Meet The Vaquita Marina

There are days that pass by in a blur, each blending into the next without great significance. Then there are special, insurmountable days that help define a lifetime. I will never forget these past 24 hours; this experience will have great influence on me for years to come. I returned from filming the encounter with the killer whale calf, deflated, depressed and feeling a little helpless. I backed up the footage on my computer and hard drives set up in a corner of the dry lab, where other scientists had laptops arranged for their end of day duties.

It was still early in the day, only 10am when we returned with the Zodiac. The weather was flattening out to a gentle Beaufort 1 sea state, which means there is relatively no wind, no white caps, no swell, only a few ripples on the water. The stage was set, perfect weather for seeing vaquita.

I walked onto the flying bridge where the observers were poised scanning the horizon. There was a buzz in the air as news spread that both Tom Jefferson‘s team using the local sport fishing boat, the Pancho Villa, and the acoustic sailboat, the “Vaquita Express” had encounters with the animal that everyone was searching for, the desert porpoise, locally known as the ‘Vaquita Marina’.

"Rough Cut" Videos - Sightings from the JORDAN, and rare footage of the Vaquita porpoises.


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I grabbed my camera, and filmed more shots of researchers looking through the giant “big-eyes”, recording conversations and listening to stories. I noticed Bob Pitman come off a break, and make his was toward his station. Although he would never agree, Bob is a bit of a legend in the marine mammal world, spending over 30 years doing visual surveys for marine mammals across the globe. If something is out there, he will see it – with eagle eyes and a superstar personality, he lives up to his reputation with ease. Within seconds, out of the corner of my eye, I notice him take one look before declaring, “I think we have vaquita!”

It is as if you are watching Michael Jordan hit a half court shot with only one second left in the game - if anyone was going to do it, it was him. The sighting sent the team into an excited frenzy. One sighting quickly turned into two, then three. All the observers took a look to get oriented and see what an animal that almost none of them have ever seen before actually looks like.

The Jordan was traveling through a supposed vaquita ‘hotspot’ just at the right time. Although we were seeing vaquita around the ship, they were too far for me to even think about filming.

After an hour or so recording sightings, we called Tom Jefferson on the Pancho Villa. He was within a 5 miles of the Jordan. We wanted to let him know what we were seeing so he could move in and hopefully take some photo-id images.

Barb Taylor turned to me and said - “Hey Chris, I think it may be a good idea that you join Tom. They are close enough we can send you over in a zodiac. You want to go?”

“Sounds great!”

I never dreamed I would be in a position to even see vaquita, let alone film the animal in the wild. It has been tried unsuccessfully over many years, and is akin to climbing Mount Everest with no oxygen, and your legs tied together. Several images of dead, entangled vaquita exist, together with a few snaps of their tiny pixilated bodies in the distance.

Researchers Paula Olson and Tom Jefferson scan the horizon for Vaquita onboard the Pancho Villa. Chris Johnson

I furiously packed my camera gear, put my bags on the zodiac, and made my way at high speed to the Pancho Villa. Tom had the most enormous grin across his face tempered with sheer relief. The zodiac pulled up to the side of the boat and Tom had success written all over his face – “We got pictures!!!!”

I had never been so happy for a scientist in my life. Over the weeks, I have pointed my video camera (probably quite annoyingly) at Tom’s face, asking him day after day what was happening, while documenting the search for an animal so rare and illusive, people told us we would never see it, let alone photograph or film it. Through all of the pressure to deliver, Tom has been fantastic to work with. He is a walking library of scientific knowledge about cetaceans and I have learned a lot by listening to him over seemingly endless hours drifting and waiting for an animal we were starting to believe may never appear.

When you try something different (some said crazy) like starting a photo-id project on vaquita, an animal known to keep its secrets well hidden, it is only natural to criticize, or doubt it can be done. However, considering that we know far more about mammals on land than we do about their marine cousins, I believe it is the risky projects such as this that make a real difference to our scientific understanding, and in raising awareness amongst the public.

Before I joined the Jordan, Tom had told me he was up all night, worried about the “what if we don’t see a vaquita” scenario. Now the pressure was off.

I yelled to Tom as I dragged my bags to the aft deck.

“How many photos did you guys get?”

“Well, at least a couple hundred!” An even bigger smile emerged on top of his already impossibly giant grin.

Two vaquita emerge from calm seas. Photo - Chris Johnson

It was getting late in the day, and Tom decided to stay out on the water overnight. I prepared my film equipment for the next day, and lay out on deck thinking about what the next day may bring. There was no wind, and the sea blended together with the desert in magnificent hues of yellow, orange and red. That night as I lay out under the stars it was as if we were floating in a giant bathtub, every sound amplified by the stillness. At 3am, a California seal lion kept me company swimming and snorting around the boat. At 4am, a pelican flapped its wings as if to say, “Hey don’t go to sleep!” All of the excitement kept me awake, and I loved being on the sea with my new acquaintances. It felt like even the animals were happy with the respite brought by the calm weather.

I kept thinking how I was probably the only one on the expedition who had not glimpsed a vaquita yet. I was so busy filming the unfolding action, I forgot to look through the “big-eyes” on the Jordan, and I arrived too late on the Pancho Villa. But as I would realize, good things come to those who wait!

We were still fairly close to the Jordan, but they decided to continue their research survey on a track line further south. They asked if they could send Greg Silber over on the zodiac, and if we would later bring him to port to transfer on a van back to San Diego. On my short stint on the Jordan, I talked to Greg quite a bit about the area, and his history doing PhD work on Vaquita over 20 years ago. His presence and field experience was going to have a significant impact on the day.

Very soon after Greg arrived, so did the vaquita! The slick sea revealed tiny dorsal fins 800 meters away. Paula Olson picked out a couple of groups near us. It was my turn to meet the ‘Vaquita Marina’.

There was no blow, just a series of distant dark triangular shapes briefly breaking the surface of the water, then a pause, then a rapid “kicking” movement and they were down. They would surface four or five times consecutively, then disappear for a few minutes. I have never worked with porpoises in the wild, and could not get over how tiny these animals were.

Vaquita. Photo - Tom Jefferson

It took awhile to become accustomed to how they moved, and how to spot them. But there is one thing I quickly learned, that the only way to see the world’s smallest cetacean is in the calmest of sea conditions. From a small boat, Beaufort 2, a sea state perfect for sighting almost any other cetacean species, is too rough to sight vaquita unless the animals are within 30 meters, or you are pointing binoculars directly at them. Beaufort 1 is much better, but the only way to really work with them, is to have the magical conditions of a glassy Beaufort 0. Those rare instances when the sea is like a mirror and you can almost see your reflection. Luckily for us, this was our stage today.

They were in groups of 3 or 4 and we were quietly drifting closer and closer. Vaquita are so shy that the few sightings in past years have seen them disappear at a range of about 700 meters, but we were steadily getting much closer. It was difficult to pick out the dorsal even at 200 meters away though the viewfinder, and equally challenging to keep the camera steady. The photographers were poised high on the flying bridge to get photo- id shots, Greg was on the foredeck shouting positions, and sharing his field observations. I was on the bow attempting to get some imagery at a lower angle, close to the water.

It was challenging trying to focus, and keep track of the animals. I just could not believe how small they were. I understand now why many people think of these animals as mythical creatures. They are akin to the people in society that go about their business unnoticed and blend into the background, or the kid in the back of the class who never gets attention because they are not loud or boisterous, rather they are shy, quiet, and introverted. Vaquita are mysterious, timid little guys living their life on their own terms, showing no interest in boats or people.

Cameras were firing photographs faster and faster and the frustration of weeks of searching melted away, replaced by sheer joy. The Pancho Villa was in the perfect position following the animals cautiously when something miraculous happened. A pair of animals decided to do something unusual for vaquita, they headed straight toward us, diving only 20 meter away they swam directly beneath the bow.

I was able to frame a couple of close shots and was now equally relieved myself. I set the camera to film in slo-motion to capture the movement of the animals at the surface. Like all photographers I was hoping for more, but thrilled to finally be in the right position at the right time to record this event.

Greg Silber called over to me, “Did you get that Chris?”

“I think I did...”

“You know, a lot of people have come here over the years, and that is something no one has ever been able to film. You are very lucky my friend…”

My thoughts exactly.

We spent an hour or so among a couple of groups who were milling at the surface. However, soon they decided the show was over and slipped away as quickly as they had emerged. Tom and his team captured crucial images to help start the photo-id catalog of the animals. We are posting some of them so people can view clear images for the first time, of this very rare and poorly understood species in their natural habitat.

Tom finishes his project on October 30th, so I will spend the next couple of days with him on the water, as well as visiting and filming with researchers on the Koi Pai. I will then focus on the local community and the conservation complexities faced by vaquita and fishermen. Then, it’s back to the Jordan until mid-November.


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Photos and video taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/847/08 & No. DR/488/08 ) from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instiuto Nacional de Ecología (INE).

For more information about the use of photos or videos from this posting, contact GENEVIEVE JOHNSON, Education Director - earthOCEAN.