The Vaquita is not only the world's smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal. Less than 30 vaquitas remain.
UPDATE: With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in human care no longer considered viable, conservation action is now focused on enforcement and net removal, with enhanced effort during the totoaba spawning season. For current information on the vaquita’s population status and conservation efforts, including necropsy reports, please see the latest CIRVA report.
The tiny vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, estimated about 200 vaquitas remaining in 2012. By 2014, CIRVA estimated that about half of them had been killed in gillnets, leaving fewer than 100 individuals. Of these, fewer than 25 were likely to be reproductively mature females. A report prepared by CIRVA in May, 2016 presented an even more dire estimate, finding only 60 vaquitas remaining. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997.
CLASSIFICATION: Class Mammalia, Order Cetacea (whales), Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales), Family Phocoenidae (porpoises), scientific name Phocoena sinus
DESCRIPTION: 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.
SIZE: The vaquita is one of the world’s smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) reaching a maximum length of 5 ft. (1.5 m).
- Adult males: 1.3 to 1.45 m (4.3–4.8 ft.) long, weigh 37 to 43 kg (82–95 lb.)
- Adult females: Females tend to grow slightly larger; 1.35 to 1.5 m (4–5 ft.), weigh 41 to 57.5 kg (90–127 lb.).
- Newborn calves: 71 to 74 cm (2.3–2.4 ft.) in length, weigh about 7.5 kg (17 lb.).
RANGE: The vaquita lives only in the upper Gulf of California; it has the most restricted range of any cetacean.
HABITAT: Vaquitas mostly inhabit shallow, murky coastal waters.
DIET: Mostly eat bottom or near-bottom dwelling fishes and squids.
REPRODUCTION: After a 10- to 11-month gestation, the female gives birth to a single calf that nurses for 6 to 8 months. Most calves are born from February to May.
LIFESPAN: Up to 21 or more years.
STATUS: The vaquita is the most critically endangered marine mammal species.
- 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
- Vaquitas live about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from SeaWorld San Diego.
- Vaquitas tend to be solitary. The only stable social groups are made up of mother-calf pairs.
- 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.