call their friends in the Mexican Navy. These nighttime spy missions are the most fun parts of “Sea of Shadows,” as it shows exactly what’s at stake, and it emphasizes the urgency of this mission (with only this many vaquitas left, every spurned poacher is considered a major success). Plus, the crew on the Shepherds’ boats are young, passionate, and ready to make bad guys angry. It’s easy to root for the cause when these men and women are the faces of it. But these scenes only last so long, and only pop up every once in a while. More often, Mexican television journalist Carlos Loret de Mola and others give background on why totoaba bladder is so desirable, which cartel guys are in charge of trafficking it to China, and what’s being done by authorities to stop it (and what’s intentionally not being done by corrupt authorities). There’s some interesting cartel intrigue, sure, but it’s the Sea Shepherd action that really got me invested.
“Sea of Shadows” is also a story about what can be done when different countries come together to fight for a common cause. As humans destroy the planet, more frequently we’ll need to set aside our differences to help the environment as a human race. As marine biologists travel from all over to help the vaquitas, we see different languages spoken and different types of people working toward a common goal. It made my heart smile.
I could have watched 100 minutes of the Sea Shepherds pissing off cartel-funded poachers. It could have been called “Whale Watchers: Day of the Soldado” (that’s a reference to the “Sicario” sequel since you probably didn’t see it). To watch “Sea of Shadows” as-is might still be interesting, but it’s a little less enjoyable.