Though many may have never heard of the vaquita porpoise, both Jane Goodall and Leonardo DiCaprio are supporting Richard Ladkani’s documentary “Sea Of Shadows,” which serves as a call to action to save the endangered mammal.
Ladkani’s documentary lays out the complicated nature of the vaquita porpoise’s plight. The vaquita porpose lives in the Sea of Cortez, also home to a specific fish species called the totoaba. According to Chinese tradition, the totoaba’s swim bladder is a rare delicacy, said to boost fertility and help cure other ailments, that can fetch as much as $137,000. The demand for the “cocaine of the sea” has led to illegal fishing; caught in the middle, literally, is the vaquita.
As of today, there are less than 15 vaquitas left in the world. “There was an expedition in October, and they saw six vaquitas. Two of them were babies, so that was incredibly good news for the scientists,” Ladkani says.
“Sea of Shadows” focuses on the Sea Shepherds, a group who works to free the vaquitas that get caught in the nets. The Shepherds face challenges and danger, as cartel activity worsens with Mexican fishermen roaming the sea to capture totoaba. Ladkani explains, “This is the end game. It’s going to be evil v. good. The vaquita is suffering the most, and we don’t know if they’ll survive another season.”
With Goodall and DiCaprio helping to raise awareness, Ladkani says the documentary’s screenings and awards contention is helping bring awareness to the issue.
Ladkani was aware of the dark subject matter of the documentary, but still had to find a way to make the film appealing.
To achieve that, Ladkani searched for heroic characters. The first was Jack Hutton. Hutton, a Sea Shepherd and a drone operator, “represents the Instagram generation,” Ladkani says. Another “hero,” Dr. Cynthia Smith, “represents the mother character in the way she cares for the team and the vaquita.”
Weaving their arcs into the story with the cartels and journalists was a “difficult challenge.” Ladkani worked with two editors to help tell the story. When the film was finished, he took the story to test audiences. “We needed to make sure people understood what was happening.”
Getting the emotional tone right in editing was key, particularly during a scene in which a vaquita dies as the team attempts to bring the animal into captivity to help ward off extinction threats. “There was such a positive excitement around that,” Ladkani says. “It was the only way forward.” But the female vaquita’s stress level was so high, she died while in captivity.” The efforts were swiftly abandoned. Nevertheless, Ladkani called the scene the “backbone” of the film. “It was crucial to get that right.”
(Pictured: Director Richard Ladkani, Jane Goodall)