Restricted to the extreme northern Gulf of California, Mexico
Over the continental shelf in relatively shallow waters
Order Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), Family Phocoenidae (porpoises)
The Vaquita is a small harbor porpoise native to a very small area in the extreme northern part of the Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the smallest known Cetacean (whale, dolphin, or porpoise) alive today, reaching lengths of only 4-5 feet (1.2-1.5 m) and weights of not much more than 100 pounds (45 kg). In addition, unlike most dolphins, the Vaquita has almost no discernible beak. Among the Cetaceans, Vaquitas reach sexual maturity relatively quickly and begin reproducing at age 3-6 years old.
Reproductive output, however, is quite low – with females giving birth to only one calf, every other year – and the gestation period is 11 months, longer than most land mammals, including humans. Lifespan is also low, with individuals likely living no longer than approximately 25 years. Vaquitas are predatory and eat a variety of Gulf of California fishes, squids, and crustaceans. They are extremely shy and are therefore very difficult for scientists to study in their natural habitat. Much of our knowledge of vaquitas is a result of their being captured as bycatch in local net fisheries.
The vaquita has the dubious distinction of being considered the “most endangered Cetacean" on the planet. Even though it has never been targeted directly by hunters (like many of the large whales and dolphins), accidental capture in net fisheries is a significant threat to continued survival of the vaquita as a species. With newest estimates of population size ranging from only 95-100 mature individuals and accidental deaths approximated at 30-80 individuals (including many juveniles) per year, the vaquita is in serious danger of becoming extinct. Habitat alteration and marine pollution are also potential threats to its survival, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature includes the vaquita on its list of critically endangered species – it is very highly vulnerable to extinction. The Mexican government has recently taken steps to protect the vaquita and other endangered species in the Gulf of California, but without continued efforts from conservation organizations, like Oceana, the vaquita may be lost.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.