By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
When I first learned of the critically endangered vaquita in
early 2015, there were an estimated 97 individuals remaining as reported by CIRVA*
2014). I was a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife, Fish,
and Conservation Biology, and I, of all people, had never heard of the vaquita.
Today, there are an estimated 19 vaquita left (Roth 2019).
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a small porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the northern region of the Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered marine mammal and has been for many years, and yet, I had not heard of the vaquita. It wasn’t until I listened to a lunchtime seminar hosted by NOAA Fisheries, that I heard about the porpoise. As a young scientist, “in the field”, I was shocked to realize that I was just learning about an animal, let alone a cetacean, actively going extinct in my lifetime. I believe it’s our job to inform those around us of news in our expertise, and I had failed. I wasn’t informed. As much as I tried in the past four years to describe the decline of the smallest cetacean to anyone who’d listen, I was only reaching a few people at a time. But, today, the vaquita is finally capturing the public’s eye thanks to celebrity support and a feature-length film.
From executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner, “Sea of Shadows”. The story of the vaquita truly is an “eco-thriller” and one worth watching. This is not your typical plot line of an endangered species tragically going extinct without action. The vaquita’s story boasts big-name players, such as the Mexican Navy, internationally recognized scientists, Mexican cartels, Chinese mafia, celebrities, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and Sea Shepherd. At the center of this documentary is the elusive vaquita. The vaquita is not hunted, in fact, this species is not desirable for fisherman. The animal is not aggressive and, in contrast, is notoriously shy, only surfacing to breathe. Furthermore, its name roughly translates into “little cow” because of the rings around its eyes and its docile nature. So, why is this cute creature on the road to extinction? The answer: the wrong place at the wrong time.
The vaquita occupy a small part of the Sea of Cortez where totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish in the drum family, is also endemic. If you’re wondering what a small porpoise and a large fish have in common, then you’d be close to recognizing that is the key to understanding this tragedy. Both species are roughly the same size, one to two meters in length with similar girths. The totoaba, although said to have tender meat, is caught for only one organ: the swim bladder. Now referred to as the “cocaine of the sea”, the dried swim bladders of the totoaba are sold to Mexican cartels who then export the product to China. Once in China, illegal markets sell the swim bladders for up to $100,000USD. Unfortunately, the nets used to illegally catch totoaba, also catch the vaquita. The porpoise has no economic value to the fishermen and therefore are tossed as bycatch. The vaquita is the innocent bystander in a war for money and power.
Watching a charismatic species severely decline because of human greed is horrific. The film, however, focuses on the effort of a few incredible organizations that band together in the fight to save the vaquita. Moreover, the multimillion-dollar project, Vaquita CPR, is still ongoing. On a more positive note, in October of 2019, scientists spotted six vaquita during continued conservation and monitoring efforts (Blust & Desk 2019). The path to saving a critically endangered species, especially one that is thought not to do well in captivity, is challenging. The vaquita’s recovery path has many complicated connections which for what appears to be an uphill battle. But, we, the people, are responsible for this. We must support research and conservation by using our voice to share what is happening, for a porpoise and for the world.
*Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International
Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita)
and Fronteras Desk. “Photo Sparks Increased Concern over Fishing in Vaquita
Refuge.” Arizona Public Media, 25 Oct. 2019,
Virginia. “Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction-Can It Be Saved?” National Geographic, 15 Aug. 2014,
“The ‘Little Cow’ of the Sea Nears Extinction.” National Geographic, 17 Sept. 2019,
By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.
Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.
When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.
Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.
Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).
Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.
On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.
Number of sightings
Total number of individuals
Pacific white-sided dolphin
Northern right whale dolphin
California sea lion
Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.
Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).
Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.
Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.
Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.
Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.
Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.
The rain is beginning to lighten, the heavy winds are starting to dissipate, and the sun is beginning to shine. Seabirds are starting to fill the air and marine mammals are starting to fill the coastline, making this week a perfect time to learn about some of the small, cryptic cetaceans that consider the Oregon coast home year round.
While I was walking my dog on South Beach in Newport last week, I heard the mother of a small family point and shout that she had just seen an animal that she referred to as a “porpoise/dolphin/small whale.” Upon a second sighting of it, she ruled against the small whale and decided on a dolphin. In reality, she had just sighted a harbor porpoise.
Throughout the duration of my work with Oregon State studying the patterns of harbor porpoise occurrence, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is “What is the difference between a porpoise and a dolphin?”
Differentiating between a dolphin and porpoise is probably the most common identification mistake when it comes to cetaceans. Understandably, there is significant confusion between the two species. The words dolphin and porpoise were, colloquially, used as synonyms until the 1970’s. Unlike lions and tigers that are not only in the same family, but also the same genus, dolphins and porpoises are in different families, having diverged evolutionarily about 15 million years ago! Therefore, dolphins and porpoises are more distinct than lions and tigers. These differences span from head and fin shape, to behavior, group size and vocals.
Most people are quite certain they are seeing a dolphin mainly because dolphins are more prevalent than porpoises; over 30 species of dolphins are known to exist, but only 6 porpoise species have been identified worldwide. Unless, you’ve seen dolphins and porpoises side by side, nose to fin, it is quite difficult to tell the difference at first glance. In the natural history of cetacean’s course at Oregon State, we are taught that the three main visual differences are in the shape of the teeth, snout, and dorsal fin. But in reality, the first two characteristics aren’t likely to help you spot them from shore. In addition to fin size, the behavior and group size is more likely to cue you in on what animal you are seeing. The picture below does a pretty good job summarizing their physical characteristics. Porpoise have a small triangle fin, while dolphins have more of a curved, pointy fin.
Drawing by Mike Rock, 2009.
The lengths and widths of dolphins vary anywhere from 4 feet to 30 feet. Killer whales, the largest dolphin species and known predator to the harbor porpoise, can weigh up to ten tons, while the harbor porpoise is about five feet and rarely weighs in over 150 pounds. Porpoises are one of the smallest cetaceans, and because of their small size, they lose body heat to the water more quickly than other cetaceans. Their blunt snout is likely an adaptation to minimize surface area to conserve heat. The small sizes of porpoise require them to eat frequently, rather than depending on fat reserves, making them more of an opportunistic feeder. The need to constantly forage also keeps harbor porpoise from migrating on a large scale. Harbor porpoise are known to move from onshore to offshore waters with changing water temperatures and prey distributions, but not known to make long migration trips.
Porpoises are also less social and talkative than dolphins. Dolphins are typically found in large groups, can be highly acrobatic, and often seen bow-riding. Porpoise, specifically harbor porpoise, are often found singularly or in groups of two to three, and shy away from vessels, making them difficult to observe at sea. While both species have large melon heads for echolocation purposes, dolphins make whistles through there blow holes to communicate with each other underwater. Evolutionary scientists believe porpoises do not whistle due to structural differences in their blowhole. (This is why acoustics is such a great way to learn about the occurrence patterns of harbor porpoise – their echolocation is very distinct!) Porpoise echolocation signals have evolved into a very narrow frequency range – theoretically to protect themselves from killer whale predation by echolocating at a frequency killer whales cannot hear. Dolphins have evolved other strategies to avoid predators such as large group size and fast speed.
While differentiating between porpoises and dolphins takes a bit of practice, it is important to differentiate between the two species because we manage them differently due to some of their morphological differences. Their different adaptations between the species make them more sensitive to certain stressors. For example, for harbor porpoise, the sound produced from boat noise or renewable energy devices is more likely to impact them than other cetaceans. The sensitivity of the nerve cells in the ears of animals (including humans) generally corresponds to the frequencies that each animal produces. So animals like the harbor porpoise have more nerves in their ears that are tuned to very high frequencies (since they make high frequency sounds). If the nerve cells in the harbor porpoise ears become damaged, their ability to communicate, navigate and find food is seriously affected. In addition to their small home ranges and moderately high position in the food web, the sensitivity of harbor porpoise to ocean noise levels make harbor porpoise an important indicator species for ecosystem health, and an important species to study on the Oregon Coast.