I was on the top deck of the Ocean Star – the vaquita survey vessel that is slowly cutting transects throughout the entire range of this most elusive of porpoises. We were heading North along the westernmost transect line – an area outside of the core vaquita range, making a sighting seem highly unlikely. I was shooting anyways however, Joe and I had just boarded the Ocean Star a few hours ago at dawn and we were trying our best to squeeze 5 days worth of filming into a day and a half (we were supposed to board Sept. 26th, but were delayed due to issues over immigration paperwork).

Marine Ecologist Bob Pitman searches for vaquita through the "Big-Eyes".

Marine Ecologist Bob Pitman searches for vaquita through the “Big-Eyes”.

Just as we reached the end of this first transect line for the day, I realized that we had a possible vaquita sighting on our hands. The observers on the ship are separated into two groups – one on the upper deck and one a level below. They don’t make contact with each other on purpose – they’re basically testing observer efficiency by comparing sightings of all marine mammals between the two groups.

In the event of a possible vaquita sighting however, this separation provides the opportunity to independently confirm the presence of an animal. And sure enough, there was a sighting from each of the two separate observer teams in approximately the same location. There was no doubt that this was a vaquita! This was the first sighting of the survey effort, which began only four days ago – a momentous occasion!

The upper deck observer team scans the horizon for vaquita.

The upper deck observer team scans the horizon for vaquita.

I continued capturing video of the upper deck observer team as the boat completed it’s current transect line and spun around to get into position for the next survey line. The observer team technically went “off-effort” at this point – meaning that any sightings don’t count towards the data set being collected (which will be used to determine a population estimate for vaquita). However – because a vaquita had just been sighted only moments ago – all eyes remained fixed on the Vermilion Sea.

A few minutes went by as the boat slowly spun around – then a shout – “Up! I’ve got two at [degrees and approximate distance given]… okay they’re down.” All eyes are fixed on this same point in front of the boat. Maybe thirty seconds go by before another shout – “Up!” There is now a large group of people on the upper deck, many with binoculars and others staring intently through the “Big-Eyes” – oversized binoculars mounted to the deck. A chorus of shouts erupts across the deck as more observers spot the small group of vaquita porpoises. I can feel the energy and excitement in the air – a great weight has just been released from this crew.

The elusive vaquita - no images were captured of this first sighting on the survey mission.  This photo was taken years ago by Tom Jefferson.

The elusive vaquita.  No images were captured of the first sighting on this 2015 survey mission – this photo was taken years ago by vaquita expert Tom Jefferson.

The sightings last only a few minutes, then the small porpoises are gone, back below the hot, murky water of these Northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez. All members of the observer crew gather together below deck to discuss the details of what happened and confirm the timing and location of the sightings. Everyone is hyped up on adrenaline and giddy with excitement as they recount this recent experience. For a few of the observers, this is the first vaquita that they’ve ever seen.

Although I did not personally see the vaquita, having the opportunity to capture the reactions of this dedicated crew to the first sighting of the survey effort was a truly amazing experience. It is now certain that there is still hope for the vaquita!

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