If you didn’t think that a wildlife documentary could feature suspense and drama centered around drug cartels and crime chases, then think again. National Geographic’s latest acclaimed film Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani (with executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio), takes a look at the vaquita–a small, highly endangered porpoise–their struggle to survive in the Gulf of California, and the team of dedicated scientists, high-tech conservationists, investigative journalists and courageous undercover agents working to save them. As the New York Times explained, “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.”
The Plight of the Vaquita: Sea of Shadows centers around the shy vaquita that scientists estimate could become extinct as soon as 2022 because of illicit fishing. Fewer than 15 vaquitas are believed to exist in the wild as they continue to become ensnared as bycatch in illegal fishing traps. Recently, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee designated the vaquita’s only remaining habitat, off Mexico’s coast, as “in danger.” The listing will help drive support and financing from governments of other nations, such as China and the United States, to help Mexico build out a full conservation program.
What The Critics Say: Overall the response to Sea of Shadows has been largely positive as films like The Cove and Blackfish have paved the way for these sorts of eco-thrillers to experience commercial success. In Guy Lodge‘s review for Variety he said of the film that “at times, it seems to be two different films entirely — one, a gritty probe into the dark heart of a Baja California crime syndicate, the other an emotion-drenched study of a marine life rescue mission — that wouldn’t necessarily gel if not for the fact that tragic reality has inextricably yoked them together.”
Why This Matters: Nature films can be some of the most meaningful art because they serve to connect audiences to nature when many of us live daily lives that are pretty disconnected from the natural world. These films can help people become more in-tune with the threats facing animals and ecosystems and perhaps even examine their own role in contributing to the degradation of nature–think how Planet Earth II drew awareness to plastic pollution.