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Consider: the Vaquita

Updated: 3 days ago

Life on Earth is currently experiencing a never before seen phenomenon: the meteoric rise of humans as the dominant species. No other single species has ever altered the Earth in as short of a timespan as humans have, and the rapid pace of our modification has had disastrous consequences for the other species we share this world with. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the current species extinction rate is between 1000 and 10.000 times higher than would normally be expected from natural processes. Plants and animals alike are disappearing, and fast. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the foremost scientific body when it comes to species conservation, estimates that 13% of birds, 21% of reptiles, 27% of mammals, 37% of elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), and 41% of amphibians currently face extinction.

That was a lot of numbers, but in short, Earth is pretty fucked up right now, and the blame for that primarily lies in the one species with the dexterity and opposable thumbs necessary to point at themselves. In the wake of this crisis, some species have found themselves teetering on the edge of existence, with populations in the double or single digits. One of those species stands out among the others, though. It is the rarest mammal on Earth, with as few as eight living members left. This animal is as adorable and mysterious as it is in critical need of protection. Can we still save them from their imminent demise?

Consider: the vaquita. Phocoena sinus.

Artist’s Rendition (you’ll see why). Image source: Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The vaquita is a species of porpoise, the family of cetaceans (the variety of marine mammals that includes dolphins and whales) most closely related to narwhals and belugas. While people often use “dolphin” and “porpoise” interchangeably, they are actually two different varieties of cetaceans. Vaquitas have aerodynamic, torpedo-shaped bodies, with thick necks and small heads relative to their body size. Of the nearly 90 species of cetaceans that swim the oceans of the world, vaquitas are the smallest. The largest Vaquitas are only 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, two inches shorter than Kevin Hart (though in a pleasing symmetry, they are two inches taller than Danny DeVito). Adding to the vaquita's cuteness are their facial markings, which makes them look a bit like a kid who decided to try on their mom's eye liner.

These adorable little goths of the sea can be found within a specific region of the Gulf of California, on the western coast of Mexico. The gulf is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, containing an estimated 900 fish species (90 of which are found nowhere else), 700 plant species, and a third of all of the cetacean species on Earth. Its warm waters make it a popular seasonal nursery for a ton of animals, who can raise their young in the warm, nutrient-rich waters. Within this ecosystem, vaquitas inhabit a uniquely small geographic range of about 3900 square kilometers (1500 square miles), an area less than a quarter of the size of metropolitan Los Angeles. Typically, Vaquitas hang out between 30 and 90 feet deep, where exchanging ocean currents attract a plethora of prey, including squid, crustaceans, and bottom-dwelling fish.

The waters of the Gulf of California exhibit extreme temperature fluctuations, with a yearly low of 14°C (57° F) in January and a high of 36°C (96° F) in August, a temperature only a few degrees lower than that of a standard hot tub. These high temperatures may explain why vaquitas are so small. Cetaceans tend to be large because a large body size allows them to hold onto heat more easily. As mammals, cetaceans need to maintain a high body temperature in order to function, and the cold oceans can make this difficult. This is why you tend to see dolphins and whales giving birth and nursing their calves in warm, shallow seas like the Caribbean—calves suck at regulating their body temperatures. As any gym bro can tell you, though, getting big costs a lot of energy, which means that large animals have to spend significantly more time hunting or foraging. For most cetaceans, this tradeoff is worth it, but vaquitas, who live in a tropical paradise year-round, don’t need to worry as much about the ocean cooling them down. Thus, you end up with a porpoise small enough to fit in a standard bathtub.

While many cetaceans are known for their curious and social demeanor, vaquitas are timid creatures, particularly when it comes to humans (this is once again much like the behavior of the human goth). Vaquitas flee from the sounds of boat motors and human activity, making them exceptionally difficult to study. So severe are vaquitas’ anxieties around humans that capturing one alive has proven to be impossible. The only time that a vaquita has been captured alive by a researcher, it became so stressed that it died of heart attack, and no one has tried again since. The only real way that scientists can study vaquitas is by observing them at long distance, a task easier said than done considering how small vaquitas are and how well the rolling of their backs above the waves blends in with the ocean around them. Most of what we know about vaquitas comes from dead individuals found tangled in fishing equipment. No one has ever even photographed a live vaquita at close distance underwater (thus the artist rendition at the start of the article).

Two vaquitas surfacing above the water.
Vaquitas instinctively avoid human activity. Often, the only way researchers can tell whether vaquitas are even in an area is to watch the sea for signs of their backs and characteristically-long dorsal fins break the water. Spotting the silhouette of a grey-blue animal on a grey-blue ocean is kind of like playing Where’s Waldo, but Waldo has on a ghillie suit. Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Vaquitas tend to be antisocial even amongst their own kind. While many cetaceans live in pods, vaquitas tend to lead solitary lives, and they are seldom seen in groups of more than two. They mate in spring and summer, and the mothers carry their calves for 11 months. Little is known about how vaquitas choose a mate, though they are believed to be polygamous, with males breeding with as many females as possible within a single mating season (atypical goth behavior). Female vaquitas can only give birth to one calf every two years, a rate that is very slow for a cetacean and makes restoring their devastated population that much more difficult.

(Quick content warning: the next section contains an image of some fish swim bladders (it's related to vaquitas I promise). It isn't gory, but some readers may find it kind of gross).

Vaquitas are the single most-endangered mammal species on Earth, with a predicted population of 8 to 13 individuals. That is not a typo: there are fewer vaquitas on Earth than there are Seasons of Supernatural (or seasons of Friends for the normies out there). Despite decades of hard work by conservationists, vaquita numbers have continued to drop, and now the species dangles precariously on the edge of extinction. Scientists and conservation organizations agree that without extreme measures, vaquitas will go extinct very soon.

The decline in the vaquita population can be attributed entirely to the harvesting of totoaba swim bladders. Totoaba are a type of bass native to the Gulf of California. While indistinguishable from other species of marine bass in most ways, totoaba have become a hot commodity due to their swim bladders, which some people believe can ease the pain of pregnancy or act as an aphrodisiac. Is it just me, or are there a lot of people who try to use endangered animal parts to make themselves better in bed? If you need to eat a dried fish bladder to get in the mood, maybe God wanted you to be single.

A totoaba on a white background.
Consider: the totoaba. This marine bass is fairly unremarkable except for its swim bladder, which has become a hot commodity on the Chinese black market. Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Totoaba bladders have become so valuable that an entire international black market trade and investment scheme has sprung up around them. In 2011, one totoaba bladder could cost as much as $137,000, more than twice the price of a kilogram of gold at its height that year. Some businessmen in China buy totoaba bladders as an investment, assuming that their prices will rise and they will make a profit. These bladders became so valuable that Mexican cartels began to get involved in the trafficking, smuggling them from Mexico to California and then ahead to Hong Kong for sale. This is how totoaba bladders came to be known as “the cocaine of the sea”.

Totoaba swim bladders seized by the US government.
Totoaba bladders confiscated by US Customs and Border Protection in 2013. Once dried, totoaba bladders can be shipped from the US and Mexico to Hong Kong, where they can sell for fortunes on the black market. Image Credit: US Department of Justice

Fishermen catch totoaba using gillnets, which hang straight down in the water and catch anything large enough to become lodged in their holes, totoaba or not. The size of a gillnet is determined by the size of the marine organism it’s designed to catch, and it turns out that the holes in a totoaba gillnet perfectly fit the head of a vaquita. Vaquitas swim into the nets, become entangled, and eventually drown. While vaquitas often flee from human activity, many fishermen will leave gillnets unattended for days, leaving plenty of opportunity for vaquitas to drift into them and meet their doom. Often, the nets are checked so infrequently that dead and rotting organisms pile up in them, attracting scavengers which then become entangled themselves and join the growing mass.

Gillnets cause trouble for all sorts of marine life, not just vaquitas. The same nets that drown vaquitas have also been found to entangle sharks (including the critically-endangered School Shark), rays, and even whales within the Gulf of California. Worldwide, these nets are implicated in the endangerment of other aquatic organisms too. Two other animals that I’ve written about here, the largetooth sawfish and gharial, also often find themselves ensnared in these floating walls of death.

I think it is important to note here that the people of the Gulf of California are not evil or cruel. Many inhabitants of the gulf coast work as fishermen, and without fishing they cannot provide for their families. The totoaba trade, while environmentally-disastrous and existentially-threatening to vaquitas, gives people who would otherwise live in poverty an opportunity that would be otherwise unreachable. From the swamps of East Africa, where indigenous guides lead poachers to shoebill hunting grounds, to the slopes of the Qinling Mountains, where takin are often hunted for meat and horns, poverty drives people to exploit local species. Ultimately, the villain of these conservation stories are not people, but an economic system which forces people to choose between destroying their environments or starving.

Scientists and conservation activists have fought for decades to protect vaquitas, but despite this, their numbers have continued to drop. Commercial fishing has been banned in vaquita habitats since 2005 and gillnets were outlawed in the entire Gulf of California in 2017, but pressure from the black market and the lucrative nature of the totoaba trade has led fishermen to continue the practice illegally. At the height of the totoaba trade, a Mexican marine reported that so many fishermen filled the vaquita’s protected range that they crowded out military vessels, preventing enforcement of the ban. In response, the Mexican Government created the Zero Tolerance Area, a 12 by 24 kilometer (7.5 by 15 mile) area of the vaquita’s range where absolutely no fishing is allowed.

Some scientists began to argue that vaquita populations had become too small for the species to continue. Their argument hinges around the importance of genetic diversity in a population. In a small population of animals, the effects of genetic disorders are magnified. If one member of a population of a thousand individuals develops a genetic disorder, their overall contribution to the population’s genetic makeup is so small that they are unlikely to have a large effect on the overall population’s chance of survival. If one individual in a population of ten develops a genetic disorder, however, that trait has a much higher chance of being passed on, hurting the species’ survival chances as a whole. This process is known as “inbreeding depression” (not to be confused with the reason why you feel sad driving through Alabama). Small populations additionally lack genetic diversity, making them more susceptible to disease and less able to adapt to changes in their environment.

So, should we just give up on vaquitas? I don’t think so, and neither do the Sea Shepherds, one of the many conservation organizations that are now fighting to protect the vaquita’s habitat from totoaba fishing. The name Sea Shepherds may ring a bell to you if you, like me, grew up watching the Animal Planet show Whale Wars (back when Animal Planet had shows about animals and not naked hillbillies hunting bigfoot). Since the 1970s, the Sea Shepherds have protected marine life around the world by enforcing laws against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. They have hunted Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean, apprehended illegal trawlers off the coast of Sierra Leone and Gambia, and in 2015 they set their sights on protecting vaquitas. In a joint effort with the Mexican government, the Sea Shepherds launched Operation Milagro, with the goal of enforcing the ban on gillnet fishing in the Zero Tolerance Area.

The Seahorse Sea Shepherd Vessel.
The Seahorse, the new flagship of Operation Milagro, began its service in January of 2023. Since then, the Zero Tolerance Area has seen a 90% reduction in gillnet fishing. Image Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

So far, Operation Milagro has succeeded. By collaborating with Mexican scientists, creatively utilizing a variety of technologies, and persevering through inhospitable conditions, the Sea Shepherds have been able to reduce gillnet fishing in the Zero Tolerance Area by 90%. They did this by physically removing thousands of gillnets, hooking them with trailing lines or long poles and dragging them out of the water. In the process, the Sea Shepherds freed over 4,000 trapped marine animals from these nets, including sharks, rays, and whales.

While the Sea Shepherds’ progress has been remarkable and inspiring, it has not come without sacrifice. Upon recognizing the impact of Operation Milagro on the totoaba trade, local cartels turned from dismissive to aggressive. Boats began to ride alongside Sea Shepherd vessels, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails onto the decks in an attempt to scare the activists off. Mexican military officials were stationed on Sea Shepherd vessels to protect them from potential armed attacks, and the ships were covered in netting designed to protect the crew from projectiles. Crew members donned Kevlar vests and fire-retardant clothing, and they continued the mission. The crew of Sea Shepherd vessels are mostly volunteers, and yet they have endured warzone-like conditions for years to protect what vaquitas remain.

Meanwhile, genetic research on vaquitas has cast doubt on the threat of inbreeding depression. In a 2022 paper, researchers studied the vaquita genome to determine what effects inbreeding might have on the health of the population. Their analysis concluded that vaquitas actually have an exceptionally-low inbreeding load (the degree to which inbreeding negatively affects the population). This is likely because vaquitas historically have always had a fairly low population compared to other mammal species. A low population means that in the past vaquitas were likely to inbreed by random chance, so over time they developed genetic countermeasures to protect themselves from the negative effects that can cause (though I imagine it must still make family reunions awkward). Other research has shown that the remaining vaquita population has still retained much of its genetic diversity, meaning that once the population begins to grow, it may not be as vulnerable to disease as someone would expect given their small population.

Big-eye telescopic binoculars.
These high-powered big-eye binoculars were the tool of choice for the researchers involved in the May 2023 vaquita survey. Using these powerful telescopic lenses (which remind me distinctly of grown-up View Masters) researchers recorded 16 vaquita sightings during the survey’s duration. Do you think they had to keep putting quarters into those things to continue porpoise-watching? Image credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

In May of 2023, a coalition Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), the Sea Shepherds, and independent scientists conducted a survey of vaquita populations in the Zero Tolerance Area. The crew consisted of marine biologists, acoustic engineers, fishermen, and environmental activists, with a combined experience researching vaquitas of over 400 years. Using a combination of cutting-edge acoustic detectors and high-powered binoculars called big-eyes (creative name), the crew determined the vaquita population to be between 8 and 13 individuals and identified at least 2 calves. This survey marks the first time in the history of vaquita conservation that the species’ predicted population has not dropped, a sign that decades of hard work is finally paying off.

So what can we landlubbers do to help protect vaquitas? First and foremost, we can pay attention to where our seafood originates. In a globally-connected society, it can be very difficult to tell if your shrimp comes from sustainable farming operations or from gillnet fishing in the habitats of endangered species like vaquitas. A great way to inform yourself on how to eat seafood sustainably is to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a program which aims to educate consumers on where and how seafood can be acquired in an environmentally-friendly way. Many people have completely stopped eating seafood due to its environmental impact, though personally I have yet to muster up the courage to give up my beloved Chesapeake Bay crab cakes. If you are interested in supporting vaquita conservation directly, consider supporting the Sea Shepherds, either by donating or volunteering.

What can vaquitas teach us about the world and our place in it? Vaquitas show us that our impact on this planet is tremendous, and when we are not careful we often crush other species underfoot. They show us that economic inequality drives environmental disaster just as much as any other human-centric factor. Yet, they also show us that while human greed and carelessness can destroy our world, human compassion and carefulness can save it. So, the question remains: can we save the vaquita? I think we can. Thanks to the hard work of hundreds of scientists, civil servants, and volunteer activists, hope is not lost for these little loner goths of the sea.

Goth porpoise.
Probably on his way to a Joy Division concert. Image credit: NOAA.

I want to give a special thanks to Seahorse communications officer Francois van Sull and marine biologist Laura Sanchez, two members of the Sea Shepherds who were a huge help in my writing of this article. I also want to thank Marco Garcia-Leon, Sea Shepherds International Relations Coordinator, for his assistance in connecting me with Operation Milagro crew members and providing several of the images in this article. The incredible work that you all have done to save this species is inspiring, and I wish you the best of luck in continuing Operation Milagro.

Sources and More Information:

Consider Nature is written and published by Stephen Goralski. Editors include Benjamin Gamble, Oli Platt, Nickolas Fordham, and Lexi Wise. Our web designer is Oli Platt. Olmungandr, the Consider Nature logo, was made by Maxwell Schumacher.

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