Front Line


Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - Text by Chris John­son, WWF-Aus­tralia Images by Chris John­son, Flip Nick­lin/Min­den Pic­tures/WWF

I NEVER DREAMED I WOULD SEE A VAQUITA, let alone film the an­i­mal in the wild. After spend­ing al­most eight weeks search­ing for this elu­sive an­i­mal on three dif­fer­ent boats, for hours at a time in a desert sea, the stage was set. It was per­fect weather to see one of Na­ture’s most reclu­sive ma­rine mam­mals.

That day was Oc­to­ber 19, 2008 and that day changed my life: Lit­tle did I know I would be one of a hand­ful of peo­ple on the planet to bear wit­ness to a species on the verge of ex­tinc­tion.


Only dis­cov­ered in the 1950s, the vaquita is the small­est cetacean on Earth and are only found in a small area, the up­per Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­ico.

The vaquita pop­u­la­tion has been de­clin­ing steadily due to ac­ci­den­tal by­catch in gill­nets.

They can­not see these near-in­vis­i­ble nets, set pri­mar­ily for shrimp and other fish such as to­toaba. They swim into the net, be­come en­tan­gled and drown.

In 2008, I was in­vited to join an in­ter­na­tional re­search ex­pe­di­tion as a vis­it­ing sci­en­tist led by the In­sti­tuto Na­cional de Ecolo­gia, Mex­ico (INECC) and the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NOAA), South­west Fish­eries Science Cen­ter, USA.

Three re­search ves­sels were used to search for vaquita and de­ploy new in­stru­ments with spe­cial un­der­wa­ter mi­cro­phones that would lis­ten for them year-round. They could then es­ti­mate the vaquita pop­u­la­tion and mon­i­tor them acous­ti­cally for years to come.


My job was to do the im­pos­si­ble – film vaquitas. Vaquitas are in­cred­i­bly shy around boats and, when they hear the noise of an en­gine, they dis­ap­pear.

I spent two months doc­u­ment­ing ef­forts of sci­en­tists on Ex­pe­di­tion Vaquita (2008), and trav­elled around lo­cal coastal com­mu­ni­ties with re­searchers in­ter­view­ing fish­er­men and their fam­i­lies.

I learned how fish­ing was the core life­line for many peo­ple, and the foun­da­tion of the econ­omy. How­ever, there was a com­plex web of il­le­gal­ity and the rules were not nec­es­sar­ily fol­lowed by all.

Soon after the ex­pe­di­tion, re­searchers es­ti­mated the pop­u­la­tion to be 250 an­i­mals.

Data-driven plan

An eco­nomic plan was de­signed and im­ple­mented by the Mex­i­can govern­ment with in­put from sci­en­tists, fish­er­men, NGOs and lo­cal com­mu­nity mem­bers that in­cluded buy­ing back fish­ing li­cences to stop fish­ing and pay­ing fish­er­man to move into “al­ter­na­tive liveli­hoods”. These ranged from cre­at­ing shops to own­ing ho­tels or start­ing other tourism-re­lated busi­nesses. By pro­vid­ing al­ter­na­tive em­ploy­ment for fish­er­men, the aim was to re­duce pres­sure on the vaquita by re­mov­ing the num­ber of nets from the wa­ter.

At that time, many were hope­ful that there would be enough time and buy-in from com­mu­ni­ties for this to work. How­ever, time has not been kind to the vaquita.

Steady de­cline

Over the next few years, I trav­elled to Mex­ico twice, vis­it­ing and in­ter­view­ing fish­er­men.

The fish­eries buy­out and al­ter­na­tive liveli­hood pro­grammes were fail­ing. For ex­am­ple, in the sleepy town of El Golfo of Santa Clara with a pop­u­la­tion of 3,000, the econ­omy could not sup­port rapidly ex­pand­ing busi­nesses.

On pa­per the buy­out was de­signed to help; in prac­tice, it was frag­mented and lacked ba­sic busi­ness train­ing. Soon, both le­gal and il­le­gal fish­ing started to in­crease.

They can­not see these near­in­vis­i­ble nets. They swim into them, be­come en­tan­gled and drown.

De­vel­op­ing al­ter­na­tive fish­ing gear was con­ser­va­tion’s “sil­ver bul­let”. On one trip,

I vis­ited staff at WWF-Mex­ico who were lead­ing this de­vel­op­ment. Hope emerged that truly vi­able, “vaquita-safe” fish­ing gear could be de­vel­oped in time and to scale.

But, fast for­ward to 2017 and the news is worse. After im­ple­ment­ing an emer­gency two-year ban on all gill­net fish­ing in the Up­per Gulf, and spend­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in com­pen­sa­tion to fish­er­men, re­searchers now es­ti­mate there are fewer than 30 an­i­mals left.

To make things worse, the vaquita are vic­tims of in­creased il­le­gal gill­nets set for an en­dan­gered fish called the to­toaba – a de­mand driven by an il­le­gal in­ter­na­tional wildlife trade. The fish’s blad­der is dried and smug­gled to China, where wealthy peo­ple pay thou­sands of dol­lars be­liev­ing it to have medic­i­nal pow­ers.

Now the vaquita could be in its fi­nal hour. WWF has called for an im­me­di­ate crack­down on the il­le­gal to­toaba fish­ery and is re­new­ing ef­forts to scale up the use of vaquita-safe fish­ing gear. NGOs such as Sea Shepherd tire­lessly work to pa­trol ar­eas with their vol­un­teer crews to en­force the law. And, the Mex­i­can govern­ment and re­searchers are now im­ple­ment­ing a last-ditch ef­fort to catch the re­main­ing vaquita in the wild, keep them in cap­tiv­ity and breed the few re­main­ing an­i­mals.

Think­ing back to that per­fect day at sea on Oc­to­ber 18, 2008, ab­so­lute awe de­scribes my feel­ings watch­ing two vaquita play­fully danc­ing in the sea – a mo­ment frozen in time.

I never could have imag­ined time run­ning out for one of Na­ture’s se­cre­tive won­ders.

Sci­en­tists Paula Ol­son (right) and Tom Jefferson (left) search­ing for vaquita A vaquita killed by a gill­net

Gill­nets are the pri­mary cause of vaquita mor­tal­ity in the up­per Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­ico Bot­tom: Vaquita in the up­per Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­ico, 19 Oc­to­ber 2008. Be­cause vaquita are so small and fast, they are rarely sighted, and only ever in...

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