IN 1994, a newborn vaquita porpoise was found tossing in a break in the Sea of Cortez, sixty miles south of the U.S. border. The man who found her wore black sunglasses and a gray shirt with ARIZONA stamped across the chest. In a photo, he cradled the vaquita as he would a baby—with one curved arm. The calf had a patch of white that started under her belly and stretched to her chin. I found a single video of her paddling shallow water in a plastic tub. The footage was pixelated, shaky, with the gray tones of an ultrasound. The voice of a little girl narrated the video in first person as the camera cut to the vaquita’s underbelly: “Todavía puedes ver mi cordón umbilical.” English captions translated: “You can even still see my umbilical cord.” The camera panned to the vaquita’s small flukes, splashing and propelling her nowhere.
In the last thirty seconds, the ending of the story scrolled on a black screen: Desafortunadamente, la Vaquita recién nacida no sobrevivió (Unfortunately, the newborn vaquita did not survive).
I found the video in my search for updates on the endangered status of the vaquita. Vaquita translates from Spanish to English as “little cow,” and these smallest of porpoises are nicknamed so for their pretty face markings evoking the batting lashes of bovine. The vaquita is Mexico’s “national marine mammal,” and given both their emblematic fame and striking cuteness, I wondered if there were less obvious reasons the international news wasn’t picking up the story—if other stories were more important—or if the story of the vaquita is one no one wanted to hear.
I remembered this phenomenon from when I studied Spanish in Guatemala. Spanish was my father’s first language, not mine, but I felt in it a link to my unknown ancestors. My Guatemalan teacher, two mugs of instant coffee between us, looked over my shoulder as she spoke of the genocide that took place in her mountains during my lifetime. Of massacres in which her uncles and aunts disappeared. When she linked my country’s roles to her country’s wars, I pressed a finger to my temple, “Espera, no entiendo.” Which wasn’t the truth. I did understand. I had the Spanish comprehension skills. But I needed her to slow down—because it hurt to understand. Perhaps the vaquita is not in the news because it hurts to read about her.
Bycatch is a term for marine life caught in the path of undiscerning, industrial fishing nets. A gill net is a wall of netting, often a mile long and hundred feet deep, that hangs vertically in the ocean with buoys on top and weights on bottom. This netting is designed to trap the body of anything passing through it. A vaquita’s first instinct when she touches a fishing net is to roll. Panic shortens her breath. Death is swift. Most of the vaquita bodies deposited on the beach by tides show the rope-burned evidence of death by entanglement. It is widely known illegal gill nets are to blame for strangling the species to death.
More complex are the above-water variables: the Chinese demand for the “aquatic cocaine” of bladders belonging to the endangered totoaba fish caught in the same gill nets, the lucrative black markets of Mexican cartels, the broken promises of presidents and politicians, the American appetite for shrimp pulled by similar nets from the same water, and the local fury with international efforts that don’t fully recognize community hardships. San Felipe fisherman Jorge Machuca explained, “If you see your children crying, what are you going to do?” Thus, the vaquita is also caught in the bycatch of blame.
The vaquita will, by my own guess, be posthumously declared as having disappeared between 2020 and 2022. Years when my daughter learned to ride a bike and lost her first tooth. Years when you maybe graduated, or birthed a child, or retired. Because human life marches on—while the vaquita disappears.
There might still be, at this moment, a few vaquitas left. Maybe a single mother and her calf. Maybe two sisters. Maybe one small pod swimming together. Or maybe one last vaquita navigating Gulfo waters around the gill nets that drowned her grandparents, her brothers and sisters, maybe her calf, and definitely her ancestors. But what no one says is that she has no chance of recovery. That if she is out there, she is among or is maybe the last.
There is a name for the last of a species: “endling.” Endlings give a face to extinction. In the case of the vaquita, one amplified in coloration that makes her eyes look large and unblinking. The better for us to see what is about to flicker into oblivion.
Not that it wasn’t avoidable. The scientists warned us. This ending was no surprise. It was predicted thirty, twenty, ten, five, and two years ago. It was the conclusion we marched toward—maybe because we refused to look. Many of the local fishermen in San Felipe still insist the vaquita “is a myth.” They have families to feed, and some myths—like the histories I refused to grasp in Spanish to English translation—are convenient.
The vaquita’s lone protectors still believe in her. Sea Shepherd’s band of eco-pirates have had a fully crewed vessel in the Mar de Cortés since 2015. This mission to save the vaquita was named Milagro, perhaps for the divine intervention of the miracle needed to win the fight against the vaquita’s extinction. Sea Shepherd’s ship haunts me. I think of it always in the middle of the night when my eco-grief catches me. In the dark, I imagine a crew member at the helm with the “big eyes” binoculars, searching for the vaquita’s petite gray fin cutting through water—a thin sign the miracle mission isn’t dead.
We don’t have more time to espera—to avoid understanding. Biologists call it extinction denial and I am guilty.
Neither the international or local news or Oona Isabelle Layolle—who created, mounted, and captained Mission Milagro—will declare the vaquita extinct. Ms. Layolle is the only person, in my opinion, who deserves the right to not talk about it. I watched all the documentaries featuring Captain Layolle’s mission before I sent her a note titled, “A Too-Long Email.”
“Not sleeping,” Oona answered when I asked over Skype about the hardest part of captaining Mission Milagro.
I thought of my own experience of losing sleep to recurring nightmares of climate disasters before I understood she was being literal. Oona was talking about working night shifts: the hours when Sea Shepherd hunts for pangas (boats) dropping illegal nets under the cover of darkness. After the pangas flee, Sea Shepherd snags the nets and pulls them in. These scenes in the documentaries made me wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and turn toward the window. The net winching is a procession of death: collapsed sea turtles, limp stingrays, strangled sharks, and countless un-flopping fish. The dead bodies make me put a hand to my chest, but the crew themselves—thick gloves swiping tears streaming down chapped faces—make my breath stutter.
Oona confirmed the grief was too much. “To be there protecting something that is always dying in front of your eyes, it was hard. After I left, I didn’t speak about it for two years.” My guess is Oona knows if the last vaquita is already dead. But she did not tell me so and I will not ask her. I know this inability to conclude. I once held a porpoise as it died beneath my palms. I still marvel at what synchrony found me knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean at sunset, at that same moment a beached porpoise stopped thrashing its tail and turned its eye skyward, its bowels broke and the water around me black with waste and blood. I’ve turned this moment over and over for years. It resurfaces every time I write past three pages in my journal, returning only when my sentences turn lyrical. And here I am, still chasing the poem I can’t finish.
My kids are still learning to swim, so I am familiar with the term describing the deaths of children who crawl, tumble, or slip footing into backyard pools and drown: “the silent killer.” And my obsession with the last vaquita, with broken ancestries, with the blackened waters of a beached porpoise, with my children born into the quick-breaking waves of ecological crises—they have this quiet violence in common.
The vaquita will not be the only marine mammal to go extinct in the years since my daughter was born. The baiji, a Yangtze River dolphin, disappeared in China in 2006. Scientists similarly predicted the baiji’s death thirty, twenty, ten, five, and two years before it went extinct. It was the conclusion we marched toward—and past. And here’s the thing: if we sat and watched or intentionally not-watched the baiji disappear, and if we sit here, right now, and watch-not-watch as the last vaquita dies, what else will we let die—as we sit?
In 2019, 145 experts in a United Nations report estimated a million species will disappear in the coming decades. Ecologists called it the sixth mass extinction and yet it—like Guatemala’s Indigenous genocide, like the vaquita—made few headlines. One of the rare cover stories I did find focused on a violent encounter between local fishermen and Sea Shepherd in the Vaquita Refuge. This is the emblematic problem I fear: a fight between marginalized communities and marginalized species over disappeared resources. One grandson of a San Felipe fisherman, Alan Alexis Valverde, said (in the film Souls of the Vermilion Sea), “Realistically, it’s the essence of San Felipe, there’s nothing else to do but fishing. But the essence of respect for the sea has been lost. The harmony between man and sea is lost.” This microcosm hints at the global violence heading our way in battles for clean water, safe food, and livable land. Battles in which the vaquita, a million species, and my own children will become the bycatch of the undiscerning industries of man.
General Efraín Ríos Montt’s scorched-earth campaign in Guatemala in the early 1980s massacred 626 Indigenous villages, “disappeared” 200,000 people, and displaced another 1.5 million. That I never learned in school about this genocide just south of my country’s border makes sense of its nickname: the Silent Holocaust. We don’t have more time to espera—to avoid understanding. Biologists call it extinction denial and I am guilty. As a child, I made long road trips with my family down Highway 1 on summer breaks. Because it was at my eye height, I remember so well the battalion of wings and legs and juicy bug bodies stuck to the grille of our red Suburban. I remember, too, the multiple stops my parents made at gas stations to squeegee the windows. But as an adult, I can’t recall an instance of needing to pull off the road to clean my windshield. This anecdote is so relatable for people born in the 1980s, it’s called “the windshield phenomenon” and describes that common moment by which people awaken to the massive disappearance of insects in only a few decades. I learned about the windshield phenomenon while listening to an audiobook as I pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store. I nudged my small car into a narrow spot in the middle of the lot as I collapsed in my seat and took in the hundreds and hundreds of cars that surrounded me—all featuring flawless, sparkling glass.
To avoid awakening only after what we love is pronounced dead, we need to sit up. To sit upright and shake our pain awake—
until it hurts us into action.
My husband is an intelligent man. He listens to experts daily on podcasts that keep him well informed. Variables and economics figure smoothly in his dyslexic mind. But when, at the dinner table, I explain to our son that polar bears will likely disappear in his lifetime, my husband tilts his head. My son looks at the ceiling and my daughter sets the cucumber she was nibbling back on her plate. They are still thinking about polar bears when I tell my husband a million species are, right now, on the verge of extinction. I watch him do the math in his head.
“That can’t be right . . . that would mean dozens of species go extinct every day.”
I nod to his phone, “Look it up.”
While he picks up his phone, Riva looks at me with tears in her eyes. “Will pink bears go extinct too, Mom?” Pink Bear is the name of the stuffy Riva has nuzzled for the last 1,500 nights. Her question stabs me. It’s unfair, what our man-made realities break in my daughter’s old-growth imagination.
My husband puts down the phone. I can see in his slow blink he’s confirmed his own math.
If I can find extinction denial in a grocery store parking lot and in my smart husband’s blank eyes at my own dinner table, where else is it rife?
There is a reason no one will declare the vaquita extinct. Conservationists call it the “Romeo Error.” Romeo took his own life on the assumption his love, Juliet, was dead. When Juliet awoke to the corpse of her lover, she thrust a dagger into her own chest. Herein is the warning: If we give up hope before we wake, it might all end in bloodshed.
Imagine Juliet had woken a minute sooner, shaken off her poisoned slumber, sat upright, and made eye contact with her love. Because the timing here is important. If she hasn’t already, the smallest porpoise on Earth may soon stop swimming forever, and when she does, she will be one of likely 150 species disappearing from the planet every single day in the year 2021. Can we behold this future? Where the vaquita is gone and the bedtime books we read to our children feature animals with no footprints left on Earth? If the endling vaquita is out there, can we face the eyes of what, of who, we are losing?
Elizabeth Woody, an American Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama author had a recurring nightmare as a child in which the earth shook, trees snapped, and the animals all disappeared. She wrote, “It was the loneliness and silence without the animals’ lives that hurt the most.”
A silence, an absence, that hurts. That’s what I feel. Pain. Because this is not just a sad story. This is a love story. A tragic love story—the most epic, tragic love story of all . . . in which there are still two endings. And to avoid awakening only after what we love is pronounced dead, we need to sit up. To sit upright and shake our pain awake—until it hurts us into action.
Last night as I tucked the covers around my daughter in bed, I watched Riva’s eyes searching beyond my shoulder.
“What are you thinking about, Love?”
“I’m thinking about polar bears.”
“What about them?”
“I’m thinking about how they are disappearing.”
Her eyes scanned behind me, searching mental corners I couldn’t see.
“What else are you thinking?” I asked.
“I was wondering if there was a place where I could leave all the animals a note. But if I left a letter in the woods or in the water, it would probably fall apart.”
Riva just learned to write her first sentences. Her three-word notes are taped to doors, left for night fairies next to her bed, and flutter loose-leaf around the house. I imagined one of her craggy fat-tip marker notes taped to an aspen in the grove behind our house.
“A note to the animals? What would it say?”
“I’m sorry. And I love you.”
Christina Rivera Cogswell’s essays have appeared in Bat City Review, Catapult magazine, HuffPost Personal, Beautiful Things at River Teeth journal, and elsewhere. She’s currently finishing a collection of ecofeminist essays about motherhood in a time of climate crisis, and you can follow her on Instagram at @seekingsol.
Katherine Homes is an environmental activist and artist bringing attention to threatened species and wildlands.