Shooting “Sea of Shadows”

Sea of Shadows is an award-winning feature-length documentary that was widely regarded highlight of January’s Sundance Film Festival, the rights of which were subsequently purchased by National Geographic. Here, Matthew Podolsky, Co-Founder of Wild Lens and contributor to the Sea of Shadows film shares his experiences of filming one of the world’s most endangered species and the trials and tribulations that it entails.

dead vaquita in a net
dead vaquita in a net

On the evening of September 4, 2017, I found myself on a floating sea pen in the northern Gulf of California. This floating structure had been custom built to house a captive vaquita, a small species of porpoise teetering on the brink of extinction. Not even an hour earlier the first adult vaquita to be successfully captured from the wild had been transported into the underwater enclosure right next to where I was standing.

I was shooting for a documentary called Sea of Shadows about the dramatic decline of the vaquita, and I knew that we had reached a pinnacle moment in the story. Everyone on board the sea pen was extremely tense — it seemed like the vaquita was doing well, but nobody was ready to celebrate.

As it turned out, the anxiety that everyone felt was warranted — the vaquita’s health soon took a turn for the worse and an emergency release was attempted. The vaquita did not stray far from the sea pen after being released, and when it became clear that this freedom was not going to revive the animal, several of the veterinarians jumped into the water to retrieve the struggling vaquita.

I watched in shock and dismay as the seemingly lifeless animal was brought onboard a small boat positioned alongside the sea pen and emergency medicine was administered. The vaquita was still alive, but it would not survive the night. As I watched this scene play out through the small LCD screen of my video camera, I realized that I was watching the vaquita go extinct. Although a small number of vaquitas remained in the wild at that time — probably about 15 individuals — the capture effort was widely viewed as the last chance to save the species from extinction.

A vaquita swimming in the sea
A vaquita swimming in the sea

Fellow Wild Lens filmmaker Sean Bogle and I knew that there was a chance that we would be documenting the extinction of a species when we began shooting for a documentary about the vaquita in the spring of 2015 — Souls of the Vermilion Sea. Back then we still had hope. There were an estimated 100 vaquitas in the wild at that time, and we believed that we could make a significant contribution to the recovery effort by producing a documentary about the issue. We committed ourselves to a three-year shoot schedule, knowing that this was the only window of opportunity to save the species.

By the spring of 2016 Sean and I had already made three trips to the town of San Felipe, Mexico on the western shore of the Gulf of California, but we had yet to witness first-hand the illegal fishing activity that was driving the vaquita’s decline. Every spring a large fish called the totoaba migrates north towards the delta of the Colorado River. As they move north, the totoaba become more concentrated, and they enter the vaquita’s range, creating the opportunity for vaquitas to become entangled in the illegal gillnets that are set to catch totoaba.

The totoaba is a large fish, also endemic to the Northern Gulf of California, and also listed as Endangered. The swim bladder of this fish is worth tens of thousands of dollars in China, and because totoaba are caught using gillnets that also entangle and kill vaquita as bycatch, this illegal market has become the main driver of the vaquita’s decline.

Although we knew this before arriving in San Felipe in March of 2016, seeing the impact that this illegal fishery was having on the community first hand was incredibly shocking. Fishermen were brazen in their participation in this illegal activity — we saw evidence of illegal fishing everywhere we went. We heard the roar of illegal fishing boats on the water every single night, watched these illegal fisherman come and go as they pleased, and observed illegal gillnets everywhere we went. It was clear that the situation was getting worse, not better.

Journalist Carlos Loret De Mola photographing a totoaba swimbladder
Journalist Carlos Loret De Mola photographing a totoaba swimbladder

This was a surprise to us because we were observing the first totoaba fishing season after the passage of a complete ban on the use of gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range. Then-president of Mexico, Enrique Peña-Neito, in the first and only presidential visit to the small town of San Felipe, had promised to end the use of gillnets while also providing support for local fisherman. This, it seemed clear to us, was an empty promise.

As we talked to fisherman in the community it became clear to us that the ban on gillnets was having a significant economic impact on the town, and that the government was not doing nearly enough to provide support. Numerous people told us that the government had essentially banned fishing — support for alternative fishing methods had dried up, and permits were being refused, so what was supposed to be a gillnet fishing ban was, in practice, completely shutting down the local fishery.

We also began to see evidence of the role of organized crime in the illegal totoaba swim bladder trade. The value of illegal totoaba swim bladders had skyrocketed in China over the previous 5–10 years, and organized criminal networks were building an illegal trade route for this unusual product. By the spring of 2016 this illegal trade network was rapidly growing, and violence in this small fishing community was becoming much more common.

We observed all of these developments over the course of our two-week shoot, and by the end of the trip we had decided to fast track our documentary project. We wanted to produce and distribute a film with enough time for it to have an impact, and that meant we had to move fast. We decided to immediately focus on putting together a short, half hour film using all the footage we had shot up until that point, and ensure that it would be ready to screen before the next year’s illegal fishing season began.

ghost nets
ghost nets

One year later, with our film in hand, we returned to San Felipe. The violence had intensified significantly, to the extent that numerous people warned us about going back, let alone screening our controversial documentary. Although it was clear that the situation had intensified, and that illegal fishing was even more rampant than the previous year, we were very pleased by the local responses we got to our film. In addition to the public screening we held in town, we took the film into every middle and high school in San Felipe, and got extremely enthusiastic responses from both students and teachers. Despite the chaos all around us, it felt good to know that we were playing our role in the larger conservation effort by providing this educational resource to the community.

But this was not the end of our media outreach campaign for the vaquita — we still wanted to make a feature length documentary on the issue. So we began to use our film Souls of the Vermilion Sea to seek funding and partnerships that would allow us to follow through on this goal. Our Executive Producer for Souls of the Vermilion Sea, Ramona Mays, provided some key introductions during this stage — she introduced us to Andrea Crosta, an undercover investigator focused on wildlife crime that was exploring the idea of starting an investigation of the totoaba swim bladder trade. Andrea’s work with his organization Elephant Action League had been featured in the documentary The Ivory Game, and Andrea shared with us that the director of this film, Richard Ladkani, was also interested in the vaquita issue.

We had a few conversations with Richard in which we discussed the potential for collaboration. The issue was complicated by the announcement that the Mexican government would launch an effort to capture the last remaining vaquitas. The Vaquita capture effort was set to begin in the fall of 2017 — just a few months away. It seemed impossible that we would be able to pull together the funding and resources needed with enough time to document the capture effort — but this all changed when Leonardo DiCaprio got involved.

DiCaprio was an Executive Producer of Richard’s previous film The Ivory Game, and when he decided that he’d like to see a feature length film made about the vaquita, he reached out to Richard and the folks at Terra Mater Factual Studios, who then reached out to us at Wild Lens. With the backing of DiCaprio and his production company, we scrambled to organize a month long shoot in Mexico to document the vaquita capture effort.

A vaquita caught in a fishing net
A vaquita caught in a fishing net

This brings us back to the scene on the floating sea pen out in the Gulf of California — the pinnacle moment of the capture effort. After the death of the adult female vaquita, the experts in charge of the program had to make an extremely difficult decision. They decided to shut down the the capture effort, ending the program that just a few months ago had been touted as the last chance to save the vaquita from extinction.

The outcome of the vaquita capture effort was crushing for everyone involved. Over 60 expert wildlife biologists and veterinarians from all over the world had convened in this small fishing community to prevent the extinction of the vaquita — it was a monumental and historic effort. But it all came crashing down with the death of that adult vaquita on November 4th. We were no longer making a film that could help prevent this animal’s extinction — we were documenting extinction itself.

Now, as we acknowledge the winning of awards for the film at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, I find myself unable to celebrate. I’m happy to see the film, and the vaquita itself, receive the attention that they deserve, but now is not a time to celebrate — it is a time to mourn. We mourn not just for the vaquita, but for the countless other species that have been and will be wiped out by our current extinction crisis.

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Originally published at SEVENSEAS Media.

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