It’s become a little easy to say that a documentary unfolds like a big-budget spectacle, but “Sea of Shadows” — a suspenseful, wide-screen drama filled with gunfire, cartels and corruption — is actually shot and edited like one. And that’s a surprise, given that the film comes from National Geographic.
Directed by Richard Ladkani, “Sea of Shadows” is concerned with the plight of the vaquita, an endangered porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California, between Baja California and mainland Mexico. The illicit trade for the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladders have been called the “cocaine of the sea” for the high price they fetch in China, has taken a devastating toll on the vaquita, which get caught in nets intended for their more expensive aquatic neighbors.
Criminal syndicates are involved in the trafficking, and the fishermen are essentially caught in the economic crossfire. Conservationist measures that restrict fishing keep them at home and cash-poor. And given that there are said to be fewer than two dozen vaquitas left in the wild as of earlier this year, many fisherman have never seen them. We’re told they regard them as ghosts, not real creatures worth protecting.
“Sea of Shadows” unfolds on parallel tracks. The journalist Carlos Loret de Mola uses his television platform to pressure law enforcement into cracking down on the totoaba networks. In footage that Ladkani amazingly was able to film, Andrea Crosta, a conservationist and activist, covertly meets with snitches from the supply chain he’s trying to break. (Their faces are obscured and their voices are tweaked.)
Dr. Cynthia Smith is part of a team with the counterintuitive notion that saving vaquitas requires moving them from open waters; the goal is to capture them and keep them in captivity, if they’ll tolerate it, until it’s safe to bring them home. Jack Hutton belongs to an organization that pulls up nets and, by night, surveils poachers by drone — an operation that sometimes encounters violence.
The plot twists are so spot on that a screenwriter might have rejected them, whether it’s Dr. Smith’s attempt to resuscitate a vaquita who has not taken well to captivity or a man, apparently involved in the swim bladder trade, who tells an undercover operative that “it’s a great money-laundering business, too.” Given how publicly the totoaba trade looks to be conducted, maybe Ladkani’s incredible access isn’t so surprising after all.
Sea of Shadows
Rated PG-13 for conservationists in the crossfire. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.