The Vaquita – smallest and most elusive whale on earth

Meeting the Eco-Heroes from the Award Winning ‘Sea of Shadows’

Following the award-winning Netflix original ‘The Ivory Game’, Terra Mater Factual Studios’ latest feature production ‘Sea of Shadows’ celebrated its world premiere in the World Cinema Documentary competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

The festival is known for its prime selection of high quality independent films and the film was one of the 112 chosen out of 14.000 submissions, for its powerful message and cinematic brilliance. After 7 Screenings 8 standing ovations during Sundance, the film Won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, and was acquired by National Geographic for $3M.

Sea of Shadows is a compelling eco-thriller documentary that follows undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists, and the Mexican Navy on their desperate last-minute effort to rescue the Earth’s smallest whale — the Vaquita — from extinction. The film impressively grasps how the Sea of Cortez is facing total collapse because of a war at sea. Mexican drug cartels have discovered the “cocaine of the sea,” a valuable fish called the totoaba — which is at the centre of a multimillion-dollar business with the Chinese Mafia. To find the fish, these cartels are destroying the ecosystem with illegal gill nets and, in doing so, are killing the vaquita and placing the local fishermen between the tight grip of the cartel and fighting to protect their livelihood.

Sea of Shadows was made on the ground with men hunting down black market king named Oscar Parra; and on the Sea Shepherd vessels as activists try to stop illegal fishermen from putting down the deadly nets, with drone pilot Jack Hutton and others leading the fight. The biggest challenge for the VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Rescue)  team, led by Program Manager Dr. Cynthia Smith and vaquita expert Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, was simply finding the porpoises, which are amongst the most elusive marine mammals on earth. In fact, the movie was a challenge in the making, since it is very hard to film a vaquita and it took them 5 weeks with 90 scientists and twelve cameras to capture the mammal on camera.

Dr. Cynthia Smith and her team search for the vaquita in the Sea of Cortez.

While this was happening at sea, Elephant Action League co-founder Andrea Crosta helped lead the fight on land, with former intelligence, law enforcement, and security professionals, through an investigation that took 14 months. Simultaneously, Televisa investigative journalist Carlos Loret De Mola did his own investigation and there were also testimonies from the fishing community with one particular family in San Felipe that had been supporting the rescue of vaquita for years: Javier and Alan Valverde.

Journalist Carlos Loret de Mola photographing a totoaba swimbladder

I sat down with director Richard Ladkani, Andrea Crosta from EAL and the producers from Terra Mater Factual Studios’ Walter Köhler and Wolfgang Knöpfler who told me about the greatest challenges while making Sea of Shadows. 

The award-winning Austrian director and cinematographer Richard Ladkani found out about the vaquita through his friend Andrea Crosta, and told me that Sea of Shadows came about after the groundbreaking success of their previous film called ‘The Ivory Game,’ on the extinction of elephants. This film managed to encourage the Chinese government to ban the ivory trade. Ladkani’s goal as a filmmaker is to not only bring to light important issues, but actually ensure that change occurs, as he said: “I was fortunate enough ten years ago to spend a year with Jane Goodall and she said to me, ‘Everyone can make a difference and you can use your power of filmmaking to amplify your message, and change the planet and make it a better place. You just have to make good films that a lot of people want to see, not just the typical environmental educational film, but a powerful experience that awakens consciences. For us right now the target is to succeed with ‘Sea of shadows’ and change the way the Mexican government is thinking and for them to see us as a threat, but also as an opportunity. We want to kick some ass to be honest, and do it very fast.

Richard Ladkani

Richard Ladkani’s vision is shared by Andrea Crosta’s proactive approach with his NGO, Elephant Action League that deals with a variety of wildlife crime related issues, putting intelligence at the very heart of everything, with the help of former FBI and CIA agents, former police and military. As Andrea told me, “Wherever I go, donors and media are interested in funding people boots-on-the-ground, either killing or jailing poachers or getting celebs on a billboard and the traffickers couldn’t care less about these campaigns, because they know that no one will go after them. The solution is not to get rid of the poachers on the ground, you must get to the middleman and those at the top.

Andrea’s mission is carried out also by his project called WildLeaks, that differs very much from Julian Assange’s organization, as he explains: “It might look like the same business mode as WikiLeaks, because we are facilitating the submission of anonymous information, but it’s our core mission to help law enforcement, not to be confrontational. The totoaba information we shared with Chinese and Mexican authorities in a cooperative spirit, so it’s the opposite of WikiLeaks. As I always say ‘We are WikiLeas without the Freaks’.

Andrea Crosta

The intent of Sea of Shadows to become a game changer was further clarified by producer of Terra Mater Factual Studios’ Wolfgang Knöpfler, who underlined the importance of social sustainability, besides the environmental aspect, as he said: “A lot of the remaining nature is in countries that are poor and the eradication of it is crucial. Jane Goodall — with whom I had the pleasure to work with for a year — did a fantastic work in Tanzania, that shows how you have to include the people, you must not exclude them. Just to call for a ban fishing will backfire.

Wolfgang Knöpfler

After the acclaimed success of Sea of Shadows in Park City, unfortunately the situation is dire for Sea Shepherd: the day after the Sundance Premiere their boats were attacked with stones, rubber bullets and molotovs, by illegal fishermen filming themselves on Facebook Live and laughing about it. As Terra Mater Factual Studios’ producer Walter Köhler pointed out: “What we see so far is eco-terrorism, of people who are taking away the future of our children and our planet. Sea of Shadows is very effective in speaking to audiences, as it is touching the very heart of the Mexican crisis and now is a good chance for the new government, to take a distance from the previous administration and set things on the right track.

Walter Köehler


The film is going next to Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX Film Festival, and most importantly there will be a private government screening in Mexico City, to let the authorities know that Sea of Shadows will have a theatrical release, so everyone will see it and be inspired to act conscientiously.

As for the poor Vaquitas unfortunately, less than 15 remain alive today. But there is still hope for them, since after analyzing the animal’s DNA they found that it is a kind of specie that can rebound from very small numbers, like a panda. In Sea of Shadows you could observe how the smart mammal would avoid the nets, so if we leave the Vaquita alone it will thrive even if they are just a few and not go extinct.

Jack Hutton from Sea Shepherd investigates a dead totoaba with two Mexican navy officers standing guard.


Photo Credits: Terra Mater Factual Studios/Richard Ladkani