A good day for Vaquita

In the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, every sighting of a live vaquita is a good day for the species. Describing any chance encounter with vaquita as incredibly rare is a grand understatement. Photographs of any live animals are few and far between. They only seem to emerge randomly online every two or three years now.

Vaquita are very, very shy around boats, and the weather has to be perfect to see their tiny puffs emerge from the surface of the sea. It is a combination of enviromental factors and being in the right place at the right time that will increase your chances of seeing them in the wild.

This week, there is news of a sighting of epic proportion in terms of the vaquita, with a population estimated to be 250 animals from the most recent scientific survey to assess the population.

A group from Mexico's La Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales (CONAMP - National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) sighted a group of 9 vaquitas. They were out near Rocas Consag retrieving acoustic recording equipment used in a montoring program run with Instituto Nacional de Ecologia (INE). Rocas Consag is a giant rock in the middle of the upper gulf, and sits within the vaquita refuge (a protected area for vaquita). It is an amazing place teeming with marine wildlife and birds.

One group consisted of five individuals, with one calf and two juveniles. They were observed by CONAMP staff for two hours. Two pairs of two animals were sighted in close vicinity.

According to SEMERNAT's website (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) -

  • "this new sighting brings new energy and fresh breath of air to the conservation efforts in the region."

This is obviously good news for the Mexican government who, according to their website, have spent nearly 425 million pesos (32.5 million US dollars) on vaquita conservation; a combination of an intricate fisheries buyout and management program. Since 2008, there has been an enforced ban on local gillnet fishing within the Vaquita refuge. Scientists have identified gillnets used to catch shrimp as the main threat to the vaquita population. My documentary film goes into depth to understand Mexico's vaquita conservation program, implementation and potential challenges to local communities and the vaquita.

I have spent a number of weeks trying to film and photograph vaquita over recent years and am very lucky to be one of the few people who have captured them at close range in the wild. So, it is exciting to hear about this encounter and am incredibly happy to see that the team recorded it on a digital camera for people to witness. I hope that this type of encounter can go along way to keeping the animals in the public eye, even for a brief moment.

Honestly, my heart raced seeing this image, like having an accidental encounter with good friend you have not seen for a number of years. It brought back memories of sitting in a boat for weeks, trying to find that rare encounter in flat seas with the epic baja landscape in the distance.

So, the question is - does this mean that the conservation programs are working?

On the surface, it is a good indicator. However, there are complicated socio-economic issues that are at the heart of achieving success in the conservation program. So, I am still keeping my fingers crossed at this point as there is a long way to go until I pack away my 'save the vaquita' t-shirt.

For more information on the sighting, read the press release on SEMERNAT's website (in spanish).

See the photo of the sighting on SEMERNAT's flickr page.

Watch the online documentary - Vaquita - Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise.