Year-end marks the beginning of whale-watching season in Sri Lanka. The island-nation in the Indian Ocean is lucky to have deep waters close to the coastline, making exciting sightings of blue whales, sperm whales, spinner dolphins and other creatures just a short boat ride away. What’s curiously less prevalent, however, is marine conservation.
“The majority of people in Sri Lanka don’t even know how to swim,” explains Asha de Vos, the first and only Sri Lankan with a PhD in marine mammals. “On top of that, we’ve had a 30-year war, so if you go to university at all, you have to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer.”
Despite the challenges – cultural gender norms being among them – the marine biologist and Senior TED Fellow has a long list of achievements to her name, such as the Blue Whale Project and Sri Lanka-registered NGO Oceanswell.
It all started in TK, when de Vos discovered a unique sub-population of blue whales endemic to warm waters. She reached out to Western scientists to share her momentous discovery, but was surprised by their response. “They were excited, and wanted my help getting them research permits,” she recalls. “It was this idea of parachute science – colonialist science.”
But de Vos was determined to do the research with her own funding. It took five years, but eventually she founded Oceanswell in TK, Sri Lanka’s first organisation for marine conservation and research. Oceanswell also mentors 30 students per year, part of its mission to train future conservation advocates from the developing world.
For her pioneering work in ocean conservation and inclusivity, de Vos has become one of just three finalists worldwide for UCLA’s prestigious US$100,000 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award for people under 40, which will be announced on 14 November.
Here she talks about how to be a responsible whale-watcher, being a woman in “a man’s job” and what is so fascinating about whale poop.
How did you first feel inspired to pursue a life in marine biology?
My mom would say it was when she took me out on a glass-bottomed boat on the south coast – when I was two weeks old. Maybe it was when I flipped through the pages of the National Geographic, thinking I wanted to be that scientist who travelled the world. Or when I sat with [legendary science fiction author] Arthur C Clark at my swimming club, and he told me about his diving adventures.
Why aren’t more Sri Lankans studying marine biology?
Our relationship with the sea has been one of extraction, not of protection. There’s a lack of connection to the oceans. It’s not a recreational space. The only people who spend time in the ocean are fisherfolk – so there’s a class thing. So I couldn’t study marine biology here. I had no choice by to leave. People assumed I wasn’t going to come home, but the one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to come back and serve my country. Now it’s nice to see how things have changed – I have seen the impact of the work I do, seeing how many more kids want to study marine biology.
Tell us about the founding of Oceanswell.
I’m interested in this idea that the solution to our oceans’ challenges are trapped in the mind of someone in the developing world. Some 70% of our coastlines are in the developing world, and every coastline needs a local hero committed to that place and liaise with the communities. And it’s not also just about scientists; we need everyone to save the ocean. We can work with entrepreneurs, businesspeople, long as we have the same ultimate objective. The new [conservation] trajectory is about inclusiveness.
What impact does the Pritzker nomination have?
When I moved back to Sri Lanka many years ago, I would get ignored at meetings – being a woman in a man’s job. Every piece of international recognition I’ve gotten has made my country sit up and realise that maybe it’s time to see me as an asset to our nation. I’m a girl from a small developing nation, and I’ve made it into the final three. I just want this to allow someone else to believe that it’s possible, regardless of where they come from, and what people want to believe of them.
What’s special about blue whales in the Indian Ocean?
We found that they are non-migratory. They don’t leave warm, tropical waters at all – and live in the waters from the east coast of Sri Lanka to the Maldives to Oman. They have a different acoustic dialect, they can’t communicate with other blue whales. They have behavioural adaptions. Blue whales eat krill, but our guys eat shrimp, so they have to lift their tail flukes to make a torpedo shapes to descend lower. They feed, breed and calf in our waters so they’re very dependent, but it’s a small area.
You’ve earned the nickname “Whale Poop Lady” – why the obsession?
Blue whale poop is bright red – the most beautiful poop in the world! It’s a waste product we would easily overlook, but it gives us a window into the world of an elusive creature: what they feed on, their stress levels, species identification. Whale poop is a fertilizer for the oceans. I could have just as easily seen it and gone, “That’s disgusting.” But I tell my students you have to be curious. The world is waiting to be unravelled.
What have been some unforgettable encounters you’ve had in the field?
Many years ago, I was working on a whale research vessel in the middle of the ocean. In the middle of the night, just off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, there were dolphins bow-riding in the wave created by our boat. And every time they jumped, the bioluminescence in the water lit up in the shape of the dolphins.
The other moment was two years ago, when we documented a species new to our waters – an Omura’s whale near Mirissa. It wasn’t just the sight that was exciting. What’s more exciting is that it’s an animal that can grow to be 30 feet. The fact that we can overlook something that large is symbolic. Imagine the little things we overlook every day. There’s so much magic left. We only know 5% of the oceans.
What are the biggest challenges facing marine conservation in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is among the 40 worst countries in the world for conservation – all kinds, so for marine conservation, there really is no money. We’re a post-war country. And somehow people thin economic development and conservation are mutually exclusive. I argue if we take care of these species, we’re going to make more money. The last thing tourists want is to come to this country and see a dead whale. There’s also a lack of connection to the oceans. You can live on the mountaintop, but your actions affect the oceans. All waterways lead to the ocean.
Why is inspiring women and girls important to you?
I was in the field once, and my boat was being driven by a fisherman. He said, “Doesn’t your husband mind that you’re getting [tanned] in the sun?” I said, “I don’t have a husband.” He said, “I thought as much.”
You can’t save the world by turning only to one half of the world’s population. The women and girls who look at me and find me relatable – I want them to realise I’m just like them. I’m not a superhero in any way. I’m just a person who had a dream, who’s persistent, hardworking and maybe a little stubborn. People assume if you’re a marine biologist, you were born with a scuba tank on your back, but I’ve farmed potatoes, cleaned toilets and done all kind of jobs. I didn’t have a special VIP pass. We don’t have to live in the boxes that people put us in.
Any advice for whale-watching season in Sri Lanka?
In Sri Lanka, we have deep water close to shore, so it increases accessibility. But it’s a fledgling industry, and we don’t fully understand our impact. So be responsible whale watchers. If the drivers are endangering or harassing the animals, please voice your concern. Getting as close as possible won’t get you the best encounter. My best encounters have involved switching off the engine and just watching the animals in their homes. And if people take photos of the tails or sides of the bodies – we collect them for identification, so please donate them to Oceanswell.
The power of whale poop
Blue whale poop is bright red. But it’s not just the unusual appearance that makes it special. It gives marine biologists a window into the world of an elusive creature: what they feed on, their stress levels, species identification. Whale poop also plays an integral role in the oceans’ ecosystem. As whales dive down to the depths to feed and surface to breathe, they release enormous faecal plumes, which bring essential nutrients to the surface waters, stimulating the growth of essential phytoplankton.
Tips on whale watching
1. If the boat operators are endangering or harassing the animals, please voice your concern.
2. Getting as close as possible won’t get you the best encounter. Switch off the engine and just admire the animals in their homes.
3. Do not try to swim with whales; keep a safer distance, and stay above the water.
Asha De Vos’ top whale-watching spots around Sri Lanka
Mirissa – “The most popular spot for blue whales from December to March or April – I’ve seen eight species of whales and dolphins here.”
Kalpitiya – “You can visit Kalpitiya on the northwest coast between December to April. You’ll mostly see spinner dolphins quite close to shore.”
Trincomalee – “This port city on the east coast is where to spot sperm whales and blue whales from May to August. It all depends on the monsoons.”
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.