Sri Lanka is an island nation with more than 8000 square miles of territorial waters, home to 29 documented species of marine mammals, including five large whale species – but until Asha de Vos came along, very little was known about these creatures.
Not only is De Vos the first Sri Lankan to achieve a Phd in marine mammal research and the founder and director of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organisation, she’s also given a TED talk – on “the importance of whale poo.”
De Vos, who was recently in the US for a meeting of MCAF Fellows says her fascination with the sea started early, growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“As a six-year-old my parents would bring me second-hand National Geographic magazines that I would pore over, “she said, “I used to look through the pages and imagine that that would be me one day – going places where no-one else would ever go and seeing things no-one else would ever see.”
She said that even though no-one on those pages looked like her, she still dreamed of becoming an “adventurer-scientist.”
“As I grew older I started to fall in love with water, and becoming a marine biologist seemed like a logical career path given it combined all the things I loved – adventure, the ocean and science,” she said.
Long story short, I had a eureka moment that involved an aggregation of blue whales and a floating pile of blue whale poop.
But from the start of her career, she faced an uphill battle as a woman from the global south in a field that at the time was largely male and dominated by those from developed countries.
“When I first discovered this population of whales and suspected that they did not undertake long-range migrations to cold places to feed – they are the only non-migratory population of blue whales in the world– the only experienced people lived across the globe from me,” she said,
“As I described what I had seen, many of them wanted to come do the research themselves, it felt like they did not believe people from my part of the world had the capacity to do what needed to be done.”
Now De Vos’s work involves documenting the whales, their movement – and their feces.
“We use the poo for prey analysis and potentially hormone and/or stress analysis,” she said.
De Vos says the biggest threat to blue whales in Sri Lankan waters is being hit by large ships.
“The south coast of Sri Lanka is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, but we need to make sure that there is no impact on the whale populations because there are livelihoods that depend on them … and because they are an integral part of the proper functioning of our ecosystems,” she said.
According to De Vos, her group know a lot more than when she started The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project 10 years ago – for example, discovering a species of whale that had never been documented in Sri Lankan waters before.
“While Oceanswell is only 2.5 years old, my work through The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project over more than a decade has shone a light on our marine environment and its possibilities in a way that had not happened before,” she said,
“We work to shift the current marine conservation trajectory by inspiring and creating opportunities for the next generation of diverse ocean heroes – those individuals who were overlooked or not considered an important part of the team in the past.”
De Vos’s group isn’t the only one in the Global South that is looking at humanity’s impact on whales.