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.”
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.”
Join the fight for the vaquita. @seaofshadowsSOS exposes and combats the criminal enterprises driving the world’s smallest porpoise to extinction. Now playing across the US. Get tickets at https://t.co/n9shIRzh1k. #SeaofShadows #BraceforImpactSOS pic.twitter.com/7bV0Yuc34m
— Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) 12 de julio de 2019
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.
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.
“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 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.”
Scientists, activists, and journalists work to fight drug cartels and traffickers whose poaching threatens to drive the vaquita to extinction. #SeaofShadows premieres commercial-free November 9th on @NatGeoChannel. pic.twitter.com/MQB7G7YfIY
— Sea of Shadows (@seaofshadowsSOS) 29 de octubre de 2019
“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.
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.