Q&A TED Fellows

The call of the whale: Fellows Friday with Asha de Vos

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Asha de Vos

Whale researcher Asha de Vos spends her days weaving a 6-meter boat through shipping lanes crowded with giant container ships, fishing boats, and marine life, collecting data crucial to the survival of the singular Sri Lankan blue whale.

Tell us about the first time you saw the Sri Lankan blue whales.

In 2003, I was working on a research vessel off the south coast of Sri Lanka and saw six blue whales in a 4-square-kilometer area. An incredible sight, especially because you usually only see them in these “aggregations” in their feeding areas, and blue whales normally feed in polar waters. But Sri Lanka lies a few degrees north of the equator – in the tropics. I knew immediately that something strange was going on, that there was some reason for them to be aggregating in a small area. And as if to answer the questions whirling in my head – we spotted some blue whale poo! This is an extremely exciting sight because it is a great indication that these whales are actually feeding in our warm waters. This sighting was breaking all the stereotypes we had built for this species.

I was keen to know more about what was happening, and started on it immediately. I ducked into the saloon of the research vessel and started digging through shelves, trying to read up on what was going on and whether people had documented this behavior. I soon realized that very little work had been done. So that’s truly where my blue whale quest began.

Had these whales never been identified as special before you came across them?

Little is known about this population despite the fact that they have been in our waters for centuries. The first research actually focused on acoustic recordings, which were used to show that these blue whales speak a different dialect from other blue whales in populations around the world. You can tell what part of the globe whales come from based on their call.

We also know that they are 5 meters shorter than the Antarctic blue whales. The data for this comes from the Soviet whaling records (they illegally hunted in and around our waters as recently as the 1960s). Based on the fact that Sri Lankan whales are shorter, they are considered to be pygmy blue whales. What a ridiculous name for an animal that is 80 feet long, eh?

So we’ve known there are differences for some time, but this information was never put together. No one has ever done any long-term research to figure out how the population has changed over the years given increasing human activities, nor has anyone ever investigated why these whales choose not to undertake the lengthy polar migrations but are so happy to remain in Northern Indian Ocean Basin year round.

Blue whale and container ship

Click to see larger size. Photo: Asha de Vos

Your research is primarily about their feeding patterns and what keeps them in the tropics?

Yes. I’m really interested in how they sustain themselves and what happens underwater, in terms of the physical environment, that enhances the productivity of this habitat to allow them to stick around.

On the southern coast of Sri Lanka within 4 to 5 kilometres of the coastline, water depth drops steeply to thousands of meters. These deep waters close to the coastline mean that shipping lanes seem to overlap with a high-use area. You have fishermen, whale watching, whales, dolphins, plenty of other marine life – there’s a lot going on.

The reason for all the marine life is likely the steep drop-off; these areas tend to be quite productive. If there are huge concentrations of krill swarming in the water right in the middle of shipping lanes, it’s bound to attract hungry whales, and they get struck and killed. It’s like putting a bunch of ships on their dinner plate!

To be able to mitigate this problem, I am trying to understand the science better. Isolated populations are always the ones most at risk. At the moment, I can’t say yet what the correct measure is for protecting them; we need a lot of science to be able to convince the authorities to act.

What information are you trying to gather?

I basically gather data on the salinity and temperature of the water, looking at how that changes from year to year and how that might influence where we’re seeing whales. So I take GPS positions of the whales and record information on their behaviors, like whether they are defecating or swimming really fast in a single direction, and so on.

In a recent New York Times video feature on my work, they showed how we were looking at where exactly the prey were in the water column – how deep, how dense – so that we can understand and draw links between where we’re seeing whales and where we’re seeing oceanic processes happening. It’s kind of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

We also do photo identification to try to identify individuals for a long-term catalog that will give us numbers. It’s a very slow process, but it’s one of the cheapest ways to get numbers of whales. I collect acoustic data to build a long-term database of vocalizations – not only of the blue whale. If I see different species, I try to get their vocal calls as it helps me figure out what’s happening in the environment.

This is really the first long-term endeavor to document the population and try to figure out what’s going on – building even a database of information – so that we can look at trends over years.

Asha de Vos taking GPS coordinates of a blue whale sighting.

Taking GPS coordinates of a blue whale sighting. Click to see larger size. Photo: Erik Olsen

Are Sri Lankan blue whales celebrated in traditional Sri Lankan culture?

To be quite honest, in Sri Lanka the whale has only become an important figure in the last five to six years. After the 2003 expedition where I first saw the blue whales, it became known that there were many whales around Sri Lanka, and it reignited a flame of interest, subsequently leading to the rise of whale watching around the coast, adding to the traffic of the area.

Normally, science precedes the commencement of a whale-watching industry, but in Sri Lanka, it happened backwards. Whale-watching started is unregulated and growing. Meanwhile, we don’t have science to look at how that industry is affecting the whales in our waters. Boats just go out there, and some of them harass the whales, drive badly around them, get too close. But I always tell people, if they are going to see the whales, they should want to see it doing its thing in its natural environment. Being on top of the whale really isn’t the way to go. The best approach – switch off, sit back and marvel. Unfortunately that is not the mentality of a lot of people.

But people are becoming more aware. Last year, I was featured in an Australian documentary on the Sri Lankan blue whales. It went viral online right around the world. I had Sri Lankans writing to me saying, “Before I saw that video, I didn’t know we even had whales in our waters.” And now people who have bad experiences while whale-watching know, and can tell the boat driver. Empowering people with the right knowledge is important: it gives people a sense of responsibility.

How do you approach conservation activism?

The blue whale is such an iconic creature, if you can get people to love it, you can start to create awareness about how connected we are to the oceans, and about the marine environment in general. There’s a lot to care about, and a lot to be done. My tools are science and outreach. The science is lost if you don’t actually get it out there, which is why I engage with the media and run my blog.

One of the things I try to do is to inspire the next generation of marine biologists. The ocean is the next frontier, and it’s also seeing its fair share of problems. We need more people who care to stick their necks out and do something for it. I spend time talking to kids ages 3 and up because I think those are the people who are going to make the changes.

blue whale dive

You’re just back from Rio+20. Why were you there?

I was one of 10 panelists representing the case for the oceans, along with Jean-Michel Cousteau and Sylvia Earle, who are legends.

I didn’t believe that I’d been chosen at first. But when I finally arrived in Rio, someone working with the Brazilian government called me to her side and said, “I want you to know that we’re really pleased to have you here because you basically represent the voice of the youth.” As I looked around I realized that I really was the youngest person on the panel. In 20 years, if they had another summit, I might be the oldest person there! I don’t know how my name got nominated in the first place, but I do know that being a TED Fellow really helped. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Every panelist got a chance to speak, and I talked about outreach, engaging people. You can put as many laws as you want in place, but a purely top-down structure doesn’t work. We need something in between a top-down and bottom-up approach – people need to understand what is happening to ensure that laws are enforced. People are the ones that make change.

How’s your Fellows experience been so far?

It’s been amazing. TED really embodies what I think and believe in. It has opened a bunch of doors for me, and it has given me a bigger place on the world stage. Being part of the TED Fellows network is remarkable, and the Fellows are my favorite part about TED. When I see the stories that get posted about what the other Fellows are doing, I think, “Wow! You can do that? It’s humanly possible?” It’s nice to find heroes amongst my peers, and the TED Fellows have given me too many to choose from.

What does a whale poo look like?

Have you not seen one? It’s really cool. I always challenge people to find more beautiful-looking poo in the animal kingdom. It’s red, and constitutes clumps of powdery bits that dissolve over time, leaving a big red patch in the water. Some people can mistake this for blood. Actually, I had a picture of it in my Fellows talk, and afterwards many people said, “If there’s one thing I’ll never forget in my lifetime, it will be your picture of whale poo.”

For more, visit Asha’s blog The Unorthodox Whale.