Sea of Shadows filmmaker Richard Ladkani exclusive, saving the Sea of Cortez and the vaquita

Richard Ladkani risked his own life to film the truth of what is happening in Mexico at the Sea of Cortez. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel.
Richard Ladkani risked his own life to film the truth of what is happening in Mexico at the Sea of Cortez. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel

The film Sea of Shadows brought to the screen by National Geographic Channel is a top pick by Monsters and Critics for one of the best documentaries of 2019.

The film feels like a modern-day thriller with unexpected riots, gunfights, and the threat of attack from the bonafide mafia and cartel members.  These outlaws are hell-bent on fishing a specific species of fish in the stunning Sea of Cortez, a place that renowned sea explorer Jacques Cousteau referred to as the aquarium of all Earth’s oceans.

The violent fallout of their illegal fishing techniques as it relates to the elusive vaquita is what this documentary is all about.

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The vaquita is a species of porpoise endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California that is on the brink of extinction. Hard to find, the scientific description of the species was published relatively recently in 1958. The word vaquita is Spanish for “little cow.”

Sea of Shadows shows us the pending ecological disaster, which is given exhilarating lensing by Richard Ladkani’s double whammy of excellent direction and cinematography.

Based in the seaside town of San Felipe, Ladkani captures real-time moments that will have you on the edge of your seat. His work in Sea of Shadows displays his gutsy filmmaking techniques, highlighted by his use of nighttime drone footage to boat chases filmed from the middle from the action. We ride with brave people who are at risk of being assassinated — not an overstatement.

A good dramatic thriller needs a proper villain, and we have several to point fingers at in this story. The bad guys are fishing in the dead of night, after the totoaba, an endangered fish. But why?

The Chinese consumer’s demand for this fish is so insanely high, and the money they pay (via the Chinese mafia in Mexico) is such a lucrative venture that the Mexican drug cartels are jumping into skiffs and using drifting gillnets to scoop up as many as they can.

Unfortunately, the unintended casualty of these free-floating webs of death is that the vaquita is now on the brink of extinction.

In the documentary, Ladkani follows a dedicated team of scientists, conservationists, investigative journalists from Mexican television, and undercover agents as they try to save this precious endangered species.

This documentary is in the same wheelhouse of eco-thrillers as Richard’s The Ivory Game and other docs like Blackfish and The Cove.

At the center of the story is the sweet, panda-faced, little whale/porpoise-looking hybrid, which is now down to double digits in population. The battle to save it has turned this part of Mexico’s scenic coastal area facing Baja, California, into a contentious war-zone. Fishermen in need of making a living face-off with cartel fishers funded by Chinese mafia and the authorities in Mexico and Greenpeace all pitted against each other in various ways.

What is happening to the vaquita?

This tiny sweet-faced porpoise is in danger of becoming extinct thanks to the voracious Chinese demand and the cartel’s willingness to oblige. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel

Death by drowning in floating gillnets and fishing gear. The Vaquita Refuge Area is meant to be a protected habitat for the species. However, illegal fishing boats are still caught fishing in the area by the Mexican government and are getting away with wholesale slaughter.

The “why” of it is demand. The Chinese prizes the large swim bladder of the totoaba, an endangered fish that lives in vaquita habitat. Illegal fishing for and trafficking in this fish has led to severe population losses for the vaquita and totoaba alike. As the totoaba goes, so do the vaquita by virtue of their proximity.

In 2017, Mexico tried a plan to mitigate the inevitable demise of critically endangered species, and captured vaquitas and put them in a safe pen near the coast. The intention was good, to safeguard vaquitas so they could safely reproduce while trying to get the illegal totoaba fishing under control.

But the plan didn’t work, and it turns out the vaquita wither and dies quickly in captivity. Now the race is on to get gillnet fishing eliminated.

Richard shoots the work of marine veterinarians Dr. Cynthia Smith and Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, and brave Sea Shepherd staff like Jack Hutton and Earth League International’s Andrea Costa. The Sea Shepherd spends a good portion of their day trawling the Sea of Cortez for these gillnets and rescuing as many fish, mantas, vaquitas, and totoabas as they can before they perish immobilized by the net’s web.

Of course, the Chinese Mafia and Mexican cartels do not play nice, and the on-film moments gathered by Richard Ladkani, whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was on Oscar’s shortlist, is one of the most heart-stopping chain-of-events you will witness this year.

Sea of Shadows clip: Totoaba swim bladders

Even Jane Goodall noted her support for the work all of these people, including Richard Ladkani, are doing in a statement:

“It required great courage to make this film: Richard Ladkani and Andrea Crosta, both good friends of mine, risked their lives tracking down and investigating both the Chinese and Mexican cartels involved. We must try to save the vaquita, because every species matters. I hope this film can inspire real action, before it is too late.”

We spoke to Richard Ladkani about this remarkable film.

Monsters & Critics: In your work, it seems to be that all roads lead to China. Can you discuss why China gets away with so many egregious ecological crimes and is at the epicenter of decimating so many species?

Richard Ladkani:  Yes, unfortunately, this is really the case. I have mixed feelings, though about China. Because on one hand, they are the biggest reason why endangered species around the world are getting slaughtered and killed. But on the other hand, I’ve also seen that the government, once it understands the problem and they recognize it as such, that they are incredibly good at cracking down and actually making a real difference.

We saw this with The Ivory Game. When we finished the movie, we spread our film via a very common friend of ours, Jane Goodall, to China. She was traveling China, and she was handing out copies of the film to government people, and they were very impressed, and they liked it. They told her, ‘This is an eye-opener for us. Thank you for sharing.’  And she told us that there will be a big announcement coming by the end of the year from the government, ‘Get ready.’ And that was in December.

And then three weeks later, December 30, the Chinese government announced the full ban of ivory for China. Then they started cracking down and closing up all the businesses. And the same day they announced that they invited us to China to show the film in Beijing and open the Beijing Film Festival, which we then also won.

They thanked us for having made a film that actually opened their eyes to the issue because many had not understood that tens of thousands of elephants per year get slaughtered because of this trade. They just looked at different problems. They ignored it.

And very often also they ignore the West because they see the West as the enemy. I’ve talked to many Chinese, and they grow up always thinking, ‘We are under attack. And the West is telling us what’s right and what’s wrong.’ And now that they are such a powerful nation, they are too proud to listen.

So if you can get them through an emotional experience where they see by themselves, “This is irrefutable evidence, this is the truth,” then they actually are pretty good at doing something about it. And they’re much better than many other governments.

For example, also in Sea of Shadows, Earth League International shared with the Chinese government via different channels, the Embassy, and so forth, their intelligence reports about the Chinese traffickers involved in the black market trade of totoaba. Now the totoaba trade was already illegal, so we didn’t have to ask them please to change the law.

The ask was, “Crackdown on these people because here’s the evidence that they’re making millions of dollars, and they’re laundering money, and they’re real criminals, and this is happening below your radar.”

What happened six months after that report was handed in? The Chinese government arrested 30 totoaba traffickers over a period of four months, with totoaba worth $150 million, and that was amazing for us to see. And that really disrupted the entire market, all the way back to Mexico.

Because for a while, at least, totoaba became unsellable by the cartels. The cartels were offering totoaba to the Chinese in Mexicali and Tijuana, and they said, “We’re not buying because our whole network just got a major blow and disrupted.”

That’s exactly what Earth League International aims to do. This is their biggest goal to disrupt the upper layers of the crime syndicates. So in a way, I hope you understand; I have mixed feelings. We need to reeducate China, but we have to find a way so that they will listen.

This takes time and patience, and it’s not going to happen overnight. And it’s very important. But it’s going to be probably a generational change that is needed in the end, for them to wake up to what’s happening to the world. But we have to find a way for them to even listen to us, and that is what I’m trying to do with the films.

M&C: How do you convince the Mexican people, and the fishermen who protested in the streets about being left behind economically, that they’re as important as the vaquita is? Is it a similar winning hearts-and-minds campaign with your media partners like Carlos Loret de Mola?

Ladkani fears for the safety of Carlos Loret de Mola, a journalist on the front lines in Mexico. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel.
Ladkani fears for the safety of Carlos Loret de Mola, a journalist on the front lines in Mexico. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel.

Richard Ladkani: Yes. Well, that is absolutely critical. So what we were hoping to do is, first of all, get all the vaquita deniers out of the way. There’s a lot of fishermen that publicly have claimed, and have said that to the media, ‘The vaquita does not exist. It is an invention by Western scientists who are trying to exploit the Sea of Cortez for oil or drilling, or their own purposes, and they want to keep us poor.’

Now we needed to make sure that we find a vaquita and that we film one, and that there is irrefutable evidence that they exist.

The second plan was to make the Mexican people fall in love with the vaquita, so they understand that this is a symbol that needs to be preserved.

It’s this beautiful, straight-out-of-Disney kind of creature, the dolphin whale with a panda-patch eye, and like, ‘Fall in love with it because this is purely, 100% Mexican. It only exists in Mexico. Your panda could be the vaquita.’

The third thing was we needed to get the government’s attention, because they have many different problems, as we all know. There is corruption, the drug cartels, the refugees going through their country, human trafficking. So, of course, always the environment is kind of lost on their priority list because they think, ‘We have all these other issues.’

But in this case, we needed to tell them, ‘This is a crime problem because this is organized crime that has found this cocaine of the sea and is simply dealing through the same networks that they’re dealing with cocaine. They are now trading this fish. But by doing so, they’re destroying your land; they’re destroying your ocean, the aquarium of the world. And this will have massive repercussions throughout the next decades because they are killing the ocean.’

We were saying to the government, ‘You have a serious crime problem. There is extortion involved. They are taking advantage of poverty. And it’s a crime problem first, at the expense of nature.’ So it’s a conservation problem second. First, it’s a crime problem. And they started to listen. This is really good because now we’re actually seeing quite some changes in Mexico.

The movie was released mid-September. The President [of Mexico] has visited the region for the first time. He’s been talking about preservation of the vaquita. Two weeks after the movie came out, they announced that they’re going to send 600 additional troops to the area. They announced that they will sit down with the fisherman and find ways of how we can have sustainable fishing in the area without killing the vaquita and destroying our ocean. There is a lot of talk right now.

And lastly… this was also a big demand that we had made also in our petition which has been signed 100,000 times; every signature sends an email to the Minister of Environment… and we said, ‘You have to crack down on the Chinese Mafia in Tijuana [which] is running this entire black market business.’ Well, we just found out yesterday that they have mapped out all the intelligence that was given to them by Earth League International. We gave them 32 names of Chinese people involved.

They made a big map. They found actually that it’s 65 individuals involved in this black market trade, most of them Chinese, and that they are going to now start cracking down on these businesses and people and restaurants, and investigate their books, send in the IRS, do all kinds of threats, and tell them basically, ‘We are watching you.’ And this, I think, will have a huge effect on the whole black market trade. So our methods are working very well. We’re now in close touch with the government, and they’re actually quite thankful again that we opened their eyes.

We showed the film at the United Nations in Geneva, and this was an amazing screen in August. There was a Mexican delegation there and the one guy from the Mexican version of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, stood up and said, ‘I can’t believe that I had to be in power now for nine months, in office; and that I had to travel halfway around the world to see a film, meet a filmmaker; and finally understand how we can solve this problem.’

He thanked me openly in front of the international community of like a hundred countries’ presidents. That was pretty amazing.
And these are the people who are now helping us; well, we are helping them, but they are also in touch with us: “Okay, how are we doing?” And this is a good experience. This, for me, is the power of film.

M&C:  You stick your neck out, and you’re making a difference, and you’re also upsetting a lot of people. How do you protect your loved ones?

Richard Ladkani: Well, it’s an excellent question. While I was filming, I asked the same question to Carlos Loret de Mola, because he was receiving death threats as we were shooting the film. And I was like, ‘How do you do it?’

He was like, ‘You know what? I just don’t think about it. I just move forward. And of course, there is people… I have a bulletproof car, and we have details that monitor the situation. But I just move forward, and I hope for the best, and I’m trying to, of course, not be naive about it. But someone needs to do the job, and I feel like I need to do it.’

And now, like a year later, I sort of feel the same. I don’t think I’m on the first line of attack.

Carlos Loret is the one that is the most… unfortunately. I worry about him every day. I’m always grateful when I get a text message from him or something. I’m thinking, “Okay, he’s okay.” I worry about him the most because he’s right there, he’s a public figure… I wouldn’t say he’s an easy target. But, he’s like the number-one target, because he’s been in the media, in Mexico, on TV, criticizing government, going up against corruption, exposing the people behind it, very often government. So he’s a much-hated person, but he’s also loved by the people for what he’s doing.

And in a way today, when we’re now releasing the film everywhere, I don’t think about the danger. I don’t think about it anymore. Yes, I thought about it when we had our Mexican premiere: Will there be cartel, will there be people in the audience with a gun? So we made sure we had security, really checked the people who are arriving. But by now, I feel like we have moved on.

The cartels’ number-one problem is now the government cracking down on them. They have different problems. Our story’s out. Taking a revenge against us would be not their top priority, I hope. I think it’s more like, “How do we keep our business going because they’re coming from all sides?” So I feel like empowered by this.

And of course, when you talk about production, I was worrying. And I was in charge of the team. But I brought in, I spoke to my production company, and they said, “We’re going to give you full security.” We had six bodyguards with us, armed sometimes, sometimes not armed, depending on the situation. They had our backs; they made sure that we didn’t make anything stupid.

They also made sure that once we got into conflict… like the scene with the riots, when everyone started throwing rocks at us; and suddenly, the Navy started shooting, and we didn’t know who’s shooting at who… they got us out of there and into the safety of the Navy base.

We just followed their instructions to get to safety as fast as possible. But I also never stopped rolling on the camera, so that’s a pretty cool scene.

But so I go in prepared, not naive. Yes, I am afraid which is very healthy. But I’m also confident that we are doing the right moves, and that somehow also the exposure is protecting us at the same time.

M&C:  Your cameras capture what a lot of dialogue or explanation would normally fill in, and it’s really spare, and it’s beautiful. I’m talking about the emotional reactions of Dr. Cynthia Smith and the sea shepherd, Jack Hutton, and the Irish kid who lost his drone; it was shot down. And you caught their post reactions after something terrible happened to each one of them. Can you just talk about those moments?

Sea Shepherd warrior Jack Hutton is 21-years-old and is part of this gripping true story. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel.
Sea Shepherd warrior Jack Hutton is 21-years-old and is part of this gripping true story. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel.

Richard Ladkani: Sure. It’s a very big advantage for me to be also the cinematographer of my films because what happens after a while: My subjects, who I also have very close relationships with, we really become like friends, like very, very powerful friends, because we’re going through very dangerous and very critical moments, so you kind of bond.

The great thing about having a camera on my shoulder while being friends is that after a while, they forget that there’s a camera.
So I even can forget about it because I’m there with them, but I have a camera on my shoulder, which has become invisible to them because we spend many weeks and months together.

Then they’re like, “Okay, there’s a camera there. But I don’t care about the camera. I’m not aware of that camera anymore. I’m aware of Richard talking to me and looking at me, and being my friend, and being there in those situations.”

And that is powerful because, on one hand, I can film via instinct. I can go in a split second. I can pan right or left depending how it feels because I don’t have to rely on a cameraman to do those things. I am the cameraman who makes every decision emotionally, as it is, appropriate or not, and I have this feeling.

And because I’ve been shooting now more than 50 films, I’m very experienced with camera and technology. For me, it’s kind of like using my phone or something. I just do it all the time. And it’s not something I have to think about anymore, focus or aperture and things like that.
So it’s a big advantage. And it really I think gets the audience embedded into the action, into the emotion.

So they feel they’re right there, in the moment, on the front lines, in the emotion. And I think that is maybe why the films work, and also win mostly audience awards, and have this kind of good reception in the general public because they feel, ‘We are there with you.’ You know?

Sea of Shadows Official Trailer | National Geographic

Sea of Shadows airs Saturday at 9/8 C on National Geographic Channel.

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