The vaquita whales are a species of dolphin endemic to the North Pacific Ocean, near the Gulf of Mexico in Baja California, Mexico. They are a very diverse group of dolphin species, with some species sharing almost half of their total population, including the Southern resident and Humpback whales. Averaging only 150 cm or 140cm in length, they are the smallest of all living cetacea. Their name comes from the Spanish word “vacita” meaning ‘dive-pool’ because these creatures dive in highly oxygenated, warm swimming pools.
Vaquita whales are among the most endangered cetacean species in the world. The species was first noticed in July 2021 when two female whales were seen near the shores of Point St. George, near Los Angeles. It was the first time since they were first documented in this area that females had been sighted. Since then the number of southern California whales has dwindled down to just a few. However, there are still a few whale pairs in the wild, although breeding efforts have not succeeded. This is because these whales are listed as endangered in 2021 by the National Park Service, due to their lack of numbers.
There are two subspecies of these great whales: the Tooba and the Telcuvus. Both subspecies share the same diet, which consists mainly of fish and squids, but they are different in terms of reproduction. As you may imagine, the Tooba is much larger than the Telcuvus. The Telcuvus is the only whale subspecies that makes a living by eating fish. In fact, there are very few large totoaba (all white skinned) fish in the ocean.
Since the vaquita whale is no longer seen regularly, the dolphins have taken their place. These dolphins, sometimes called harbor porpoises, are one of the smallest members of the species; hence their name. These dolphins play an important role in marine ecosystem by carrying eggs to sea, and even assisting the breeding of other totoaba and telcuvus. Many conservationists believe if these dolphins are allowed back into the wild, it will boost the numbers of these two elusive whales.
Aside from the endangered species act, the last thing the whales and dolphins need is further endangerment. They thrive in the warm sea, and the coastal waters off the Southern California coasts. If something were to go wrong, the impact would be severe on both these species. Although the state of California has laws protecting whales and dolphins, and fishermen can catch and kill porpoises and other cetacean, the rights of these exotic mammals are not being recognised.
The last ray of hope for these two species may be the formation of Sea Life Park in El Capitan, California. This park will help create habitat for the endangered cetaceans and whales, by providing marine refuge areas as well as educational programs for children. For both whales and cetaceans, this would be a great win-win situation. Even though there is still no definite timeline for when these species will be fully recovered, at least we can take solace in the fact that our government and private organisations are working diligently to protect them. The future of California’s marine life does look bright, and with dedicated effort, we can surely see this species emerge again into the wild one day.