By saving the 15 or so vaquita porpoises left on the planet, we are saving ourselves and the planet, says Sea of Shadows director Richard Ladkani

By KC Baker
November 08, 2019 06:53 PM
The Vaquita, smallest and most elusive whale on earth, which is near extinction
National Geographic

When Richard Ladkani said yes to filming Sea of Shadows with Academy Award-winner Leonardo DiCaprio, exposing how Mexican drug cartels and Chinese traffickers are bringing the rare vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction, he had no idea it would turn deadly.

Not only did Ladkani and his team get caught up in a riot in Mexico — with bullets flying past and stones being hurled their way — they later became the target of the powerful cartel that was less than pleased with their efforts to expose their illegal exploits. And they were stunned when one of the people they interviewed anonymously in the film ended up murdered.

“People have no idea any of this is happening,” Ladkani tells PEOPLE.

As dangerous as it is, the award-winning Austrian director-cinematographer says it’s a story that’s too important not to tell.

“The war is on,” Ladkani says. “We’re losing, but maybe this movie can turn things around. That’s why we are so passionate about this.”

He adds, “People need to see the movie and they need to get angry and rise up and spread the word that this has to end.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall, and Richard Ladkani at National Geographic Documentary Films’ Sea of Shadows Los Angeles Premiere on July 12, 2019
Vivien Killilea/Getty

A Life-Changing Call from Leonardo DiCaprio

Ladkani was busy working on a script for a feature film in August 2017 when DiCaprio, one of the world’s foremost environmental champions, called.

The two got to know each other after working on the undercover 2016 Netflix documentary, The Ivory Game, about the gruesome slaughter of elephants in Africa by illegal poachers for their tusks, leading them down the path of extinction as well. (The film led China to ban on the centuries-long sale of ivory in 2017, Deadline reported.)

“He basically asked if I could drop everything and go help save the vaquita,” says Ladkani. “I was like, ‘Excuse me? What animal?’ I had never heard of a vaquita in my life.”

At the time, DiCaprio explained, there were fewer than 30 of the vaquita — a tiny porpoise — in the world.

They die when they get caught in illegal nets in the Sea of Cortez, off the coast of Mexico, where poachers are hunting another large fish — the totoaba.

“I said, ‘What’s a totoaba?'” recalls Ladkani.

The vaquita, known as the "panda of the sea" is on its way to extinction, with about 15 left in the world, says Ladkani
National Geographic

Known in Mexico as “the cocaine of the sea,” the totoaba is a large fish whose swim bladders are considered “gold” on the black market in China, where people erroneously believe it can cure everything from cancer to arthritis, says Ladkani.

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“He said, ‘Nobody knows this is going on. We are running out of time to save the vaquita from extinction,'” says Ladkani. “‘We need a big film, but you have to start now because the mission starts October 1st.'”

Five weeks later, Ladkani and his team from Terra Mater were in Mexico.

The result? The heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat, eye-opening eco-thriller Sea of Shadows, which will make its National Geographic debut on Saturday, at 9 p.m. ET — and will be shown in 172 countries in 42 languages.

With Ladkani as the film’s director and cinematographer and DiCaprio as one of its executive producers, the doc follows a team of “bad-ass” undercover investigators, scientists, environmentalists, and journalists — all of whom do everything they can to save the vaquita, the Earth’s smallest whale, from extinction and bring an international crime syndicate to justice, he says.

“We joined forces because this is so important,” he says.

‘When We Save the Vaquita, We Save Ourselves’

Many may ask: what does the vaquita — the adorable “panda of the sea” that looks like it belongs in a Disney movie — have to do with me?

Everything, says Ladkani.

As more large fish become extinct, the more the food supply, the livelihoods of millions, and the health of the planet are seriously threatened.

“When we save the vaquita, we save ourselves,” he says. “We save the entire ocean and entire communities in Mexico that are dependent on the fishing and this beautiful planet from drug cartels who have taken over.”

The Mexican Navy gearing up to hunt down poachers in the Sea of Cortez, where the totoaba and vaquita are found
National Geographic

The fight is very real.

“We’re down to the end game now,” he says, adding that just yesterday he got a text from the environmentalists working to save the vaquita saying they were being overtaken by 60 different poachers.

With just 15 or so vaquita left on earth, “we have about a year — maybe less — before they are gone forever,” he says. “For me, this is symbolic. This tiny place can be saved. It’s an easy thing to do.”

“But if we can’t save this tiny little area — 20 by 20 miles in the Sea of Cortez where the vaquita live, how can we save anything in this world?” he asks.

“It’s quite a complex issue,” Ladkani says. “But I am optimistic that we can overcome it.”

Fearless Eco-Warriors on the Front Lines

The film starts out showing the intrepid young crew of The Sea Shepherd as they try to catch poachers in the middle of the night with the use of a drone that captures their every illegal move.

“What I really love is that we have these heroes, like [drone operator] Jack Hutton, who are fighting evil,” he says. “He’s 22 years old. He the new future of our planet. For me, he is a superhero. He is an Avenger for the planet — literally out there fighting the cartels right now.

Jack Hutton of The Sea Shepherd investigates a dead totoaba with two Mexican navy officers standing guard in Sea of Shadows
National Geographic

Other heroes in the film: Dr. Cynthia Smith of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, who tries to save the vaquitas in a daring operation, VaquitaCPR.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes when she and her team try to help a female vaquita.

“That was very difficult to film,” says Ladkani.

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The film also follows Mexican investigative journalist Carlos

Investigative journalist Carlos Loret de Mola trying to connect Mexican poachers to Chinese traffickers
National Geographic

Loret de Mola, who goes in-depth on the divisive issue.

It also features Andrea Crosta, founder of Earth League International, a group of former intelligence, law enforcement and security professionals who are working to save wildlife, according to its website.

The Sea Shepherd and Earth League International “are our first — and last — line of defense,” he says.

The Sea Shepherd vessel in the coastal waters of San Felipe in Mexico, trying to keep poachers away
National Geographic

Other groups left because they were afraid, he says. “These two that are still on the front lines are amazing,” he says.

A Mentor of Mentors

When things get hard for Ladkani, he thinks of his mentor, legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, whose own tireless journey to save wildlife inspires him to keep going.

“She taught me that everything in this world is connected to everything else. In the ocean you can’t just have a species disappear and think it’s okay,” says Ladkani.

“We are part of that as well,” he adds. “We can’t ignore that. We have to fight for it.”

In an exclusive clip from the film given to PEOPLE, Goodall says people often ask why it matters if one species dies.

“There are examples where the loss of one seemingly insignificant species eventually, through a ripple effect, can lead an entire ecosystem to collapse,” she says. “We don’t completely understand the interconnectedness of all living things so this little vaquita – so beautiful – I had never heard of it before I was introduced to it in Sea of Shadows – what a charming face. And the fact that they are almost extinct is sad.”

Ladkani hopes people watch the documentary and take action by sharing the film on social media, donating to nonprofit organizations The Sea Shepherd and Earth League International, and signing their petition on their website.

Why? “This story is a symbol of what is happening in the world,” he says, adding that concerned people can sign a petition demanding change. “In the Sea of Cortez, you everything that is wrong with our world.”

“What I get very emotional about is that you have these criminal syndicates that are making millions of dollars by killing endangered species and sending them off to markets — mostly to China,” he says.

“You have the same stories about the black market in the Amazon, with illegal logging; in Africa, with the rhinos; and in Asia, with the tigers,” he says. “These animals are dying at such a fast rate and these criminals are making millions of dollars — and people are not even aware.”

“We can change this.”