A ruthless global crime cartel casts a threatening shadow over the future of a critically endangered species, so Leonardo DiCaprio’s new eco-thriller documentary on National Geographic (181) is taking the fight to the criminals.

There’s a crisis brewing in the Sea of Cortez, a once pristine marine stretch located less than a day’s drive from Los Angeles off the coast of Mexico.

Famously dubbed “the world’s aquarium” by renowned French aquatic explorer and conservationist, Jacques Cousteau, it’s currently the battleground in a global war to save not only the dwindling numbers of the rare vaquita porpoise, but also the fight against the rampant criminal poaching of totoaba fish by exploited and desperate local Mexican fishermen.

Sea of Shadows, winner of Sundance’s Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary, is a tense real-life crime drama that brings this sordid tale of violence and greed to the world’s attention.

In the shadow of a looming eco-disaster

Coming to DStv this December is National Geographic’s eco-thriller special, directed by Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game) and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, which follows the extraordinarily brave and ground-breaking efforts of various groups and agencies to not only investigate but also to put a stop to the destructive poaching brought about by a truly global criminal network.

From the patrolling Sea Shepherd vessel’s midnight ambushes and clashes with brazen poachers out at sea, to accompanying specially trained ex-FBI agents on covert undercover missions as they reveal the extent of the crime cartel’s influence in not only Mexico but also China – these eco-warriors and intelligence agents are bringing the fight to the criminals. Their aim is to break their stranglehold on not only the endangered marine life, but the livelihood of the Mexican fishermen as well.

Cocaine of the Sea

Funded by the Chinese black market’s insatiable demand for the supposed medicinal qualities of the totoaba’s swimming bladders, the dreaded (and illegal) gill nets set to entrap the “cocaine of the sea” are at the same time wreaking havoc on the local marine life, the worst (but by no means the only) victim being the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, whose numbers have dwindled down to an alarming 15 in the past years.

With a single bladder fetching more than what an honest year’s fishing can earn the locals, conservationists and local authorities are faced with a legion of desperate and increasingly brazen poachers.

Extinction in our lifetime

At the heart of the film, however, is the heart-wrenching fate of the tiny vaquita, a porpoise smaller than the average dolphin with intriguing black facial markings around its eyes and mouth.

It’s so elusive that the locals believe the vaquita’s existence is a mere myth and that its supposed near-extinction is a trumped-up excuse to prevent them from earning the most possible money that they can to support their families.

At the same time, the film documents the efforts of a special team of marine biologists to launch what is described as the most expensive and ambitious project to save a marine animal from extinction in history, but when the project is abruptly abandoned after an unforeseen tragedy, it becomes starkly clear that stopping the illegal trafficking is the only hope to halt the threats posed to the vaquita.

But while the outlook is bleak, investigative reporters, eco-warriors and scientists are doing what they can to throw out a lifeline to these threatened marine species.

Watch Seas of Shadows on National Geographic (181) Friday 6 December at 21:00

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