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Two vaquitas. Photo: Paula Olson, NOAA

The Mexican government has teamed up with scientists, veterinary specialists—and now U.S. Navy-trained dolphins—in a last-ditch effort to save a critically endangered marine animal in the Gulf of California.

The vaquita is known as the smallest porpoise and rarest marine animal in the world. The species was first discovered in 1958, but in the last three years alone, more than half the population has died, according to the WWF. It is estimated that there are fewer than 60 vaquitas left on the planet.

Vaquitas are endemic to the Gulf of California, which is also where the totoaba, another endangered but prized marine fish lives. The swim bladders of totoabas are considered a delicacy in China, and can be sold for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fishing poachers have flocked to the gulf to hunt totoabas with gill fish nets, and vaquitas have become major casualties as a result. Vaquitas get trapped in the nets and drown, but extensive conservation efforts and collaborations in Mexico have been made in an attempt to save the animal.

Gill net fishing has been banned in the vaquita’s territory, which is now also monitored by drones and high-resolution cameras. But the latest attempt to save the species relies on the unique abilities of the bottlenose dolphin.

Current technology cannot compete with the dolpins’ sonar abilities, and the animals have been used in previous underwater searches for mines and enemy divers.

The U.S. Navy will deploy some of its trained dolphins to the Gulf of California to search for the small creatures. Transported by boat, the dolphins dive into the water, then rise to the surface and return to their handler and alert them when they succeed in finding any vaquitas.

The ultimate goal is to capture a few vaquitas and relocate them to a new location to protect them until it is safe to return to the Gulf. Ideally, the porpoises would breed, but the conservation team isn’t highly optimistic this could happen.

Some conservations are worried that capturing and moving the last few remaining vaquitas could actually endanger them more.

If this and other efforts to save the vaquitas fail, the species could die-out by 2022

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