asha_lifevest_YLH3

Scientist Asha de Vos Celebrates Sri Lanka’s Blue Whales

Mission Blue spoke with marine biologist and TED Fellow Asha de Vos to get her perspective on blue whale research and conservation in her native Sri Lanka. 

How did you get into whale research? 

My dream as a child was to become an adventurer scientist. In addition, I had this immense love for animals and the ocean. Water was always my primary element. At the age of 6, I made my first attempt to save sea mammals through a poster I drew of whales with red lips and sharp teeth. All of these things played on my mind subconsciously for as long as I can remember. When it was time to begin my undergraduate studies, I enrolled at St. Andrews University in Scotland where I studied under some of the most incredible marine mammal researchers. Their passion solidified my desire to work in the field. I love research because it gives you the freedom to wonder, to be curious and to explore intellectually.

What differentiates Sri Lanka’s blue whales from other populations?

The longest recorded specimen from our waters is 25 m, making them 5 m shorter than the Antarctic blues (evidence comes from illegal Soviet whaling records from the 60s and 70s). The Sri Lanka blue whales don’t appear to migrate to polar waters, and there are individuals resident around Sri Lanka all year round. They feed and calve in the warm tropical waters of Sri Lanka (WOW!), and they have a different vocal call to the other populations so they are acoustically identifiable. They also exhibit certain behaviors more often in Sri Lankan waters than anywhere else, which might be a behavioral adaption to their environment…or not!

Why do you think people around the world feel such a strong affinity for whales? 

I think it’s because they are the largest animals to ever live on our planet, yet we know next to nothing about them. They are mammals just like us but they are so different. They have all these incredible adaptations for surviving in an aquatic environment that we don’t quite get. I think our innate curiosity for things we just don’t understand draws us to different species, such as whales.

Credit: Yasha Hetzel

What is the greatest challenge faced by Sri Lanka’s whales? What about blue whales in general? 

Ship strikes and entanglements are some of the bigger threats for blue whales in general. In the past, it was the whaling that caused them to dwindle. Today, the greatest challenge for blue whales in Sri Lanka is the ship traffic. The southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Any vessels going from the east to the west of the Indian Ocean traverse through our waters. Shipping lanes would seem like a terrible place to hang out, but sadly, that’s where we see the blues feeding and moving around. Last month, a blue whale came into the main harbor in Colombo wrapped on the bow of a container ship from Chennai. A few days later, a group of underwater photographers came across a fresh whale carcass with a very evident propeller cut floating at sea. We don’t always have such solid evidence of ship strikes but we know there are more than just these two. The problem is that it’s not a single isolated threat that impinges on these populations. There are other threats that add to the pressure, such as a growing unregulated whale watching industry. These whales use waters that are quite close to the coast and therefore they overlap with areas of high human use.

Why do you think people around the world feel such a strong affinity for whales? 

I think it’s because they are the largest animals to ever live on our planet, yet we know next to nothing about them. They are mammals just like us but they are so different. They have all these incredible adaptations for surviving in an aquatic environment that we don’t quite get. I think our innate curiosity for things we just don’t understand draws us to different species, such as whales.

If you didn’t study whales, what other animal or biological topic do you think you’d focus on? 

Hmm…I guess I’ve never really stopped to think about that. But I am very intrigued by schooling fish. How do bait balls synchronize their movements and stay together even when they are under attack, for example? I also think cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish, squid) are mind-blowingly interesting and worth devoting your life to!

What else should Mission Blue know about you or your work?

Beyond the science, I believe in empowering people with knowledge. The more people understand and are aware of their world, the more they will feel responsible and obligated to do something. I do public talks for anyone aged 3 and up! I do interviews and have done a bit of documentary work, too. And the response? Amazing! I’ve had so many emails from people around the world, but the greatest ones are those that come from Sri Lankans thanking me for opening up their world because they did not know we had whales in our waters before I started my work. I want to inspire the next generation of marine biologists everywhere, but mostly in Sri Lanka—an island where the vast majority doesn’t swim and there are only a handful of marine biologists. The world needs more people who care about the oceans and who are happy to stick their necks out and try to make a difference.

A blue whale fluking near the Sri Lankan coast. Credit: Asha de Vos 

Top Image Credit: Yasha Hetzel 

Comments are closed.