Brink of Extinction: A Technological Approach to Saving the Last Vaquita Porpoises

San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico — In the silty blue waters of the northern Sea of Cortez, off the coast of the small fishing town of San Felipe, lives the smallest and rarest marine mammal in the world. Vaquita marina, whose name loosely translates to “little cow of the sea,” is a member of the porpoise family and holds the unfortunate title of the world’s most endangered cetacean. Fewer than 100 of this captivating creature remain, with recent population estimates placing that number at closer to 50 individuals.

The vaquita’s plight is not isolated. Its fate is closely tied to that of the totoaba, another critically endangered species in the Gulf of California. The totoaba fish is being illegally fished to extinction for its swim bladder, which is highly prized on the Chinese black market for theoretical (and unproven) “medicinal purposes,” and sells for thousands of dollars per kilogram. Thousands of totoaba are caught in gillnets, stripped of their swim bladders and left to rot, while the vaquita get entangled in those same gillnets and drown.

Unless vaquita mortality in gillnets is completely eliminated, scientists predict the tiny porpoise will be extinct by 2018. Luckily, as of April 2015 a complete gillnet ban was enacted in the vaquita habitat, halting the gillnet fishing for fish and shrimp that is the primary industry in Gulf towns like San Felipe. However, this ban does not deter the illegal totoaba fishers, who continue to illegally set gillnets in the area. (Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction–Can It Be Saved?)

Not a single underwater photo of the vaquita exists

Complicating the conservation effort is the lack of photos and videos of the vaquita alive in their habitat. Due to their dwindling numbers and shy nature they are rarely sighted, and the only photos and videos of live vaquita that exist were captured in the brief moment that the creature surfaces to breathe before disappearing again into the murky depths.  Not a single underwater photo of the animal exists. Some fishermen even believe that the vaquita is a myth, since they have fished their whole lives without sighting one.

As an engineer by training and a photographer by hobby, my first instinct was to ask whether there is a technological approach to getting an underwater photo of a live vaquita. Remote monitoring technologies like camera traps have become ubiquitous in behavioral monitoring and conservation of terrestrial species, but the harshness of the underwater environment makes the design of an underwater counterpart challenging and costly. Infrared sensors are often used as trigger mechanisms for the traps, but water filters out the infrared light too quickly for this to be a viable triggering method underwater.

My idea is to use vaquita clicks to trigger a camera

Dolphins and porpoises both emit acoustic vocalizations. These sounds are sometimes used for communication, and sometimes are echolocation clicks used for finding food and navigating underwater. These clicks are ultrasonic and cannot be heard by humans. Vaquita researchers have been recording these clicks as a means to estimate the current population size, but my idea is to use these clicks to trigger a camera. When a vaquita emits a click nearby, a specialized underwater camera (the “SphereCam”) begins to record, and if the vaquita swims within range it will capture the first-ever underwater photo of a live vaquita.

Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa and Antonella Wilby deploy the SphereCam in the Sea of Cortez. Photo by Francesca Wilby.
Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa and Antonella Wilby deploy the SphereCam in the Sea of Cortez. The project is funded in part with a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Young Explorers program (follow the link beneath this post to the grants program). Photograph by Francesca Wilby.

We haven’t been successful yet. Capturing a photo of one of 50 animals in the ocean is like finding a needle in a haystack — when the haystack is over 600 cubic kilometers of water and the needles are always moving. But I’m optimistic. The acoustically-triggered camera system can tell how far away a vaquita is based on how loud the clicking sounds are, and if the vaquita is nearby the camera will start recording. We know from the acoustic population surveys where vaquita tend to spend more of their time. If the camera is in the right place for long enough, I think we’ll get lucky.

Field Inspection linkThis January I was lucky enough to accompany the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) on their annual field inspection, this year held in Baja California Sur aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird, to talk to them about the current status of the vaquita. I was honored to be presenting alongside such esteemed scientists as shark expert Peter Klimley (“Dr. Hammerhead”), Diane Gendron, blue whale expert, and Patricio Robles Gil, world-renowned conservation photographer. It was a great privilege to present my work on technology-enhanced conservation of the vaquita to the Committee and learn from other scientists working in the Baja area.

Pelican and National Geographic Sea Bird at Isla del Carmen, Loreto Bay National Park. Photo by Antonella Wilby.
Pelican and “National Geographic Sea Bird” at Isla del Carmen, Loreto Bay National Park. Photograph by Antonella Wilby.

It was also an unforgettable experience to spend four days hiking and snorkeling in what Jacques Cousteau deemed “the aquarium of the world” — the Sea of Cortez, a magical place for anyone whose imagination is perpetually captivated by the sea. I was fortunate to snorkel amongst tropical fishes at Punta Colorado, observe a sea lion hunt and devour a yellowtail snapper at Los Islotes, and come within feet of a “small” whale shark in La Paz while learning shark facts from Dr. Hammerhead.

Colorful Corals at Punta Colorado, Isla San Jose. Photograph by Antonella Wilby.
Colorful corals at Punta Colorado, Isla San Jose. Photograph by Antonella Wilby.

From the naturalists and scientists aboard the ship, I learned about the unique ecosystems in Baja California (did you know there’s a rattlesnake without a rattle?), the drastic effects of climate change being observed on ocean health, and the fossil record of sea cows.

A playful sea lion catches a fish at Los Islotes, Espiritu Santo. Photo by Antonella Wilby.
A playful sea lion catches a fish at Los Islotes, Espiritu Santo. Photograph by Antonella Wilby.

Personally, the highlight of the expedition was meeting the scientists and conservationists who have dedicated their lives to research and fieldwork with the goal of educating the public about the importance of protecting the natural world. As an engineer, I was deeply inspired to continue to seek out those applications where innovative technology can have a positive impact on the environment — not just technology for technology’s sake, but technology for a higher purpose.

Michael Nolan, our Expedition Photography Leader, comes face-to-face with a juvenile whale shark. Photo by Antonella Wilby.
Michael Nolan, our Expedition Photography Leader, comes face-to-face with a juvenile whale shark. Photograph by Antonella Wilby.

As for the vaquita, I’m still hopeful. There’s no single catch-all solution to the problem. Saving the species will require cooperation between scientists, the government, civilians and fishermen, as well as massive changes to the economic infrastructure in the Gulf. My goal is to help give a “face” to the issue — the face of a charismatic little porpoise. Many people are never fortunate enough to experience the underwater world through their own eyes, so maybe by using technology to get a glimpse into the mysterious and murky subaquatic world of the vaquita, more people will be compelled to act. It’s worth a try.

Antonella Wilby is a PhD student studying Computer Science at UC San Diego and a National Geographic Young Explorer. As a passionate roboticist, explorer, and photographer, she hopes to unify technological innovation with exploration and storytelling. She has built cutting-edge technologies for marine mammal monitoring, shipwreck mapping, and underwater cave imaging. She is an avid adventurer, backpacker, climber, and traveler.

Photograph of vaquita by Paula Olson, NOAA

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  1. Birgitte Anker
    April 16, 4:12 am

    Please make the pollution and the overfishing STOP and save the dolphins and fish thats left on earth !

  2. Beth Whittenbury
    January 26, 1:56 pm

    Please sign the petition to ban gill nets and save the vaquita species at ttps://