In 2017 an emergency field effort was undertaken in an attempt to prevent the extinction of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). The rescue effort involved 90 experts from 9 countries and cost US$5 million. Following a long decline due to entanglement in legal gillnet fisheries, the vaquita population had fallen from more than 200 to fewer than 30 individuals from 2008 to 2016, due to entanglement in an illegal gillnet fishery that supplies swim bladders of the endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) to Chinese black markets. An emergency ban of gillnets and increased enforcement failed to slow the decline, triggering an emergency effort to catch vaquitas and place them under protection in captivity. Two animals were targeted and captured using light gill nets; a juvenile was released 4 h later because it appeared stressed, and an adult female died of capture myopathy. The program was suspended because of the risk of additional mortalities to the population. The lack of success in capturing vaquitas for temporary protection emphasizes the need to improve our understanding of the effects of chase, capture, handling and enclosure on cetaceans, and to consider intervention before populations reach critically low levels, when there is sufficient time to use phased, precautionary approaches. Furthermore, conservation approaches focused on single species must be integrated into broader efforts to conserve ecosystems and involve the human communities that depend on them.