Nantucket Film Review: ‘Sea of Shadows’ Sends an S.O.S. to the World

The Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary captivates Nantucket

Nantucket Film Festival: From executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio and director Richard Ladkani (“The Ivory Game”), comes one of the most riveting and provoking films of the year thus far, “Sea of Shadows.”

The Sea of Cortez is a 700-mile-long stretch of water that is encompassed by Mexico and Baja, California. Jacques Cousteau affectionately called this region “the aquarium of the planet” for its abundance of marine life, as this body of water accounts for 70% of the commercial fishing for all of Mexico. It is also home to the vaquita, the smallest whale on the planet. The vaquita is also the most endangered cetacean in the world. This is in large part due to the travesty taking place in the Sea of Cortez.

Mexican drug cartels are working with Chinese traffickers to poach and smuggle out the critically endangered totoaba fish. The totoaba’s swim bladder is a valuable black-market commodity and is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. A single bladder can yield up to $100,000. Nicknamed “the cocaine of the sea,” the Chinese also believe the totoaba is a cure-all for several health deficiencies, such as infertility and skin problems. The Mexican cartel is wreaking havoc in these waters, using deadly methods to poach the rare fish. Their deathtraps and ghost nets leave a wake of destruction for all marine life in the region, including the vaquita.

“Sea of Shadows” follows a group of scientists, environmentalists, and journalists on a desperate and determined rescue mission to save the vaquita from extinction. Up against an international organized crime syndicate and a vicious circle of political corruption, the team launches the largest operation ever conducted to save a marine animal, and fights diligently to bring these criminals to justice.

“Sea of Shadows” is a brilliant and alarming exposé that doubles as an intense thriller. The film won the audience award for documentary at Sundance, and enthralled audiences equally here at Nantucket. Ladkani has become an expert in his craft, having documented the illegal ivory trade in Africa with “The Ivory Game” (2016) prior to “Sea of Shadows.” Ladkani flew in from Vienna, Austria to present the documentary, and was joined by one of the film’s impassioned heroes, international conservationist Andrea Crosta, for a Q&A following the show. The pair – who worked together on “The Ivory Game” – wanted to put a spotlight on the war that is occurring to destroy the ocean.

Ladkani keeps his audience on the edge of their seats. Verena Schönauer and Georg Michael Fischer’s editing completes the film, deftly pacing the narrative. The team is able to weave together this agonizing and dire calamity through dangerous and stirring undercover investigations, nighttime camera-drone operations, and imperative commentary. The film is an inspiring, if not devastating, tale of vicious greed vs. the courage and determination of those seeking to make a difference. Ladkani and his team succeed at conveying the achingly grim reality that the planet is facing. Despite the heroism of many, there are now fewer than 15 of the elusive vaquita remaining in existence. “Sea of Shadows” is an urgent and unforgettable account, and is quite possibly the most important film you can see this year.

“Sea of Shadows” is distributed by National Geographic and opens in theaters on July 12.

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