Exactly 10 years after The Cove premiered at Sundance, another documentary about a similar aquatic travesty has made its own debut at the festival. This one, directed by Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game), executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and titled Sea of Shadows, is set across the Pacific Ocean, in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The narrow body of water is the home of the vaquita, the smallest and most endangered species of whale on the planet. According to a note at the end of the film, there are currently fewer than 15 left. But as seen in the film, there are multiple attempts at finding a solution to keeping the animals from becoming extinct.
The problem is that the Sea of Cortez is also the sole habitat of the totoaba, which are also rare due to overfishing. In China, their swim bladders are believed to have special healing powers and are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The nickname of the fish is, of course, “the cocaine of the sea,” and it might as well actually be cocaine for all the smuggling, corruption, and violence it causes and the criminal organization that’s developed around its trade. But while there are occasional murders tied to the totoaba business, mainly it’s the vaquita that are victims for concern. Fishing nets meant to capture totoaba also snag and suffocate the vaquita.
Like The Cove, Sea of Shadows features some thrilling action, including boat chases, much of which is filmed from above by the drones used by activists to locate totoaba poachers — after seeing what good they can do, nobody can broadly criticize the use of drones in docs anymore. Don’t worry, there are no blood-soaked waters, though there is a gut-wrenching moment involving a vaquita. And incidentally, there’s a pretty sad scene with a sea turtle, too. Oddly, though, there’s not much care for the protection of the totoaba themselves, despite the fact that they’re also considered a critically endangered species.
The film follows three approaches to the saving of the vaquita: the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that monitors the dolphin hunt seen in The Cove (and can be seen in such docs as The Island and the Whales, A Whale of a Tale, and Sharkwater, among others) is the group involved in the action sequences confronting the poachers at sea; Elephant Action League’s Andrea Crosta, previously seen in Ladkani’s The Ivory Game, expositorily investigates the poaching trade and its elusive boss, the pursuit of whom is compared to that of El Chapo; and the VaquitaCPR project, the mission of which is to transfer vaquita into pens at sea for their protection.
Sea of Shadows is not going to be the sensation that The Cove was a decade ago. It’s not as well-made a film and probably won’t receive as much notice come awards season. That’s not a bad thing as far as the production goes — I recommend you just watch it, for awareness sake, without a care for whether it’s an Oscar-caliber work — but there’s no denying the Academy Award win for The Cove shed a lot more attention on the film’s subject matter than would have been received otherwise (just look at how much less of an effect the non-Oscar-nominated films mentioned in this review have had). Then again, the vaquita apparently may not last more than another year, so the 2020 Oscars would be too late anyway. Hopefully, by the time you see Sea of Shadows, it hasn’t taken on an elegiac quality.