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Special Project

Special Project
From the 5th Annual Shorty Social Good Awards

Sea of Shadows

Entered in Environment & Sustainability


The primary objective of the Sea of Shadows impact strategy was to significantly move the needle forward on the long-term survival of the world’s most endangered marine mammal — the vaquita marina. Drawing on current research in science communication, behavior change, and conservation diplomacy, the film and impact campaign set out to accomplish that goal through a story and a global campaign that addressed the root causes of the conservation crisis instead of simply highlighting the symptoms. Rather than a film and campaign targeting the poachers catching vaquita in illegal nets, we focused more on the government corruption, crime syndicates, regional poverty, and lack of alternative livelihoods that create the environment in which poaching goes unchecked. 

Our goal was not simply to shine a spotlight on the issue, but to tease apart the complex web of issues leading to the crisis, and to craft a film and campaign through which we could leverage public attention to address those issues in a way that had not been possible before. This served an important secondary goal — educating public audiences about the underlying drivers of conservation crises. Protecting some of the world’s most endangered species and habitats frequently requires action far outside the conservation sector — necessitating action in government policy, political stability, regional poverty, law enforcement, international economic agreements, and more. Rarely can a species be saved through wildlife science and conservation advocacy alone. Technology and social media allow us to harness tremendous crowd-sourced momentum around key issues.

Strategy and Execution

Sea of Shadows employed an evidence-led approach to impact through media, drawing on research in communication science, behavior change, and subject-area literacy. Impact producer Mahoney worked alongside the filmmakers and producers to bring a lens of communication, best practice to characters, story arcs, and framing through a research­based narrative strategy. From including local heroes to humanizing the presumed villains, and from contrasting the emotional toll of science fieldwork with the adrenaline of frontline activism, producers embraced a holistic approach to impact from the beginning. National Geographic took the strategy forward through a comprehensive campaign built around pillars of activation: a top-down strategy aimed at decision makers, a grassroots strategy to elevate NGOs and conservancy partners, and a public activation strategy to empower general audiences to take action. The activations within these strategies were derived from theories of change conceived to keep the campaign focused on root causes of the crisis instead of symptoms.

The campaign was built on four key strategies. The methods within each of these were scaffolded on a research-based Theory of Change and connected our goals, strategies, benchmarks, and indicators of success to a specific target audience. 

Pillar 1: Narrative Strategy

The Sea of Shadows production team brought an impact producer in from pre-production and worked to weave a narrative scaffolded by the best research on behavior change and conservation diplomacy. An example of this was framing wildlife crime as a global security threat (backed by UN and Interpol studies) to engage viewers, including those less comfortable with “environmental activist” motivations. This strategy helped us (a)speak to an audience beyond the “ecologically converted” and (b)harness public attention around the film to point toward campaign activations “outside” conservation.

Pillar 2: Top-Down Strategy

An important target audience was key decision makers. We targeted decision makers in Mexico, the US, and internationally through the UN and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) through a number of events and campaign activations.

Pillar 3: Grassroots Strategy

The target audience of this strategy was NGOs and grassroots organizations (besides those featured in the film) with whom we could partner to elevate and amplify action. Our goal was to leverage the film’s campaign to amplify the organizations that would continue working in this space long after the film and impact team had moved on to other projects, ensuring the momentum we created benefited the frontline heroes of the issue. 

Pillar 4: Public Activation Strategy

Finally, this strategy targeted mainstream viewers — audiences who came to the campaign through the film at festivals, in theaters, on television, and on social media. The campaign earned more than 154K followers on social media, garnered over 100K signatures calling for increased enforcement in the Sea of Cortez and investment in alternative livelihoods (both of which happened), sent 10K postcards to Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment, and reached over 4K students. Our public calls to action were amplified through six posts over nine months by Executive Producer Leonardo Di Caprio.


The Sea of Shadows impact campaign worked to amplify the brave work countless individuals and organizations had been doing, and continue to do, on behalf of the vaquita. With this in mind, we do not wish to claim sole credit for any of the following demonstrable outcomes we associate with the campaign; rather, we feel we did just what an impact strategy should do—leverage an important and well-told story to catalyze action at scale.

The public reach of the film’s campaign was a tremendous success, with credit owed to Leonardo Di Caprio and Dr. Jane Goodall, who promoted the film in person and on social media. 

The Mexican government did take steps to address the two demands in the petition and postcard campaign: increasing enforcement in the vaquita refuge and investing in alternative livelihoods. With the petition rapidly growing, the government deployed 600 additional marines and 14 additional PROFEPA (wildlife law enforcement) agents to the vaquita refuge.

Impact screenings/press events in Mexico City opened strategic doors that facilitated access to federal law enforcement authorities in Mexico. Andrea Crosta of Earth League International was able to deliver his organization’s investigation dossier to national-level authorities in both Mexico and China, revealing evidence around specific individuals and smuggling routes. More than $150 million dollars’ worth of totoaba swim bladders were confiscated by authorities in the months following these meetings. 

Lastly, the film’s campaign has fostered continued conversations about innovative approaches to conservation and storytelling.


Video for Sea of Shadows

Entrant Company / Organization Name

National Geographic