Doc on Rare Porpoise Wins Sundance Award

March 13, 2019

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Mexican navy soldier searching for poaching vessels in the Sea of Cortez, in a still from the award-winning Sundance documentary “Sea of Shadows.” Photo: Sundance Institute/Richard Ladkani. Click to enlarge.

Feature: Doc on Rare Porpoise Wins Sundance Award

By JoAnn M. Valenti

“Sea of Shadows,” a feature documentary about the effort to save the last remaining tiny whale known as the vaquita, took the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary feature at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

The film, which has been acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films, tracks the efforts of a group of international scientists, high-tech Sea Shepherd conservationists, investigative journalists from Mexico’s Televisa, undercover agents and the Mexican Navy to save the vaquita porpoise.


‘What is happening in Mexico is

yet another example of human-caused

devastation due to the greed of a few.’

— Director Richard Ladkani


The vaquita are at risk as a byproduct of the aggressive, and environmentally damaging, gillnet poaching of the rare totoaba fish. The totoaba’s bladder, called the “cocaine of the sea” and priced at more per ounce than gold, is highly valued in China because of a superstitious belief among some that it possesses miraculous healing powers.

Vaquitas, found only in the northern part of the Gulf of California, are the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with fewer than 30 left in the wild. Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Click to enlarge.

As a result, a war is now raging in the Sea of Cortez as organized crime — Mexican cartels and Chinese mafioso — destroys marine life and the ecosystem in search of the totoaba, while scientists battle to save the remnants of the vaquita species, and investigative journalist Carlos Loret De Mola uses his daily TV show to expose government failure to combat the devastation.

“What is happening in Mexico is yet another example of human-caused devastation due to the greed of a few,” said director Richard Ladkani. “My hope is that this film can raise awareness and help save this precious ecosystem.”

The film was among several documentaries offering bios of leading journalists/authors.

The festival’s world premiere of “Mike Wallace Is Here” stressed the importance of journalists “to keep the facts (coming) out” and called the press “the yardstick of a nation.” Another documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” portrayed the life of the legendary Texas political journalist and syndicated columnist.

And the work of investigative journalists fighting neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists in Sweden comes to life and a fatal ending in “Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played With Fire,” about the journalist and author of the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  

The role of journalists as truth tellers was also highlighted in an exposé of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, a fraudulent medical device company, entitled “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.”  

JoAnn Valenti is an emerita professor and long-time SEJ member who lives in her home state of Florida.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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