Sea of Shadows review – porpoise documentary slips through the net

National Geographic’s film about the endangered vaquita – victim of Mexican gangsters’ search for ‘the cocaine of the seas’ – is a wasted opportunity

The sad plight of the vaquita – an endangered species of porpoise to be found in the Sea of Cortez off the Mexican coast – is the subject of this earnest, but frankly rather precious and slightly self-admiring documentary from National Geographic, executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is heartfelt, but its periodic attempts at thriller-style bouts of excitement are redundant, and I wondered sometimes if the film-makers were sure what exactly their story was.

There are now estimated to be only 15 vaquita left in the world, and the reason they are dying is that they are getting caught in the nets of those who are illegally trying to catch totoaba, a fish that swims in the same waters, and whose swim bladder is much prized in China, both as a delicacy and for its supposed medicinal value.

So the totoaba is now called “the cocaine of the seas” and cartel gangsters are heavily involved in fishing for it, and transporting it to Hong Kong. The film shows clearly enough how dangerous and ugly this criminal connection is, and how worrying is the evidence that police and navy personnel are vulnerable to bribery. But there are other things going on, too.

Legitimate fishing communities are enraged that their business is being sacrificed in the crackdown, and some are openly mutinous towards the authorities, because they say that they and their livelihoods are endangered.

The film is not sure quite what to do with this interesting debate, and simply dispenses with it. Only late in the film, and very ineffectually, does it get round to the obvious point: how can Mexico persuade China to crack down on their own appetite for totoaba, which, as with the market for elephant tusks, is driving the whole business? The film doesn’t give this issue nearly enough attention. A wasted opportunity.

• Sea of Shadows is released in the UK on 27 September.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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