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Vaquita (Phocoena sinus)

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

The group of mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises is call Cetacea, and the subject of my recent oil painting is the world’s smallest Cetacean, the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), little porpoise that, at maturity, is less than five feet long.

The Vaquita is found only in the waters at the northern end of the Gulf of California and is critically endangered, down to about ten to twenty individual animals left, as of earlier this year. Its existence as a species was first established in 1958, based on the structure of skulls retrieved from dead individuals found on the beach, but it was only in 1985 that its external appearance was finally described. “Vaquita” means “little cow” in Spanish. No other marine mammal has such a small range.

The main threat to the species is another animal species found only in the Gulf of California, a large drum fish called the Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), itself now an endangered species. I have shown a couple of them in the background. The problem is a demand by an Asian market for the swim bladders and meat of the Totoaba. The nets used to catch the fish caught, entangled drowned the Vaquitas. The bladders are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and the bladders are mistakenly credited with treating fertility, circulatory and skin problems. The demand for Totoaba commenced a century ago, after a native Chinese fish, the Chinese Bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis), also known as the Giant Yellow Croaker, as nearly exterminated. It is still critically endangered, with both fish species facing other threats captured by the catch-all rubric, environmental degradation.

A major threat to the north end of the Gulf of California’s marine life is all too well known: the salinity of this region, surrounded by land, has for thousands of years been determined by the flow of fresh water from the once mighty Colorado River, at the “top end” of the sea. But the water of that river, whose force carved the Grand Canyon upriver, and could fill the aquifer behind Hoover Dam, all gets drained off for farming, kitchen taps, golf courses, lawns, gardens, car washes and multiple other human uses before reaching the sea, while at the same time massively unprecedented draught grips the region.

Both Vaquita and Totoaba are protected, and work is underway to commercially raise the latter in fish farms, which potentially carry their own environmental risks. But there is not only poaching, but net captures of other marine life that still threaten both the Vaquita and the Totoaba. The latter has good survival potential but it is extremely frustrating to those of us who care that there seems really to be nothing that can be done to prevent the extinction of the Vaquita at some future point in the current century. It’s far from my best painting; I wanted to convey a sense of tranquility to symbolize the harmonization within nature even with its predatory and competitive nature whereas I perhaps should have tried a more stark or dramatic effect, perhaps the better to reflect my frustrations over my inability to reduce the damage we do to others, other species often unknown to most people, but I felt that at least I should paint its picture, chasing squid in the shallows, an imagined scene based on a reality soon to leave us.

The painting is in oils on compressed hardboard and is 24 by 30 inches in size.

Barry MacKay

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