Episode 198 – Vaquita: A Little Porpoise With a Big Problem

“…and today we’re talking about a little porpoise with a big problem. But more on that later.”

If you’re in the Gulf of California and you see a small figure break through the glistening surface of the water, you may be witnessing a rare site. Like a glimpse of ball lightning, you may stare, unbelieving at the last Vaquita. The world’s smallest porpoise may also be the most elusive mammal in the sea. But it’s rarity isn’t only about it’s size. This critically endangered porpoise may be on the verge of seeing the end of its Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description of the Vaquita

  • Basically the cutest dolphin (but they’re technically not dolphins)
  • It’s a chubby little porpoise with grey skin and little dark panda patches around its eyes, mouth, and fins
  • Its face is more smushed like a beluga or pilot whale rather than a bottlenose

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro!

  1. Sea Lion
  2. Orca
  3. Puma
  4. Aardwolf


  • Females are slightly larger at 150 cm (4.9 ft).
  • How many vaquitas go into the width of the largest play-doh cup mozaic ever made.
  • Hint: The Play-Doh mosaic was created in Republic Square in Mexico City in 2016. It took more than 26,000 cups to make. 
  • 7.3 vaquitas. The mosaic was 121 square meters or 11 x 11 meters. 36 feet. 


  • 95 lbs
  • How many vaquitas go into the largest shrimp cocktail in the world? 
  • Hint: The delicious pretend beverage was made in Mazatlán, Mexico, which is now known as El Capital de Camerón. It was served in a glass with a 4 foot 5 inch diameter. 
  • 12.4 vaquitas. The cocktail was 538.5 kg (1,187 lb 3 oz.)

Fast Facts about the Vaquita

  • Range: Lives exclusively in the armpit of Baja California – that long thin peninsula in Western Mexico. That small patch of ocean is called the Sea of Cortez and is the smallest range of any marine mammal.
  • Diet: They eat mainly fish but they also eat crustaceans and squid
  • Behavior:
    • Tend to travel in pairs or by themselves
    • But they can sometimes get together in crowds of up to 10
    • They live for about 20 years in the wild and can have calves every year

Major Fact: A Big Problem for a Little Porpoise

This little dolphin has been suggested to us twice but it’s difficult to find a Major Fact on it because it’s so elusive. Despite the fact that it lives in waters that are surrounded by civilization, we know very little about it. So that is it’s Major Fact.

The vaquita is the rarest ocean mammal in the world. Unlike many cetasions it can only be found in one place: the Gulf of California, which is gulf on Mexico’s east coast. 

However, if you want to go out to Mexico to take a look at this tiny porpoise, you may be out of luck. Even researchers that set out to study this little guy spend weeks just to catch a glimpse. 

There are several reasons for this. 

Avoidance and Elusivity 

The Gulf of California is a heavily trafficked area of the sea, but the vaquita avoid’s human contact. Unlike other dolphins, they don’t like to follow boats or socialize around people. They enjoy coastal waters, but even people that live near its habitat may only see it briefly from a distance. 

Fishing and Near Extinction

The main reason it’s difficult to see and study is because it’s critically endangered. It was estimated that there were only around 20 to 30 vaquitas left on earth. It was estimated that they would be extinct in 2018. Even if they aren’t, it may already be too late and there may not be enough vaquita in the world to maintain their population. 

It’s estimated that 15 percent of the remaining Vaquita population dies every year in fishing nets. A particular kind of fishing using gill nets. This style of fishing uses large vertical nets that are attached to the ocean floor. This type of net is especially bad for ocean mammals and sea turtles, because it prevents them from coming up for air. 

Because of this kind of fishing, the vaquita was listed as endangered in 1985. Despite the upper part of the Gulf of California being declared a biosphere reserve, the vaquita’s numbers continued to dwindle until it became critically endangered in 1995. 

The Mexican government partially banned gillnets in the gulf in 2015, and then a gillnet exclusion zone was established in 2017. Other fishing styles, like dragged fishing nets were put into use but a problem remained…

What Does China Have to Do with a Mexican Porpoise?

While some fishermen adapted to the problem by using different fishing gear, dragged nets aren’t good at catching a certain kind of fish called the totoaba. But guess what, the totoaba is also illegal to fish and critically endangered. So why do people continue to catch these fish, killing vaquita in the process? Because their bladders are gold in China. 

The dried swim bladder of a totoaba can be sold for thousands of dollars in China. Even as much as $50,000. Why do Chinese people want the bladders of Mexican fish? Because it’s an alternative to another fish called a yellow croaker that started to die out. In 2018, China seized a shipment of these bladders that was worth around $26 million dollars. Smuggling these bladders is so lucrative, it’s called aquatic cocaine. This fish bladder is prized for it’s believed health and medicinal benefits. 

Ending: So stay close to home, be elusive, and always remember that you’re a small cetacean in a big pond like the vaquita