About the Vaquita

Vaquitas are a truly unique species adapted to a curious marine habitat

All porpoises live in highly productive waters, which are typically found in northern areas.  Vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) have made their home in the northern Gulf of California thousands of miles from their nearest relative in Peru.  Despite being next to one of the hottest deserts in the world, the waters where vaquitas live are not clear, tropical waters but waters clouded with life because of the strong currents and nutrients stirred from the muddy bottom deposited by thousands of years of runoff from the Colorado River.  Vaquitas sport an extra tall dorsal fin and long flippers that likely help them dissipate the heat.

The vaquita is dark gray to light gray to white and is counter-shaded with a dark-gray dorsal and white ventral. It has a distinct dark ring around each eye, dark gray lipstick-like markings and a dark stripe extending from the chin to the flippers. It has a relatively taller and more falcate (curved-back) dorsal fin than other porpoise species.​

Species Information

Vaquita Population Decline

Between 1997 and 2019, gillnets killed hundreds of vaquitas. Their estimated population dropped from approximately 600 to fewer than 20 animals.

1997
567
2008
245
2015
59
2016
30
2019
Less Than 20

Vaquita Facts

  • Vaquitas were scientifically discovered as a new species in 1958.
  • The vaquita is also called “vaquita marina” and the Gulf of California harbor porpoise. Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow” and “vaquita marina” is Spanish for “little sea cow.”
  • The vaquita, like other porpoises, differs from dolphins in several ways. Porpoises lack a beak while dolphins tend to have more prominent beaks. Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth whereas dolphins’ teeth are conical. Porpoises also tend to have triangular dorsal fins, rather than the falcate dorsal fins of most dolphins.
  • While most porpoises inhabit cold waters, water temperatures in the vaquita’s habitat can exceed 32°C (90°F) in the summer and fall. Its proportionally larger dorsal fin and flippers help a vaquita offload extra body heat in warmer waters.
  • Vaquitas are polydactylous—they have an extra digit in each flipper.
  • The vaquita’s entire range is about 4,000 km2—nearly the size of the state of
 Rhode Island.
  • Vaquitas live about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego.
  • Vaquitas tend to be solitary. The only stable social groups are made up of mother-calf pairs but have been spotted in groups of up to 9 animals.
  • Vaquitas produce series of short, intense, high-frequency clicks for echolocation and possibly communication. They rely on echolocation to navigate and hunt in dark or murky waters where vision is of little use.
  • The clicks that vaquitas produce probably lie outside the hearing range of their fish and squid prey, allowing the vaquitas to sneak up on their prey.
  • Scientists use arrays of underwater hydrophones to “listen” for a vaquita’s distinctive clicks. This technique helps scientists obtain more accurate population estimates for the vaquita.