Asha de Vos on being a Marine Biologist and, 'The Unorthodox Whales'Arti Gupta
Having your work revolve around a great ocean giant such as the blue whale and other ocean creatures would seem quite surreal for most of us; Asha de Vos, lives that dream.
Asha, is a marine biologist by profession, an Educator, TED Senior Fellow, fuelled by curiosity, and driven by nature. She lives her passion about ocean conservation and nature.
‘How did the passion for marine biology and especially the blue whale come about?’ She says that she always fancied being an adventure scientist, and combining her love for water and animals paved the path to becoming who she is today. From the age of six Asha has been fascinated with the ocean and the creatures within. For her, seeing the blue whales feeding in waters was mind-blowing given that she was not expecting to see that in tropical waters. The blue whale is definitely the main species she works with as a Cetologist and Marine Biologist. Asha presumes that her desire to become a marine biologist from a very young age stemmed from spending hours poring over National Geographic magazines and listening to people like Arthur C. Clarke talk about the great unknown that was the ocean. It also helped that she grew up in a family that encouraged her to live outside the box, dream, explore and find their own path to happiness.
Her primary education was at Ladies’ College, Sri Lanka where she says that they were always encouraged to study but also to partake in extra-curricular activities. Asha was a swimmer and a water polo player and her love for water started at a young age. After completing her primary education, she moved to Scotland for her undergraduate studies at the University of St. Andrews, which is one of the top schools in the world for studying marine mammals. Her desire to continue in the field of marine biology was
solidified when she interacted with the passionate scientists at the university marine lab. There was nothing slowing down Asha with her studies since after completing her undergraduate degree she went on to do her Masters at Oxford, and later obtaining a PhD in Marine Mammal research; she adds that none of this would have been possible without the support of her incredible family.Asha says that her parents always told her to do what she loves and they had no such expectations and never put any pressure for her to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer but they hoped she would choose something worthwhile. So becoming something as “unorthodox” as “a marine biologist” was something they accepted with open arms. But one of the biggest challenges Asha’s faced in the study of blue whales is not so much the complexity of the subject, but her gender. Asha’s a pioneer in this regard, and as she notes in a recent initiative to celebrate Sri Lanka’s female role models by Reach Out, “Being a marine biologist is uncommon enough, being a female marine biologist is stare-worthy. I carry heavy equipment and direct teams of researchers who are often men”. Asha adds that women have to work a lot harder to gain respect and acknowledgement in any field and she has certainly seen improvements here since she started out. She adds further ‘If you do good work, no one will ever question your place’.
She was awarded a Zonta Woman of Achievement award in 2011 and has coordinated and implemented projects related to marine and coastal resources in Sri Lanka in collaboration with donors and partners. As a marine biologist she has worked at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and as a consultant on projects for National Aquatic Research Agency, NARA. Asha de Vos has written numerous journal articles, publications, and presented her work in several countries including Australia, Maldives, the US and Sri Lanka. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Western Australia, where she studies the ‘factors influencing blue whale aggregations off Southern Sri Lanka’. Apart from these credentials, Asha is also a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Senior Fellow, which is a distinguished achievement. On being a TED Senior Fellow Asha says that it is an incredible honour to have been picked from a pool of absolutely amazing TED Fellows. It is a humble feeling to be a part of this family and it has made her look at her work in new and different ways and enabled her to contribute to very different kinds of work.
The blue whales found in the Sri Lankan waters have been described by Asha as ‘The Unorthodox Whales’, since they break the stereotypes we have about blue whales. The previous research on the blue whale had suggested that all blue whales the world over fed at the poles and then undertook long-range migrations to higher latitudes to breed and calve. However, Asha says, the whales in our waters actually tend to stay around the northern Indian Ocean with some in our waters all year round – so basically they remain in warm waters throughout the year; thereby making us realise that we know so very little about this species, the largest that has ever lived on the planet, and that we have a long way to go in understanding this great ocean giant.
The longest recorded Sri Lankan Blue Whale specimen 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 those that reside around Sri Lanka all year round. They feed and calve in the warm tropical waters of Sri Lanka, and they have a different vocal call to the other populations so they are acoustically identifiable. They also exhibit certain behaviours more often in Sri Lankan waters than anywhere else, which might be a behavioural adaption to their environment…or not!
On asking about the greatest challenge faced by Sri Lanka’s whales and the blue whales in general, Asha says: 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 decline. 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. 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.Apart from her research; Asha is also passionate about raising awareness about marine biology and conservation, and speaks of the need to encourage children and youth to learn more about the rich diversity of marine life around Sri Lanka. She is an activist creating awareness about marine life and she says that when her first mini feature by Channel 7 Australia went viral on YouTube, she had emails coming from people around the world, but mostly from Sri Lanka writing to tell her that they did not even know that we had whales in our waters. She further adds that it is definitely very rewarding to hear how far and wide the word has gone about these whales and most importantly she is excited that the world is starting to realise that Sri Lankans are completely capable of conducting top quality marine research as well. Asha has carried out research focusing on proving how important Sri Lanka is as a feeding area and why it is so productive and attractive to the whales.
On asking her for advice to a budding marine biologist, she says, ‘First, do what you love. It doesn’t matter what you do but just make sure you love it; secondly, never give up, no matter how many people question why you are doing it, if you are passionate about it and are not having any negative impacts in the process, just keep pushing – even if things begin to look and feel a little bleak. Every cloud definitely has a silver lining; thirdly, build up a fan base of those who respect, love and care for you and keep them very close. They will be the ones who will help you face your biggest challenges, and trust me when I say there will be many; fourthly, step outside your comfort zone, the world is a far more beautiful place with lots more opportunities for exploration and fulfilment; fifthly, always have an open mind and be willing to learn. There is something to be learnt from everyone and everything and learning is what helps us grow; and, finally, do not lose track of your roots and where you come from. Always stay humble.’