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"Cocaine of the sea" — the illegal fish trade of the Mexican cartel and Chinese mafia
"Sea of Shadows" is a documentary you can't afford to miss.
- "Sea of Shadows" tells the story of an illegal fish trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese mafia.
- The fish bladders, bought for $5,000 from local fisherman, are sold in China for over $100,000 to make an unproven medicine.
- Director Richard Ladkani talks about the intensity and danger of making this film, as well as the hopeful ending.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the totoaba bladder is believed to cure arthritis. As with much of TCM, the claim is unproven and inevitably creates more harm than good. An entire ecosystem is on the verge of collapse thanks to the illegal bladder trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese businessmen.
While the totoaba are rapidly declining in numbers—their only home is in the Sea of Cortez, the body of water that separates Baja California with mainland Mexico—the illegal fishing nets local fishermen use are killing everything else: turtles, sharks, and the focus of "Sea of Shadows," the vaquita. There are only believed to be 15 or so of these small porpoises left in existence.
As director and cinematographer, Richard Ladkani, told me earlier this week, there is hope as six vaquitas (including babies) were recently spotted. Since he filmed "Jane's Journey," an intimate portrait of English primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, Ladkani has focused on environmentally relevant works. His last film, "The Ivory Game," helped make the ivory trade between Africa and China illegal. As you'll see while watching his incredible new National Geographic documentary, his film might help save an ecosystem "just five hours drive from Los Angeles."
But nothing is a given. At the end of our talk, Ladkani asked me to mention Earth League International and Sea Shepherd, the two organizations driving the activism in the Sea of Cortez. "Sea of Shadows" is heartbreaking and inspiring, frightening and ambitious. Most importantly, it's a reminder that people care about the fate of this planet and all the animals that reside here. In a time when most environmental news informs us that we're another step closer to a precipice, this film reminds us of the necessity of banding together and fighting for what's best for all of us.
Sea of Shadows Official Trailer | National Geographic
Derek: Congratulations on "Sea of Shadows." And thank you for keeping me up all night.
Richard: I tell people to buckle up before the movie starts.
Derek: I would love to know how you became interested in this topic.
Richard: In general, I'm interested in films with impact and a mission behind them. That started with Jane Goodall, who I was lucky enough to follow around the world about 10 years ago while shooting a film called "Jane's Journey." She inspired me to look at the natural world in a different way and understand that our world is in peril and is really falling apart.
"The Ivory Game" was the first result of her inspiration. Then came "Sea of Shadows," which was brought to us by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was our executive producer on my previous film. He thought "The Ivory Game" was super successful on how we collaborated and how a movie can have such a huge impact, because it changed the law in China and made dealing with ivory illegal.
Two months after the movie came out, they invited us to China to screen the film at the Beijing Film Festival. That was such a big impact, that you can change the government's way of thinking about the world, even a Chinese government on top of that. We were thinking about the next story and Leonardo suggested something on the vaquita because he deeply cared about a small whale that nobody has ever heard about, including myself. He had just met with a Mexican president and was deeply involved in this rescue effort of scientists to save the vaquita.
Derek: While the film is focused on the totoaba and vaquita, you also mention that fishing them can collapse an entire ecosystem. Is that whole area going to be infertile if they continue this trade?
Richard: Absolutely. If the vaquita goes extinct, which we are trying everything in our power to impact, we'll feel we had a little part for not allowing that to happen. But if it happens, it will mean that the cartel is going to completely take over the area. The attention, the focus, the spotlight that it has right now is because of the vaquita; it is such a symbolic animal and it's been highly exposed. If the vaquita goes extinct, the NGOs will be removed from the area. They will move onto a new war somewhere, maybe in Peru or South Africa.
Then what will happen is the cartel is going to 100% take over the Sea of Cortez. All the fishermen are going to be pressured to go out for the totoaba. You've seen how they do it. They dropped thousands of gill nets, walls of death that kill everything just to get to that final totoaba. They will kill everything and it's all tossed away. All the sharks, the turtles, everything will disappear just because they're going for that totoaba.
Director Richard Ladkani attends the New York premiere of National Geographic Documentary Films, "Sea of Shadows," at the Metrograph on July 9, 2019.
Photo by Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Derek: An ecosystem might collapse half a world away because of a fish bladder that supposedly cures arthritis, with no scientific proof whatsoever. Did you do any research on TCM for the film?
Richard: Yes, of course. We even filmed in China for a month. The reason we didn't include that in the film was because we realized that there was no demand; it is already illegal to trade totoaba there. Every scientist we talked to said it's not proven Western science. They couldn't find any proof that it has any power at all. But then we realized that it would take a whole generation or a campaign to change the minds of the Chinese. The vaquita maybe has 12 months to live.
It will never be solved in China. There is nothing we can do in China that will stop this trade in time. In other cases, like with the elephants, it was 10 years to extinction. We had the time to go there. But in this case, it just didn't make any sense. There was a whole half-hour worth of dramatic events in China, but we took it all out because we wanted people to focus on where the solution is, which is in Mexico.
Derek: Speaking of dramatic events, I love how you focus both on the media aspect of the trade and the race against the cartel. There were some failures too; I'm glad you highlighted them. How did your crew emotionally deal with making this film?
Richard: It was like a roller coaster ride. The dramatic scenes that happened with the vaquita were unthinkable. I was very close with the scientists, with Cynthia Smith; we became friends and she really trusted us. By the end they gave us full access. Living through that traumatic scenes as the moments unfold was just beyond belief. It was really tough for us to be there. I tried to be as invisible as possible and stay out of their way.
At the same time, this film became more and more dangerous every week that we were on location. It was a big responsibility to keep the team safe and to keep going and pushing. Our production company provided a full security budget for us. We had very professional bodyguards that know what they're doing, people that we can trust who are not bought by the cartel or corrupt police. It was like a big military operation to get this film made without anybody getting shot or kidnapped.
Derek: There was the scene when you were at the beach and the fisherman had taken over the Navy vessel. It reminded me a little bit of "Restrepo," from the camera crew perspective: You're in the middle of a war, you're getting rocks thrown at you, and you're getting shot at. Even though you had bodyguards, there was a lot of personal danger.
Richard: It was the most dangerous moment of the entire production. It was also the worst case scenario. In all the planning that went into the film, we always said this is what we need to avoid—a flash mob of people trying to come at us from all sides. We were just trying to get out of it alive and keep everyone safe, but at the same time it was also the challenge of actually capturing that moment and everything that came with it and not stop shooting. Even though I was running for my life, I kept the camera rolling on my shoulder and made sure that that red light was on. If you stop shooting, then you may also lose that one opportunity to really get the audience to understand what these people are going through.
Riots break out in San Felipe as fishermen protest the arrests of totoaba poachers.
Derek: You might not have been worried about framing, but when you see a rock fly by three feet from your feet, you know exactly what's happening.
Richard: Of course. We were hiding behind cars and everything, so I knew what was happening. There was fear, but there was also control in the way of staying focused. What scared me the most was when shots started to appear. We were hearing gunfire, and I didn't know who was shooting at who because we weren't able to see. Did the cartel open fire on us? Is it the Navy shooting at them or in the air? I heard bullets ricocheting off walls around us; that meant that they are firing not in the air but actually at us.
There's stuff that is not in the film, when we got threatened by the cartel right after because they had exposed our identities. They had photographed us, then they followed us home. Then we got direct threats from Oscar Parra. Actually, he requested a meeting with me the following night and said I had to come alone. And I was like, "No, I don't think so."
Derek: I wouldn't have taken that meeting either. There's also a moment where the drone gets shot down. I've known about Sea Shepherd for a long time; they do amazing work. When you see the crew members, they look like a bunch of young kids, but they have to be pretty tough to do that job.
Richard: They are amazing. The average age on ship was 22 and that was just insane, but they're all fired up. They're all activists and wanted to sign up for this battle of the Sea of Cortez. They're very inspiring people. It was always great to be on the ship. I really admire them.
Derek: One of the stories in the film involves the Mexican Navy and how they go from giving you platitudes, then later you're riding along with the Navy. Was it the media pressure that made them change?
Richard: It was actually Carlos Loret de Mola who kept pressuring them: "Show me how you're fighting this war, how you want to win." We were lucky because we were following Carlos; we were sort of his team so they didn't question who we are. We had access to all the operations. But as you see, you think there's something off here: There's all this presence but somehow they're always in the wrong place at the wrong time. They even release the prisoners in the end.
It was after the riots that I confronted the Vice Admiral and asked him, "What the hell is going on? How can you not get on top of that situation?" That's when he told me to stop filming. Then he told me, "Richard, they know where my daughter goes to school, they know where we live, they know the name of my wife, and they will first come for my daughter and kidnap her. Then they will kill her, my wife, and then they will come from me. That's why I'm not getting in their way."
Derek: Do you have any updates since the film has been completed?
Richard: Yes, we're constantly in touch with everybody. Earth League International has put together a new mission to go back in and monitor the situation. Because the totoaba season is just beginning, the cartel is moving in. They have sent out Mexican and Chinese investigators to monitor the trafficking. The good news is that they're dispatching an additional 600 troops to the area and they have committed 14 warships to protect the vaquita refuge.
The president visited the region and started talking about the vaquitas, that they need to save them and offer solutions for all the fishermen. So we are upbeat. Also, six vaquitas have been spotted in early October; some of them are babies, which is fantastic news. It shows us that they're still there and it's not too late.
Scientists discovered footprints made by some of the largest creatures ever to walk the Earth.
- Paleontologists published a paper on the discovery of dinosaur footprints on the roof of a French cave.
- The prints are deep underground and were made during the Middle Jurassic period.
- The footprints belonged to titanosaurs, the largest land animals ever.
French scientists found gigantic dinosaur footprints on the roof of the Castelbouc cave the Lozère region of southern France. A new paper outlines the discovery approximately 1640 feet under ground by the paleontologist Jean-David Moreau from the University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté and his colleagues.
The footprints likely belonged to an unknown species of titanosaur and were made 166 to 168 million years ago, in the Middle Jurassic Period. Titanosaurs, a group of long-necked, lizard-like sauropods, could be found all over the world in present day Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Among titanosaurs were the largest land animals to have ever existed, like the Patagotitan, which stretched 121 feet long and weighed 138,000 pounds.
The titanosaur Alamosaurus.
Credit: Bogdanov, 2006. Creative Commons.
Some of the 38 tracks found in France were as large as 4 feet long. They were likely made by three dinosaurs at the time when the area was on the surface, making up a muddy shoreline along which the giant creatures traveled. Over time, the site was buried by geological processes, with the tracks becoming moldings in the roof of a cave that's half a kilometer underground.
They were spotted as part of a caving expedition in December 2015 by the paper's authors. To find them, the scientists had to go down a narrow labyrinth of crawl spaces that often get flooded. The tracks were in a space about 260 feet long, 66 feet wide and 33 feet high.
Dinosaur tracks in the ceiling of Castelbouc Cave in France.
Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
Speaking to the French science magazine Sciences et Avenir, Jean-David Moreau explained that a caver "who was ahead of me turned to me and with the lamp of his helmet projected a grazing lighting on the ceiling which allowed to bring out the marks."
You can read the paper "Middle Jurassic tracks of sauropod dinosaurs in a deep karst cave in France," published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
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