Vaquita

Phocoena sinus
Other names: 
  • Gulf of California harbour porpoise
  • Gulf porpoise
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 1.45m
  • Female: 1.5m
  • Calf: 0.8m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: Unknown
  • Female: 50kg
  • Calf: Unknown
Diet: 
  • Fish
  • Squid
Estimated population: 
< 100
IUCN Listing: 
CR
CITES Appendix: 
I
CMS Appendix: 
Not Listed
Classification: 

Vaquitas are possibly the smallest marine cetacean and have the most limited distribution. They also have the unenviable label of being one of the most endangered cetaceans and are rarely seen in the wild. In Spanish, vaquita means 'little cow' and many local people believe them to be 'mythical creatures' as most have never seen one and photographs, until recently, were lacking.

Appearance: 

The vaquita has a complex patterning and colour variations in individuals are common. Like the other porpoises, the vaquita has virtually no beak and between 32 and 44 teeth in the upper jaw and 34 to 40 in the lower. Their bodies are robust in build and medium to dark grey on the back, sometimes appearing tawny or olive brown. Vaquitas have a black patch around each eye, and the mouth area is dark. Their bellies are paler grey or white. A dark grey stripe runs from their mouth, down their chin, and widens where the flippers, which are small and broad, meet their body. Vaquita's dorsal fins are shark-like being tall and triangular and the species can sometimes be confused with bottlenose and common dolphins which are also present in their range however their size is distinctive.

Behaviour: 

Vaquitas surface slowly and dive smoothly, often staying underwater for some time. They are not often observed at the surface but when they are, their movements are calm and smooth. When they blow they can make a loud noise similar to that of a harbour porpoise. Vaquitas are usually encountered alone or in groups of up to five. A group of 40 was once recorded, but this is unusual. They are very shy and avoid boats whenever possible.

Distribution: 

Vaquitas are found in the northern end of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), with a core area of approx. 2,235 km². They live in shallow water along the shoreline, often in shallow lagoons. Their range may stretch further south along the Mexican mainland and movements may be seasonal. Vaquitas are on the brink of extinction and the worldwide population is estimated to consist of less than 100 individuals. The major threat to the vaquita is entanglement in fishing nets (specifically gillnets used to catch shrimp) whilst habitat loss, climate change and chemical pollution are also concerns. In 1993, the Mexican government established the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve to protect vaquitas and their habitat whilst in June 2013, they approved an "Official Norm" where ostensibly, over the next three years, they hope to eradicate drift gillnets by substituting them with a more selective fishing net. Importantly, this will require the co-operation of the local fishing communities. Current conservation efforts include not only the Mexican government but also national and international NGOs,academic institutions and other relevant stakeholders, aiming to extreme conservation measures in order to avoid the extinction of the vaquita. The IUCN lists this species as Critically Endangered.

Distribution map: