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The team here at Dolphin Connection is lucky enough to meet families every day that are raising children who care for and respect wildlife and wild lands. We know how important this is because in just a blink of an eye, these children will be the decision makers for our future. With this in mind, zoos and aquariums around the world have always focused a large percentage of their educational programs on the youth in their community. We know that this kind of programming needs to be fun, high energy, and current in order to keep our children engaged, but celebrities, video games, and social media will really seal the deal! A wonderfully successful example of just such a program is SeaWorld Kids Generation Nature. With Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late renowned environmentalist Steve Irwin, providing the celebrity hook, Generation Nature is a website that leads children through games, projects, and environmental challenges using every kid-friendly resource imaginable.
We love what they’re doing at SeaWorld and we encourage you to check it out!
On the 8th of last month we celebrated World Oceans Day, and in fact Dolphin Connection and other zoological facilities accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) took it a step further and celebrated World Oceans Month! We took all of June and proclaimed #OurWorldOceans through social media. The goal of this campaign was to bring attention to the ocean environment and to all the animals who depend on it. Through Facebook and Twitter, thirty days of animal information, conservation tips, and calls to action were posted with the hashtags #OurWorldOceans and #AMMPA.
While accredited zoos and aquariums have always been a cohesive team, working together for the welfare of our animals, this was the first time we’ve embarked on a unified campaign using social media as a global platform for animal advocacy. Look around your living room, public transportation, or even a restaurant; what do you see? Chances are that there are people of all ages, including teens and tweens, glued to their smart phones. And what are they doing there? Tweeting! Blogging! Facebooking! This is how our young people communicate and as part of that, it’s also how our young people will share their passions, their ideas, and their hopes for the future. With the survival of our animals and their habitats in the hands of our youth, joining them where they hang out – on social media – is the best way to ensure that they have all the crucial information that they need as they get older and become our environmental decision makers.
With this in mind, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums introduced MarineMammalMonday, TakeActionTuesday, AwarenessWednesday, CreatureFeatureThursday, FunFactFriday, SelfieSaturday, and ShareTheLoveSunday. Every day included inspiring photographs, useful weblinks, and scientific information about the marine species we love. The success of this campaign was so great that we’re not going to stop with the end of World Oceans Month. Keep your eyes open for more information coming from all your favorite marine mammal facilities at #AMMPA. As long as you want to learn, we want to teach!
Last month, the team at Dolphin Connection was honored to be a part of Family Science Night at Treasure Village Montessori School here in the Florida Keys. Supported by the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, Keys Ahead, Inc., and Florida International University, this community-building event included a variety of science activities designed to engage students, parents and teachers.
As one of many special guests at this exciting event, we were excited to share our own passion and enthusiasm for marine science with the people of the Florida Keys community, and we were just as excited to learn from the other local scientists and conservationist represented. So, on a beautiful Friday evening we jumped in a car drove into the sunset on our way to Treasure Village Montessori in Islamorada.
Upon arriving at the school, we were greeted by a variety of other participants, all representing scientific organizations in south Florida. Included among these colleagues were The Turtle Hospital, NOAA Fisheries, The History of Diving Museum, and The Coral Restoration Foundation. Clearly we had a great night ahead of us!
We set up our booth full of activity sheets, conservation tips, career guides, and even some fascinating bones and skulls, and soon the doors opened and one by one, families, local community members, and teachers began to arrive. The school itself hosts students from pre-K through 8th grade, so the attendees at this event represented that age range, as well as all the associated parents and grandparents. One thing we know about dolphins is that they excite and inspire people of all ages, and this night was no exception. Who doesn’t want to see what a dolphin’s skull feels like or learn about the amazing role that their lower jaw plays in echolocation? This group certainly did!
Of course, one of the unique qualities defining children of the Florida Keys is that many of them are out on the water frequently and they’ve seen all the fish, sharks, birds and – yes, dolphins – that children in the rest of the country may only dream of. Because of this our focus wasn’t just, “Look how cool dolphins are!” – these students already know that, but instead we focused on safe, respectful, and law-abiding ways to share our oceans with the animals who call it home. So many of our local children have family members with boats and even family members who are professional fishermen, so what could be more important than to make sure that these children grow up with an awareness of the ocean as a home as much as it is a place for recreation? With this in mind, every individual who passed by our booth received a “Dolphin-Friendly Fishing and Viewing Tips” card and had the opportunity to learn more about wild dolphins’ natural behaviors and why it is so important to give them the space to hunt, parent, and socialize without fear of boats.
By the end of the evening, the adults had their hands full of take-home projects, informational brochures, and gifts, while the children were immersed in a spontaneous game of freeze tag in the school’s playground. Delighted with the number of people we reached at this special event, our team packed our bags and drove back to Hawks Cay Resort, ready for another day of Inspiring Conservation and swimming with dolphins!
Here at Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys, we are so grateful for our small island community. The friendships and partnerships that come from island life are priceless; nonetheless we certainly like to be reminded of the big world out there and our most recent visitor certainly did just that!
Last month we were honored with a visit from world-renowned marine mammal veterinarian, Dr. Geraldine Lacave. Hailing from Belgium, Dr. Lacave works as a consultant for multiple marine mammal facilities in Europe and worldwide. She is also a member and active participant with the EAAM (European Association for Aquatic Mammals), IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainers Association), and IAAAM (International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine). Recently, Dr. Lacave was in the United States for a marine mammal conference and we were lucky enough to convince her and her family to spend some time in the Florida Keys for some sunsets, beaches, and of course swimming with dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort. While she was here, she took the time to speak with the Dolphin Connection training team about marine mammal veterinary training, with a focus on pre- and post-partum care for bottlenose dolphin mothers and calves.
The trainers here at Dolphin Connection range from experienced professionals who have been in the field for over 20 years, to young beginners whose careers in dolphin training are just in their infancy. For all of us, regardless of our time in the field, opportunities like this are precious. In fact, one of our most senior staff members said, after listening to Dr. Lacave share her experiences with dolphin newborns, “No matter how long one has been in the field, there is always something to learn. The learning process with these amazing animals never ceases!” Other reactions from our team included, “Even though I know it, see it, and live it, the obvious dedication people around the world have for the animals under their care continues to be inspiring!”
Ultimately, one of the most important reasons for animal training is that it allows us to take better care of the animals we love. Directly or indirectly, every behavior we train our animals to do benefits their health. Have you met a dolphin and pet its tail fluke? Did you know that that behavior is crucial because it allows us to safely take a blood sample so that we can be proactive about our veterinary care? Have you ever rubbed a dolphin’s side as it lay out in front of you? That behavior allows us to complete an ultrasound exam to track a pregnancy or assess the health of internal organs. Hearing from Dr. Lacave about the benefits of husbandry (veterinary) training and learning about all the ways in which she’s seen it lead to advancements in the healthcare of dolphins is inspiring to all dolphins trainers and our team could not be more grateful.
It’s Spring Break and everyone is flocking to the Florida Keys! College kids? Busy families? No, I’m talking about birds! Every March and April, many species of birds migrate through the Florida Keys from their southern wintering grounds in the tropics where they’ve been gorging on bugs and berries. Some of these migratory birds fly right over us on their way further north, while some of the birds stop for a while, resting and refueling before they complete their trek. Typically this great migration begins in March, but it really reaches its peak in April. In fact, the influx of birds is so great at this time of year that Doppler radar used for weather forecasting will pick up “clouds” of birds with densities of 10,000 birds per square mile! These animals are fast-moving, however, and they will have left our islands by mid May so now is the time to come see them.
If you have binoculars or a zoom lens, you’ll be in good company as you join the other birders who – along with the birds – flock to the Keys as the southernmost point of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Warblers, sparrows, herons, and spoonbills, are some of the birds you may be lucky enough to see if you spend some time on our island chain with your eyes to the sky!
What could possibly make a successful day of birding even better? How about swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Connection?! A vacation full of wildlife in the Florida Keys at Hawks Cay Resort with the birds above and the dolphins below: Well it just doesn't get any better than that! So have a wonderful Spring Break and say hi to the animals in your neighborhood: both the permanent residents and those just passing through.
March has arrived, and along with it comes some very exciting news! Last month Dolphin Connection was inspected by both the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) and this month we can proudly announce our reaccreditation by these professional organizations. These inspections take place every five years and the resulting membership with these associations assures us, our colleagues, and most importantly YOU, that we are doing the very best for the animals in our care.
Renewing our accreditation by the AMMPA is a process that began with a written application and ended with an on-site inspection by experts in the field. Topics included animal training and breeding, staff training and development, environmental quality, and so much more. Inspectors observe interactive programs and classes and visit any behind-the-scenes area they’d like. They look at animal records and they interview staff members. Ultimately their goal is to determine that the facility they are inspecting is doing everything it can to raise healthy animals, manage educated and informed employees, and present inspiring and informational programs.
Renewing our accreditation by IMATA also included the completion of a written application and then a subsequent on-site inspection. In this case, the focus was primarily on the training and development of our staff. What are our requirements for hiring? How do we train our trainers? Are there exams they must take and readings they must complete for advancement? Is their growth evaluated and measured? Ultimately, their goal is to determine that our staff is as prepared and qualified as can be to provide a working environment that is safe and healthy and enriching for themselves, our dolphins, and you!
Last month’s reaccreditations continue our long and proud history of membership in these professional organizations. As knowledge in the marine mammal training field has grown, we have grown too. Our animals are even healthier and happier, our expectations of our staff are increased, and our hopes for you are greater. So, thank you to our visiting inspectors from the Alliance of Marine Mammals Parks and Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association! We loved having you here and having the opportunity to show you what we do every day and why we are so proud to be marine mammal trainers.
And to all of our guests who have been here in the past, and will come in the future to swim with our dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort in the beautiful Florida Keys: Thank You. We enjoy every opportunity we have to share our animals with you.
February is here and love is in the air. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you, and also to all of the animals that we love here at Dolphin Connection and all around the Florida Keys. Luckily for these animals, we’re not the only ones who love them; many organizations here in our island chain are dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care of the local wildlife.
Just down the road from us is the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located at Mile Marker 50 at the Crane Point Hammock, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is dedicated to animal care and community education. Whether it’s the native, year-round bird population or the seasonal, migratory population, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is here to help them. Typical issues causing a bird to need assistance are entanglement in fishing line, injury due to ingesting fish remains from fishermen, starvation, or premature separation from parents. While the Wild Bird Center does a wonderful job with all of their patients, we could all make their job easier by doing our part to make the Keys a safer place for birds to live.
Are you a fisherman? If so, the simple act of keeping your used fishing line and fishing hooks on board until you find a proper trash or recycling receptacle can save so many animals’ lives. Fishing line is designed to be invisible: that’s why it works so well with fish. Unfortunately, it’s also rather invisible to birds and other wildlife. Fishing line that is discarded from boats, bridges, marinas, etc. ends up floating in the water, tangled around pilings or electric lines, or wound around rocks or seaweeds. All of these final resting places for the line are also resting places for the birds, and one wrong step places the bird’s foot right into a pile of line that works just like a snare. Simply pledging to not let our line loose in a bird’s habitat can make such a difference.
Now, after you’ve had your successful fishing trip and all of your used fishing line has been placed in the recycling bin, you need to clean your fish. It seems completely natural to discard the skin, bones, and other unusable parts of the fish right back into the sea. It’s even satisfying when other animals like fish, sharks, and birds come to enjoy these remains. Unfortunately, most predatory marine life, including pelicans, are not meant to eat fish in pieces. Instead, they eat the fish whole. This means that their delicate bodies are protected from the fish bones until these bones are safely decomposing in the animal’s stomach acid. Pelicans who scavenge from a fisherman’s spoils can tear their fragile throat pouch on these bones. Throwing your fish bones into the trash rather than giving them to the begging birds is so much safer, despite what the birds might try to tell you!
Past the Marathon Wild Bird Center is the Turtle Hospital. Just like the Bird Center, the Turtle Hospital focus on wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care. Also, just like the Bird Center, one of the primary causes of injury to the wildlife that they see is ingestion of, or entanglement in, fishing line. So many of the patients at the Turtle Hospital have ingested a fishing hook and line and are now suffering as it tries to make its way through their system. Other common injuries are due to boat strike by boaters who are going too fast through the sea turtles’ home. Luckily, just like with the wild birds who need our help, the solutions to the sea turtles’ problems are so absolutely within our power. Care with our fishing gear, appropriate speeds on our water ways, and awareness of our impacts on the planet: these are all wonderful Valentine’s Day gifts that we can give to our fellow Keys residents this month.
We wish you all love, sunsets, romantic visits to Hawks Cay Resort, and of course fun times swimming with dolphins. But most of all, we wish for health and happiness for the wonderful animals walking beside us, swimming around us, and flying above us.
Here at Dolphin Connection, we know how lucky we are to be able to spend our days training dolphins. We also know how lucky our dolphins are, because it’s training that allows us to provide them with the very best animal welfare in the way of health care and enrichment. In fact, you’re pretty lucky too. Did you know that it’s thanks to trained dolphins that you’ve been able to learn all that you know about dolphin behavior, natural history and adaptations? Last month we were reminded that it’s not just us and our flippered friends who benefit from training; many other people and animals around the world make the most of animal training as well. We all know how valuable a service dog can be for a visually impaired person or even a person with a seizure disorder or other health concern, and of course dogs are frequently used in the military or by the police force. It was one of these amazingly well-trained dogs who spent some time at Dolphin Connection recently, bringing a whole new view of animal training to both our trainers and our dolphins!
In December, Deputy US Marshal Smith and his explosives detection dog, K9 Wanda, came to visit the Florida Keys and we were lucky enough to have them stay right here at Hawks Cay Resort. Wanda is one of only sixteen dogs certified with the Explosives Detection Canine Program and she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. K9 Wanda started her career training to be a guide dog for the blind in New York but once it was determined that she was better suited for law enforcement, she began her training with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) Canine Training Center. K9 Wanda can detect 19,000 different types of explosives and firearms and it’s daily practice with Deputy Smith that keeps her skills so sharp.
K9 Wanda and Deputy Smith were here in the Keys on duty, but they had a little bit of free time to swim with the dolphins and exchange some trade secrets with our training staff. As it turns out, whether you’re training dogs or dolphins, and whether you’re training them for health care or safety or detection, the techniques used and the relationships developed are just about the same.
The Dolphin Connection training team spent some time introducing K9 Wanda to our dolphins from out of the water, and then Deputy Smith had a chance to climb into the lagoon to meet the dolphins in their world. Finally, and this was the most exciting part for those of us who work with dolphins every day but who love all animals, K9 Wanda demonstrated her detection skills and Deputy Smith walked us through the training process and showed off some of the most impressive trained behaviors.
Every day we are grateful for the opportunity we have to spend our lives caring for our dolphins. The science of animal training provides a system we can use to communicate with them, take care of them, and safely bring them into contact with so many people who can learn from them. Discussing the amazing benefits of positive reinforcement-based training with someone who is just as passionate and knowledgeable is the kind of stimulating conversation we dream of. Having that opportunity while also snuggling with a dog…well that’s just the icing on the cake of another perfect day in the Florida Keys.
In July of this year, we told you about some very important research happening in Sarasota Bay on the west coast of Florida. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), an organization which Dolphin Connection has supported and partnered with for years, has been conducting health assessment studies on the local bottlenose dolphins for over 40 years. The data emerging from this study provides us with the majority of what we know about wild dolphin anatomy, behavior, natural history, and health. Whether it’s with financial resources, supplies, or personnel, Dolphin Connection is dedicated to contributing all we can to this incredibly valuable study.
This year, the data from the past 40 years is especially valuable because it provides baseline information about animals living in a relatively healthy environment which can be compared to data from health assessments conducted in parts of the Gulf of Mexico impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill disaster. In 2011 and again in 2013, SDRP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted health assessments on dolphins in Barataria Bay and the Mississippi Sound, areas in the Gulf severely affected by the oil spill. Sample and data analyses for 2011 and 2013 are underway, but preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.
While these preliminary results are disturbing, there may be some good news in the form of inspiration: How does it make you feel when you hear about a manmade disaster threatening the lives of dolphins? Sad? Angry? Motivated? How about informed? Aware? Committed? With all of us living near the coast, or near waterways or drains that lead to the coast, we all impact the health of the oceans. What kind of an impact we make is up to us. Knowing how an oil spill may be affecting dolphins might be just the wakeup call we need to take action. Will it encourage a beach walker to bend down and pick up a plastic bag from the surf before it becomes a sea turtle’s lunch? Will it inspire a grocery shopper to purchase in bulk and use canvas bags to minimize the amount of plastic in their life? Will it inspire a busy family to take some time to go for a walk together and participate in a coastal cleanup?
With warm winter temperatures and beautiful sunsets, life at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys can feel pretty idyllic. Surrounded by the protected waters of a National Marine Sanctuary, it is easy to swim with our dolphins and enjoy the tropical fish darting around our toes and forget that not so far away are habitats and animals who truly need our help. So in the spirit of the season, rather than letting the bad news defeat us, let’s use it as a reminder to enjoy all that we have and help those in need.
Happy November! One of our favorite months here at Dolphin Connection, filled with gratitude, good food, and beautiful temperatures. Migratory birds pass through on their annual trip south, cooler air brings less humidity, and the gorgeous sunsets come a little earlier in the day, but the most noticeable change for us will be the darkness that descends on the Florida Keys so quickly: November marks the end of Daylight Savings Time! Now, instead of having hours at the end of the day to appreciate the beautiful views from our islands, we find ourselves in darkness by supper time. Luckily for us, a flip of a light switch means we don’t miss any of the gorgeous sights at Hawks Cay Resort, so we can continue to enjoy our little slice of paradise. For dolphins, however, special adaptations are required to allow them to safely maneuver through a world in which they may not be able to see.
Bottlenose dolphins, and all toothed whales, have an adaptation called “echolocation”. This adaptation allows dolphins to use sound to see. By producing very special high-pitched clicks, and then using the fatty “melon” to focus these clicks at specific objects or across general locations, a dolphin can listen for the echoes created as the sound waves bounce back. These sound waves are altered depending on what kind of object they interacted with and so each returning sound is different and will produce a very specific and unique image in the dolphin’s brain. This image, much like an ultrasound image that you might receive at the doctor’s office, provides details as to the object’s shape, density, and movement. Even a fish buried under the sand is not safe from a hunting dolphin who uses his echolocation! The dolphin’s brain, which is dedicated in large part to the interpretation of sound, can identify these altered waves as having bounced off of a fish, a rock, another dolphin, etc. Pretty useful when you’re a predator who needs to find food, and even occasionally a prey animal who needs to avoid sharks!
When the sun is shining and the water is clear – which is true almost all of the time in the Florida Keys – dolphins rely most heavily on their eyesight. But in dark or murky conditions, this ability to use echolocation is as useful as our ability to turn on the lights when the sun goes down. So, as winter descends on the Florida Keys and our precious sunshine becomes a little more limited, it’s good to know that all of us have successful ways of surviving. We look forward to seeing you here as you celebrate the holidays by swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Connection!
October is here and for those of us living in the Florida Keys, we look forward to celebrating fall holidays like Halloween with jack-o-lanterns, costumes and – of course – plenty of sweet treats! For you and me, that probably means chocolate, but what about the dolphins? If a dolphin were to go Trick-or-Treating, what would they want?
If we want to give the dolphins at Dolphin Connection a treat to eat, we might offer them ice cubes or unsweetened and unflavored gelatin! While not providing any important nutrients other than additional water, these items are just a great way to have fun with the dolphins in a way that they really seem to enjoy! Alternatively, we can give the dolphins a special treat that is not edible. This might be like you receiving something besides candy when you’re Trick-or-Treating. Maybe it’s a toy or a game or even just a warm and friendly greeting when you knock on the door. Believe it or not, all of these would be wonderful treats for our dolphins as well. A fun game of catch with a dolphin-safe ball, a rub-down with a loofah or a sponge, or even a water fight (which the dolphins are always sure to win!) are all just as much fun to the dolphins as the ice cubes or the gelatin treats are.
Even more than treats or toys, we all know there is something else that dolphins love the most: Fish! Here at Dolphin Connection, our dolphins eat capelin and herring: up to 45 pounds each per day! Fish provides the dolphins with everything that they need in the way of protein, fats, carbohydrates, calories, and even hydration! Think of this as equivalent to a healthy menu of fruits, vegetables and protein for you. Not only is fish the perfect food for a dolphin, but our dolphins are fed only the very best of this perfect food. Every morning we sort through hundreds of pounds of fish, making sure to pull any out that don’t meet our standards. A scratch, a scrape, or a cut on the fish? Throw it out. Our dolphins get only the best, restaurant quality fish every day.
So, if a dolphin comes trick-or-treating to your door, now you know what they might like. Give them a fish and that’s like you receiving an apple in your bag – delicious and nutritious! Give them an ice cube and that’s like you receiving a candy bar – a special treat that’s completely separate from your daily meals. Throw a ball or offer a rub down and that’s like you receiving a warm greeting or a fun game – a chance to interact with folks you care about in a way that’s enjoyable and special.
Next time you’re here at Hawks Cay Resort enjoying a sunset, come on over and watch our trainers and guests as they swim with the dolphins. Of course you’ll see them providing lots and lots of fish, but if you pay close attention you’ll see treats, rubs, toys and affection being given out just as freely. October really is a wonderful month, and not just for the little ghouls and goblins in your neighborhood!
Here at Dolphin Connection we dedicate our lives to the care of bottlenose dolphins. This is, after all, our local species of dolphin which can be found around the Florida Keys and in fact all around the entire state of Florida! We are lucky because this animal that has captured our heart is not an endangered species. Every night we can rest our minds knowing that our dolphins and their counterparts in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are healthy and thriving. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) worldwide.
In the Gulf of California, the very small body of water separating Baja California from the Mexican mainland, lives a species of porpoise called the vaquita. The vaquita, Phocoena sinus, is among the rarest of all mammals with population estimates in the low hundreds. Listed as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) since 1996, the population has continued to decrease due primarily to pressures from the commercial fishing industry. While not itself a hunted species, vaquita fall victim to accidental entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch). With the current loss of animals to bycatch exceeding the species’ birth rate, the future is grim for this tiny porpoise, but there is hope.
The Mexican government has committed to vaquita conservation measures and has reached out to international partners for assistance. This assistance can be provided in a variety of ways. First, a public awareness program is essential. Bringing the attention of the masses to the situation will be a crucial step in recruiting resources, and where can you find millions of animal-loving, dedicated people? Zoos and aquariums of course! Additionally, alternative fishing strategies are needed for the local population who depend on the commercial fishery around the Gulf of California for their own survival. Technology that can maintain – or improve – the fishermen’s success while protecting the vaquita from entanglement will benefit everyone.
So today, from our beautiful home in the Florida Keys as we swim with dolphins and admire the sunsets at Hawks Cay Resort, we begin Step 1: Public Awareness. Reaching out to all our fellow dolphin lovers and making sure that you are all aware that cetaceans need our help and knowing that if anyone is dedicated to this cause, it is you. Next we will tackle Step 2: Recruiting Resources. Dolphin Connection, in partnership with the other members of the Bottlenose Dolphin Breeding Consortium, is looking at ways we can help the vaquita. Through research, financial donations, staff knowledge and supplies, those of us who have already devoted our lives to the health and well-being of animals hope to provide everything we possibly can to bring the vaquita back from the brink.
If you would like to learn more about the endangered vaquita, please visit these websites for information: