(director/writer: Richard Ladkani/Sean Bogle; cinematographer: Richard Ladkani; editors: Georg Michael Fischer, Verena Schönauer; music: H. Scott Salinas; Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Walter Köhler, Wolfgang Knöpfler; National Geographic; 2019-Austria/USA-in English & Spanish)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Heartfelt ecology thriller documentary.”

The heartfelt ecology thriller documentary by Austrian director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani (“The Devil’s Miner”/”The Ivory Game”) was the winner of the Sundance audience award. It tells the global war story of the world’s smallest whales near extinction at the Pacific coast of Mexico, as Mexican cartels and the Chinese mafia destroy their habitat out of greed. The problem is not over fishing but in the nefarious activities of the global criminal networks.The population of the endangered mammal, the vaquita porpoise, has dwindled to about a dozen. It’s the world’s smallest and most elusive whale that, for now, can be located only in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Ladkani gets a first-hand view of the situation by riding along to investigate with patrol ships, military operatives, journalists and undercover investigators.

In a revealing sequence we observe through Ladkani’s cameras a team of dedicated scientists observing as fishermen are trawling with illegal gillnets for the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a valued Chinese delicacy. In their catch will be a variety of sea life including the vaquita Thereby the vaquita become collateral damage in a profitable international black market operation for the endangered totoaba species.

The totoaba’s swim bladder is known as the “cocaine of the sea” because a single bladder can fetch as much as $100,000.

It’s apparent that governments are not doing enough to end this problem, as the concerned activist environmentalists have the difficult task of following the local poachers to the Mexican cartels and then to the Chinese traffickers. This creates a dangerous and tense situation, where violence can easily erupt.

Hope lies only with the world’s recognition of the problem and the proper action taken on these man-made nature survival problems caused by the unscrupulous. The film leaves us with a glimmer of hope that a group led by marine veterinarian Cynthia Smith, putting into play the VaquitaCPR, a bold international program spearheaded by the Mexican government, will attempt to track down and keep the remaining vaquitas in protected sea pens until their habitat becomes gillnet-free and safe.

Sea of Shadows

REVIEWED ON 7/8/2019       GRADE: B