Sea of Shadows (4 stars)

Sea of Shadows

Excellent, eye-opening environmental catastrophe documentary that plays like a twisty crime thriller

The tiny vaquita whale may not seem like the catalyst for a sprawling tale of crime, corruption and environmental catastrophe but, as this excellent, eye-opening film makes clear, it's become the figurehead for a bloody battle between protection and profit; one that puts the writing indelibly on the wall for humanity's precarious relationship with – and appalling treatment of – the natural world.

Nicknamed 'the world's aquarium' by French explorer Jacques Cousteau, Mexico's spectacularly beautiful Sea of Cortez is home to myriad species of marine life. Yet all are under threat thanks to the illegal fishing of the totoaba fish, whose swim bladders are an expensive delicacy in China. Huge nets draped underneath the water catch not only the totoaba, but also numerous other animals – including the vaquita, to the point where there are only around 15 left in the wild.

The focus of Sea of Shadows is, however, on those who are determined to put a stop to this decline. This includes the fearless international crew who patrol on behalf of Sea Shepherd, a conservation organisation who use drones, night vision and sensitive local fishermen – of which there are few, as many question not only the government sanctions which threaten their livelihoods, but also the very existence of the elusive vaquita – to find and destroy nets.

Elsewhere, marine programme VaquitaCPR attempts to capture the remaining animals for their own safety; investigative journalist Carlos Loret de Mola pushes local authorities and law enforcement for answers; and environmental activist group Earth League International (ELI) risk their lives to track down dangerous local cartels with links to the Chinese black market.

Following at close quarters, and allowing each revelation to unspool as it happens, the film – from Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game) and co-directors Sean Bogle and Matthew Podolsky – plays not only as a documentary but as a twisting crime thriller, exposing jaw-dropping levels of fraud and violence. It's ecological warfare at its most extreme, described by ELI's executive director Andrea Crosta as 'an extinction happening in real time'. Alongside similarly powerful documentaries An Inconvenient Truth, GasLand and The Cove, Sea of Shadows makes clear the devastating impact of man's desire to ride roughshod over nature, and the strength and bravery of those determined to redress the balance, for the sake of us all.

Limited release from Fri 27 Sep.

Sea of Shadows

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • Austria
  • 1h 44min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Richard Ladkani

Documentary on the critically endangered vaquita whale, which plays out like a twisting crime thriller with jaw-dropping levels of fraud and violence as environmental warriors battle illegal fishing which catches the whale along with other animals. Ecological warfare at its most extreme.