Cheryl Butner from ¡Viva Vaquita! takes us with her on the recent "Vaquita Expedition" and shares their highs and their lows!
Last month Dr. Tom Jefferson’s team and students from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland traveled back to San Felipe, Baja California on a second vaquita photo expedition. They were hoping to follow up on the success of the 2008 expedition where the first high-quality photos of vaquitas alive in the wild were taken for conservation and educational purposes. I joined the team during the last week to help with outreach and education in the local community.
Once again our boat was the Pancho Villa, a large sportfishing vessel with a higher deck, perfect for marine mammal observation. We chose the month of June because according to weather forecasts it was supposed to be one of the calmest months of the year, and very calm seas are critical for vaquita spotting. For almost the entire 3 weeks we were there the weather was unseasonably windy and the forecasts were pretty much unreliable. Once whitecaps form on the water it’s practically impossible to spot vaquitas at the surface since their dorsal fins are so small.
On days where the weather looked favorable, we would go out early in the morning and search the area around Rocas Consag where vaquita sightings had been made in the past. It seems that vaquitas are scared off by loud noises so once we reached an spot that looked promising we would “stop and drift” - turn off the boat’s engine and depth sounder - and everyone on board would scan the area with binoculars. We would do this several times a day as long as weather conditions were favorable. Often the wind picked up as the day went on, so sometimes we returned to the harbor early when viewing conditions worsened.
The first week was fairly uneventful, we did alot of searching, but had no vaquita sightings. Into the second week we had some interesting ocean visitors like a Bryde’s whale, whale shark, and dozens of bat rays. Later in the expedition we saw two hammerhead sharks, several sea lions, and another shark, which was either a mako or a great white.
Then towards the end of the second week, it happened....
Our captain, Antonio, sighted a vaquita off the port-bow that surfaced twice and avoided the boat. We stopped to search, but at that same moment we were approached by the PROFEPA boat (Mexico’s environmental law enforcement agency) asking to see our permits. The area where we had been searching is a federally-protected Vaquita Refuge and PROFEPA patrols the refuge to ensure that no activities that could harm the vaquita are taking place. By the time the agents reviewed our paperwork, the vaquita was gone. No one had been able to get any pictures. It was bad timing, but good to see the PROFEPA agents doing their job.
During the third and final week we continued to search out on the water as often as the weather would permit, and we did have a couple of fairly calm days. On these days we would stay out 12+ hours, searching with high hopes, but we didn’t have any more sightings after the brief encounter in the second week.
Whenever we were not out on the water, I was in town talking with people about the vaquita. I distributed flyers to hotels, restaurants, and stores in San Felipe trying to spread the word about the vaquita and how to help prevent their extinction. San Felipe, located only a 4 hour drive from San Diego, is a popular tourist destination and has a large number of American residents. I found that the vast majority of people I met in the Mexican and American communities of San Felipe knew what a vaquita was and were supportive of saving the species. One day I had a very interesting encounter with two local fishermen who had been fishing off of San Felipe for 30 years. They did not believe that vaquitas even exist because they had never seen one in all their time out on the water! Unfortunately this is a fairly common belief in some communities of the northern Gulf of California and one that the Mexican government is trying to change by using the photos from Tom’s 2008 vaquita photo expedition.
With only a couple of days remaining we received some very bad news, the Pancho Villa had an engine problem and would be out of commission for the rest of our stay. We were all very disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to make a last effort to find and photograph vaquitas, but we decided to make the best of it and focus on more outreach instead.
On our last night there we were invited to El Dorado Ranch (a popular housing community north of town) to give a presentation about the vaquita. We had a great turnout – over 60 people attended – and the audience asked Tom a lot of excellent questions. It was wonderful to meet so many people interested in saving the vaquita. After the presentation our team headed over to La Vaquita Restaurant for dinner, a tradition usually reserved for after a successful day of vaquita spotting and photographing. It was a very good decision to go there anyway because the restaurant manager ended up introducing us to some great contacts who also happened to be dining there and were interested in our work – including the local PROFEPA agents.
It was a great end to a great expedition! Although we were not able to get the new pictures we had hoped for, we were very happy with the success of the outreach and education component of the project. We made many key connections for our next expedition and were glad to find that the majority of residents in San Felipe are supportive of saving the vaquita. Without the support of the communities in the northern Gulf of California, vaquita conservation would not be possible! And we support all of the hard work that the Mexican government is doing to save their country’s very special porpoise.
If you would like to read more about Expedition Vaquita 2010, please visit our official blog