The vaquita also referred to as “vaquita marina”, “Gulf of California porpoise”, and “cochito”, is the rarest marine mammal in the world, on the verge of extinction. Its name translates to ‘little cow’ in Spanish, justifying its small size, docile temperament, and cow-like pattern encircling its eyes.
Zoologists Kenneth S. Norris and William N. McFarland in 1958 gave the mammal its present name after studying skull specimens on a beach.
Size: Length: 3.93-4.92 ft (1.2-1.5 m) Weight: 95 pounds (43 kg)
Body and Coloration: Vaquitas have a streamlined body common to most porpoises but with more slender proportions. They have a small dorsal fin on their backs and two pectoral fins to the side. Their backsides are gray with a white underbelly. Black patches border their eyes and lips, and like all porpoises, they too have spade-shaped teeth.
Females are generally larger than males with bigger heads and flippers though the latter have taller dorsal fins.
It inhabits a small part of Mexico’s Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez.
They prefer shallow turbid waters close to the shoreline.
Vaquitas can live up to 21 years of age.
Their diet consists of seafood like small fish, crustaceans, squid, and octopi.
Shyer than other porpoises, they avoid boats and do not engage in any water acrobatics.
These mammals either roam around on their own or move in pairs, accompanied by their calf. Sometimes, they even thrive in a bigger group of about ten individuals.
Like most cetaceans, the vaquita also uses the echolocation technique to track how far their food source or predator is with the help of sound.
They mainly protect themselves from predators by swimming away upon sighting them rather than engaging in a direct encounter.
They are often preyed upon by orcas and sharks.
The dorsal fin allows it to keep itself steady while its side fins let it steer. It propels itself forward with its tail.
One speculated reason for the length of the dorsal fin is that it releases excess body heat, allowing it to thrive in warm water.
Like most marine mammals, it regulates its body temperature with the help of blubber or fat reserves that trap heat.
Mating and Reproduction
They are polygynous, i.e., one male mate with multiple females during the breeding period, generally from mid-April to May.
Females will give birth to one offspring after a gestation period of 10.6 months. The calves are weaned for 12 months and eventually reach sexual maturity between 3 and 6 years.
The IUCN lists them as “CR” or “Critically Endangered.”
How many of them are left?
With an estimated ten individuals left in the wild, it is the most endangered marine mammal.
The first-ever survey conducted on its population was in 1997, with a total of 567 species existing. In 2007, it dropped to 150, and by 2018, there were just about 19 of them.
Why is the vaquita endangered?
One of the reasons leading to the depletion of their population is the rampant illegal fishing of the Totoabo. This fish has a few similarities with the vaquita. As a result, it gets captured as a bycatch in the gillnets used and dies upon being unable to get to the surface to breathe. Common threats like pollution and toxic run-off are also an issue.
Attempts to breed the vaquita in captivity have not worked as they tend to get depressed and die eventually. Several programs like PACE-VAQUITA (2008) and VaquitaCPR (2017) were launched to put a stop on illegal fishing. The plan failed as the animals were unable to adapt to their new surroundings. The Mexican and US governments have also made several efforts, with many anglers getting arrested.
To raise awareness, International Save the Vaquita Day is celebrated every year in July.
On September 20, 2019, the documentary Sea of Shadows premiered in Austria detailing efforts to save the vaquita. It won an award at the Sundance festival for World Cinema Documentary.