Conservation & Science

A last-ditch effort to save the vaquita

Spotting a vaquita in the northern Gulf of California is a bit like glimpsing a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Some local fishermen told a reporter they’ve never seen a vaquita—and doubt they even exist.

One day soon, they might be right. But not if a coalition of experts, working with the Mexican government, can help it.

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Vaquita observers use binoculars capable of spotting vaquitas almost 2 miles away. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is one of the few people who’s seen a vaquita—hundreds of them, she says, in her 20 years doing population surveys. As a conservation biologist and a long-time member of the vaquita recovery team, Barbara has the training, and the powerful binoculars, to locate the small porpoises.

When vaquitas surface to breathe, they do it subtly and disappear quickly; and they tend to keep their distance from boats. “They are almost impossible to see from a little panga on the water,” she says.

But there’s another reason few people have encountered vaquitas: They’re the most highly endangered marine mammal species on Earth. These shy, small porpoises were only discovered in the 1950s. The population dropped from an estimated 567, when Barbara’s team first surveyed them in the late 1990s, to fewer than 60 last year. (UPDATE: According to a report published Feb. 1, the population is now estimated at only 30 individuals.)

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Working together to save the vaquita

Update 7/21/16: Mexican authorities have adopted new rules making the gillnet ban permanent in the upper Gulf of California, and improving the ability for officials to enforce the ban. The changes—encouraged by advocates including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—offer new hope for vaquitas’ recovery in the wild.


Pop quiz: What’s the world’s rarest marine mammal?

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A mural in San Felipe, Mexico, celebrates vaquitas. There is very little documentation of vaquitas in the wild; most images of live vaquitas are artist renderings. Photo by Sean Bogle

Answer: It’s a small, shy porpoise called the vaquita (va-KEE-tah). Vaquitas live only in a small part of the northern Gulf of California, bordering Baja California and the Mexican mainland. The dark markings around their mouths and eyes give them a unique look, and have led to their nickname, “panda of the sea.”

They’re also critically endangered. A May 2016 survey estimates fewer than 60 are left.

Populations of elephant seals and gray whales, which once faced extinction in this same region, have recovered thanks to transnational cooperation. There’s hope for vaquitas, too.

In observance of International Save the Vaquita Day, July 9, aquariums and zoos across the United States are raising their voices for strong and immediate conservation action on behalf of the vaquita. You can help when you join the Monterey Bay Aquarium and sign the petition to protect them from fishing practices that threaten their survival.

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Collaboration for conservation in Baja California

In the coastal habitats of Baja California, life thrives on the edge of desert sands and sapphire seas. Our newest special exhibition, ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge, opened on March 19, featuring the incredible creatures and habitats of this narrow Mexican peninsula.

But we’re not just exhibiting the splendors of Baja’s rugged 800-mile coastline. We’re also taking a lead role, working with colleagues here and in Mexico, to safeguard it.

Close ties with Mexican researchers

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A male azure parrotfish hangs with tangs, sturgeons and a golden grouper off Cabo Pulmo. Photo by @underwaterpat

The Aquarium works with several universities in Baja—including El Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR) and Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE)—to study key marine species, such as white sharks and and mahi-mahi (also known as dorado).

“There’s been this growth in how we approach other countries and also meet our needs as an aquarium,” says John O’Sullivan, the Aquarium’s director of collections

We’ve been tagging juvenile white sharks in Southern California since 2002, documenting seasonal migrations of these young fish between coastal waters in the United States and those on Baja’s Pacific coast.

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