Now that we know more about the background to these special little porpoises, vaquita researcher Thomas Jefferson tells us more about the importance of photographing them alive and in the wild and shares his experiences of the 2008 expedition to capture some of the first images of these porpoises.
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has been recognized as one of the World’s rarest and most vulnerable mammalian species since its scientific discovery just a bit over fifty years ago. Porpoise deaths in gillnet fisheries are unsustainable and are clearly causing the small population to decline. The vaquita is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
With the recent discovery that the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) of China’s Yangtze River is now extinct, the vaquita is becomes the most endangered cetacean species in the world. The vaquita population has declined by more than 50% since 1997, when the first large-scale survey of the entire range was conducted. Current population size of the vaquita has been estimated by combining information from a visual and acoustic survey conducted in 2008. It was estimated that only about 245 vaquitas remained in 2008, and if the decline is continuing, then there would likely be no more than 220 left at present!
Back in 2008, efforts to raise public awareness and conserve the vaquita had been limited by the absence of high-quality photo or video images of the animals alive in their natural habitat. Green groups often successfully use images of wildlife to focus their fund-raising efforts and obtain sympathy for endangered species (a clear example is the giant panda, in which images of this large, attractive animal were instrumental in gaining sympathy for its effective conservation).
This had been difficult with the vaquita, which is also a large, attractive animal (and with a unique appearance, quite different from any of the other six porpoise species). Few people realized this, however, as the best available images were blurry, distant photos showing little more than a grainy dot that looked more like a dust particle on the lens than a marine mammal! There were even claims from within Mexico that the vaquita was not real - a ‘mythical creature,’ further hampering conservation efforts. Showing the world what the vaquita looked like, alive and in its natural habitat, would be critical to efforts to raise the funds needed to save the species. In addition, photography could help us to learn more about the biology of this poorly-known species.
The 2008 Photographic Expedition
So, with funding from several organizations (including WDCS), I set out in late 2008 with my colleagues Tom Kieckhefer, Paula Olson, and Chris Johnson, to see if we could rectify this problem. From 2-30 October 2008, we conducted small-vessel surveys for vaquitas from San Felipe. Each day, weather permitting, we traveled offshore to the region between San Felipe and Rocas Consag. We searched for vaquitas while the vessel was moving, but also periodically conducted ‘stop and drift’ searches, in which the vessel’s engine and depth sounder were shut down, and 3-6 people searched the area with naked eye and binoculars.
We used two boats: the Emma Luz, a small 21 ft. outboard motor boat, called a panga, and the Pancho Villa, a 57-foot sportfishing vessel based in Puerto Peñasco. The Pancho Villa was much more stable and seaworthy, with a higher platform and much greater capability for observer observations. It proved to be a better type of platform for the searches. After 17 days worrying days of not seeing a single vaquita, we finally had a flat calm day and our first sightings on 18 October. We hit the jackpot! Over the next 12 days we had 12 more sightings…
We got photos of vaquitas during eight of the sightings. Most photos were very distant, but we did obtain some high-quality images that have proven useful for promoting vaquita conservation (see our website www.vivavaquita.org). Also, we obtained images that were adequate for photo-identification. This represents the first time that vaquitas have been photo-identified.
Despite the challenges and difficulties evidenced by not seeing vaquitas for 17 days, this project demonstrated that (with a great deal of patience and some luck) vaquitas can be photographed and that photo-identification of individual porpoises is possible. Many of our colleagues doubted this was possible, and after 17 days with no sightings, we were beginning to doubt it ourselves. The animals are incredibly cryptic and rare, so a great deal of time will generally be needed. However, the critically-endangered status of the species make this worthwhile. Through future such efforts, we hope to help prevent the extinction of this wonderful and mysterious little porpoise!
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) from the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Resursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government.