Asha De Vos is a marine biologist and a conservationist based in Sri Lanka, specializing on researching blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean. She is a PhD of the University of Western Australia. In this interview, Asha talks about how her journey with the ocean began, her research and academic work, international platforms that has opened up for her work, the significance of blue whales as eco-system engineers, and the necessity of paying attention to the conservation of the largest animal that roams this planet.
You are a pioneer in blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean, you are a marine biologist, and a passionate conservationist. You say that you are ‘driven by a desire to leave the world a better place than I found it, an overwhelming sense of curiosity and a need to break stereotypes.’ What got you interested in marine biology?
My story starts when I was about six years old. I think it started with wanting to become an adventure scientist because of National Geographic Magazine. I wanted to be that person who sees things that no one else sees, go to places that no one ever will go. Then I grew up and became a swimmer. I started to really appreciate water.
I did not grow up with an ocean-going family. But when I would see the ocean, and being Sri Lankan of course you pass the ocean all the time, I felt that there is so much intrigue around it. For me, I knew there was something more to it. I knew that it was more than just a big blue tank of water. I knew that there was magic once you lifted the lid. To me, that excitement of the unknown was quite captivating.
I grew up in a very curious family. I was encouraged to ask questions and we were always introduced to people. One of those people I got to know was Arthur C Clarke. He would come to my swimming club. After a swim, sometimes he would tell me stories about his dives in Sri Lanka. Such encounters peaked my interest.
And then I went to university to do marine biology. I was pretty hell-bent on the idea of unravelling this mystical magical place by that point.
You have a BSc (Hons) in Marine and Environmental Biology from the University of St. Andrews, UK, an MSc in Integrative Biosciences from the University of Oxford, and a PhD from the University of Western Australia. What is the picture in Sri Lanka, a tropical island surrounded by ocean, in terms of education opportunities for marine biology?
We don’t come from a culture that is very connected to the ocean. We come from a culture where the ocean is used for extractive purposes, such as for fishing. That is the limit of how we interact with the ocean. Most people in Sri Lanka do not even swim.
In terms of what your educational prospects are, I went abroad to study and to do my undergrad because I could not do marine biology here. That was my only way of doing marine biology.
Unfortunately, even from school days, our education system has no real mention about the ocean. And then when you get to higher education the prospects are really non-existent. There are things like fisheries and aquaculture, but not really addressing this idea of the marine environment, conservation, and ecology, subjects that are really the foundation of picking people’s interests about the oceans.
There is a growing interest in the field now. Because all the media around my work, I think a lot of people see it as a possibility now, which is in its own way a beautiful thing.
That is one of the things that I would like to change as well, creating opportunities for people who have that excitement in them, leveraging that excitement to do something and give them the chance to actually dream in this space.
Could you elaborate a little on your PhD, which was conducted in an oceanography lab and what that experience was like?
I am a marine biologist. I understand the world in terms of the behaviour of ecology, species, and how species interact with each other. Once I discovered this population of whales, I started to realise that these whales were not migrating out of the Northern Indian Ocean. Typically, large whales like blue whales will do long-range migration between cold feeding areas and warm breeding areas. But here we were seeing that these whales were hanging around Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and going up to about Oman but not really leaving these warm waters.
That was very intriguing. I wanted to know what is it that was keeping them here. If warm waters are considered unproductive and not food sufficient, why would the population of the largest animal that ever lived on the planet want to live here throughout the year?
I decided I need to now take a step back and look at this larger picture – why are they here, what is the environment doing that allows them to be here, and also at the conservation aspects. If I really wanted to understand the ecology or the behaviour of this animal, I had to then step out of my comfort zone, which was marine biology, and take a more physical approach, which is oceanography. Oceanography is very much about currents and circulation. I decided to conduct my PhD at an oceanography lab in Western Australia.
During North East Monsoon in Sri Lanka, from December to April, there are blue whales in the southern coastal areas of the island. When we looked at satellite images during that time of the year we could not find any major oceanographical phenomena that was driving the whales to be around these areas. We have these currents that switch twice a year and how they interact with our very steep bathymetry, our ocean’s flow, and all of that comes together to make these ocean areas quite productive. We have this cold nutrient-rich water coming from the depths up to the surface. There are mechanisms that we do not necessarily see in other places. So, it is a unique system that we have here. And that was very exciting to discover, during my PhD.
Why is it important to study and conserve whales in terms of our eco systems?
A lot of people think that studying whales is this whole charismatic mega fauna-kind of job. It does feel like that to a certain extent and I am not going to take away the fact that they are beautiful and charismatic in their own right. They are the largest animal that ever roamed the planet. There is some awe involved in that.
But that is not a good enough reason to protect anything. They are really important to our ecosystem and survival. Whales are what we call ecosystem engineers. Essentially, their presence or absence in the environment determines a lot of other functions that happen around it. A lot of the survival of other species depends on them – the growth of a food web for example.
One of the key things is that whale poop is really important. That is because when whales generally feed at depth, they will dive to the depths. They feed in areas where there are nutrients that are limiting in surface waters. They feed on these nutrients, along with their food. Then they come up to the surface and let out these massive faeces. Those faeces are chocks full of these nutrients that are not in the surface. It is like fertilizer.
There are tiny microscopic plants called phytoplankton in the surface waters that need certain nutrients that they are not getting on a day to day basis.When these massive faeces are released, this fertilizer allows phytoplankton to grow and proliferate. Then they photosynthesize and produce oxygen. So, 50-70 percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced in the ocean by plants like this. That means we have to be conscious of the fact that every time we breathe one in every few breaths we release is coming from the ocean, thanks to the eco systems in the ocean.
On top of that, phytoplankton are the base of all the food webs. If we have more fighter plankton, then we are going to have more things like fish that feed on the phytoplankton. That means you can have more species that feed on the fish.
Whales are also important because their carcasses are gigantic. They provide a source of food to a lot of species at the surface. They die and sink; we call this whale fall. As this whale fall sinks to the depths, they sometimes sink to parts of the ocean that are devoid of food sources. There are species in those areas that are specialized to feed on whale fall.
When these carcasses sink they trap within them excess carbon from the atmosphere and they take it down to the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is what we call a carbon sink. A reduction of carbon in the atmosphere means it is a positive thing for climate change. This helps us to control our environment. At some point, the ocean is not going to be able to hold all the carbon we are releasing and that is going to be very problematic. But for now, it is a big buffer and it really is saving us in that sense.
What is the significance of the Northern Indian Ocean for your work and its ‘unorthodox whales’ (a term that you coined based on many years of research) in terms of eco systems, biology, and conservation?
The vast majority of countries around the Indian Ocean are developing countries. There has never really been any incentive to go explore and discover in these oceans. It is probably the most understudied ocean basin in the world. So, there is a lot out there that we do not know.
For me, personally, the Northern Indian Ocean has always been attractive because this is home. I have this strong desire to show the world that we have these things in our waters. I guess I am trying to prove a point that there is a lot of talent in our parts of the world and there is a lot of capacity. The Northern Indian Ocean, to me, is the hotspot of the world. I think there is so much undiscovered and we are only just beginning this adventure.
As for the whales, it is such an important ocean basin because their lives are completely dependent on this ocean basin. As I was saying, they are non-migratory; they are the only non-migratory population of blue whales in the world. They do everything that is important like reproduce, find their mates, and feed in these waters. There is a lot of human activity in these waters. So, we need to be very conscious of protecting these waters because this is an unusual population of whales that are using it.
That population is really important in so many ways. Like I said, the ecosystem engineer-type of work. There are also economies that are based on this. In Sri Lanka, we have a lot of income from whale watch tourism. Protecting these whales is actually about creating sustainability for us as a nation as well. We need to do more, discover more, and also work harder to protect these waters because it is a very special place.
What is the bigger picture in terms of destruction and conservation of whales in Sri Lanka?
When I started this work, in 2011, Channel 7 Australia did a news piece on my work. That was the first piece of media I really did and that video has gone viral. Even today, it is still circulating and people are watching it millions of times around the world. The most important thing about that video was so many people wrote to me and said that they did not even know that we had whales in our waters before they saw this. This is again going back to the idea that we have a culture that does not have this connection with the ocean.
Watch Asha’s feature on Channel 7:
When it comes to protection, it obviously has to be driven by the government in some ways. When I started talking about the threats these whales were facing the government was just realizing about the fact that there are whales, there are problems, and now we need to make changes.
At first, there was a lot of resistance to my work, a lot. People thought that I was trying to shut down ports and the whale watching industry, which is not at all what my intention is. I understand that these are natural resources that are going to be exploited but my point is that we need to be sustainable about it. These are not things that are there for us to use consumptively. We are just custodians for future generations.
I would say that in terms of the rest of the world we are far behind. We have regulations for a lot of things but enforcement is very poor. When I finished my master’s and came back, I remember I used to sit at meetings with government officials and nobody paid attention to me because I was too young, too female. It took twelve years for a minister to call me up and say I need you to come and give me advise. Now, they are starting to realize that there is some benefit to doing something positive, some benefit from having me involved in the conversation based on my expertise and my experience.
We need to switch around the way we do development and the way we look at tourism. People are coming to our country for the wilderness of it but for some reason the authorities feel like the wilderness is not something that we should have and everything should be a whitewashed large building. So, that is an issue of its own.
In Sri Lankan society, the national images of womanhood do not promote a woman to be a marine biologist. Those images are constantly built on our traditional gender roles as nurtures, saviours of cultural purity, based in domestic locations. Something you have also said is that people often question your work on the basis of gender. How has being a woman positioned you as a marine biologist?
For a long time, people just ignored me even though I was confident in my abilities and I knew that I could make a difference. It was frustrating. But it taught me a lot in terms of persistence and just hanging around. People now invite me for meetings and they want me at every meeting. Now I think perhaps they are not looking at me as a woman, they are looking at me as a professional who has some answers. I think that is really important. There is this gender blindness that we need to see.
It is true that women are nurturers; traditionally, that is how we are seen, culturally. I find that that is my role as well – I am here to nurture the planet and look after the planet. I may not have my own children to protect it for but it is for the world’s children. I think we can still stick with that ideology that that is an inherent characteristic of a woman but we can display it in different ways.
Now I see lots more young girls who are interested in this field. I mentor students; they come and speak to me. It is nice to see there is more interest. I sit on boats all day, men drive these boats and my teams are mixed. To me, at the end of the day, I have a task to get done. This is the best possible team that I can get together and just get it done. It has helped me also to not see myself as a woman in the field but to be a marine biologist. I am a professional. I have made several discoveries. I have done certain work. I like to build on that. It is not necessarily easy. People will always criticize you. We come from a culture that does not celebrate women enough.
You are also actively involved in mentoring students and children on conservation and marine biology. Could you elaborate on your ‘Future Heroes of the Ocean’ campaign?
Seventy percent of our coastlines in the world are in developing countries. If you go on to the global stage for marine conservation it is a very non-inclusive and undiverse space. I think that is really detrimental to our efforts to save the oceans. Because, first of all, local solutions are the best. We need custodians on every coastline around the world; people who are going out and speaking to the people, doing research, and exploring.
If you want to save the ocean, you cannot just have a bunch of scientists come from the West into our countries, do parachute science, and leave. There is no sustainability in that. From where I see it, I want to create opportunities. That is my dream. I would like to take everyone out to the ocean but it is impossible and it is extremely expensive. So, there are other things I feel like I can do.
I have mentoring sessions with students who are considering the field. It is not about converting everyone into a marine biologist but is really about creating this ocean-consciousness. My ultimate dream in life is, before I die, I want everyone in this planet to talk about the ocean at least once a day. It is a huge dream. But why is it that we are not doing it? If seventy percent of our planet is the ocean, why are we not talking about it?
So, I mentor students. I am going to launch a few things very soon that will allow more interaction and conversations around the marine environment. We need more of those communities as well.
I have had to grow my global network because here in Sri Lanka I do not necessarily have that network to talk about these things. But I want to create that network here so that students here have each other. They can think about what they can do to solve problems in the ocean.
In the long-term, I would love to run campaigns with kids because that is where it all begins. Kids can change the mindsets of their parents. The idea of the future ocean hero is really anyone can be an ocean hero, even an adult. You can be whatever age, colour, demography, background but you can do little things in your everyday life even if it means having a conversation. That will actually make you one of the saviours.
To do all that, what is the situation with funding? I have seen you go in little boats and doing your work out there.
The statistics say that Sri Lanka is one of the forty worst funders for conservation in the world. That is not something to be proud about. Also, my funding does not particularly come from Sri Lanka. I am constantly writing grant proposals, trying to win fellowships, trying to establish connections with philanthropists and the private sector here in Sri Lanka to create a little bit of sustainability for this work in terms of finances because that is a very difficult thing.
We work on shoe string budgets. We often work on small boats and we work in a shipping space. So it is not necessarily the safest place to be on a small boat but then again we want to get the work done. We have to do it. But it is struggle.
My organisation, Oceanswell, is a non-profit organisation and I would love to have more volunteers. But creating that sustainability is tough. That is why it is important that I also have this outward facing part of the work I do. I do the science because I love research. I think it is such an adventure.
I also love storytelling. So, I also use media and social media to connect with people, keep followers and get people excited because the more people we can connect with the more chances we have of creating collaborations to make it sustainable or even just getting the word out more and increasing our profile. Oceanswell in my mind is a small but mighty organisation that is born in Sri Lanka but has a global voice. And for us to continue to have a global voice, we need to literally be globally present. So, those are the kind of tactics I am trying to use to see if we can create that sustainability in the longterm.
As you mentioned, Channel Seven Australia did a documentary with you, Blue Heaven, which pretty much went viral. Do we need to better contextualize conservation messages in terms of creating awareness on the gravity of environmental issues?
That is extremely important. One of the biggest problems we have is, to me, the ocean is this incredible place and marine conservationists and marine biologists have this amazing opportunity to really engage people. No matter how small or big a species is the imagery you can come out with from the ocean is unbelievable. It is mind-blowing. But we have not used that to our advantage. So, there is a disconnection between people all over the world and how they perceive the ocean.
Traditionally, academics and scientists are so wrapped up in their little bubble. They do research and write papers for journals that often are inaccessible to the vast majority of the world. Or they would go to a conference that involves only other people who speak their jargon and their language. To me, it is my responsibility and my obligation to take that science and then translate it into visually engaging stories that are easy for people to understand.
Because otherwise we are going to constantly blame human beings but if we are not giving them the information then how do you know? We need to make sure that people are getting the information so that they can start to make better informed decisions, they can become these ocean-conscious citizens and can actually have a positive impact; be part of the solution and not just part of the problem.
You are also an academic. You have published key research publications on Sri Lankan blue whales, which have led to this population being designated as a species in urgent need of conservation research by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Could you elaborate on your amalgamated roles as an academic and a conservationist and what opportunities these roles have opened up for you to talk about conservation?
I love asking questions and trying to figure out what the answer is. That drives me as an academic or researcher. I am inspired to figure out why. So, that is what this whole journey has been. I ask the question why and it leads me down the path.
I publish because I think it is important for me to be scientifically relevant; there is a certain credibility in that. If I can have good solid science that is accepted by my scientific peers, then I know what I am telling the public is good quality information.
The problem in places like Sri Lanka is that there is a lot of what we call pseudoscience where people are hobbyist-types. They are keen to be marine biologists but they do not have that scientific background. It is fine to work out of passion but it is not fine to mislead people. There is a lot of false information and bad science. This can be really detrimental to conservation efforts.
That is why, for me, it is really important to always have one foot in the academia. I will continue to do research, collaborate with teams all over the world so that I can do the best quality science and produce findings that can be the backbone of everything else that we do.
Let’s talk about some of the international platforms that you have had to engage and disseminate the message of the unorthodox whales and their conservation.
I have been really lucky in the sense that I have a bunch of fellowships that have opened up, which are really incredible platforms for me. One of the main ones is TED. I am a TED Fellow. I had the opportunity to stand on the stage. I got to tell a story about how important whales are, as ecosystem engineers. I am also Sri Lanka’s first National Geographic Emerging Explorer. National Geographic is a powerful brand. It opens doors and allows for certain conversations that I might not have otherwise.
Watch Asha on TED Talks:
Through National Geographic, this year I spoke at the World Ocean Summit, which is organised by The Economist and it is very heavily economically oriented. Typically, I don’t know how I would have gotten into a conference like that, but through National Geographic I had that opportunity.
I am also a Pew Fellow in marine conservation and Pew is a very well-recognised family foundation that funds important environmental research. The most important marine conservationists of our time are Pew Fellows.
I come with these certain stamps on me that allow these conversations to happen quicker and allow for certain collaborations that may not be possible otherwise.
All of these things have allowed me to become a very unique voice globally. It is a voice that never existed. It is a voice from the developing world that is not only talking about the realities that are happening here but also representing the people from here. That to me is my duty. I have this opportunity and I am going to make the most of it. I am going to stand on stages and talk about how we need to change the way things are happening. We need to be more inclusive and diverse voices.
Would you like to elaborate on your children’s book project?
It is based on the oldest known blue whale in our population, who is the main character. The books have very strong conservation messages. It is about teaching kids about what is going on out there and about what is behind the science that we do; also giving them a real sense of how we need to start thinking about our environment, resources and species that are out there. Hopefully, fingers crossed, we can find our publisher. It is doing the rounds right now. And if we do, by the next year we will have a couple of books coming out, which is very exciting for me. I am very committed to spreading the word to anyone who is willing to listen. I think everyone is an ocean hero at heart, if we allow them to be.
With the increasing popularity of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination and the hype surrounding whale watching activities as recreation, what kind of attention should be given in terms of their habitats and conservation?
Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, there is this misconception that development and sustainability cannot work together. There is this fear. The minute you say sustainability everyone asks what about the economy. Sustainability helps the economy. It is not a negative. These are conversations that I experience a lot.
We have these resources and we are being so short-sighted about how we do things. There are way too many boats out on the water. There is no real consideration for the environment. Basically, it is like bite the hand that feeds you. Why can’t people think that if this continues, maybe these whales will be driven out of these areas? These are feeding zones. These whales are hanging around because they do not have a choice. But in the long term who knows what will happen because of what we are doing? We are making a lot of money on this. If nothing else, let’s think about the economy. Care about the resource because it is bringing you money.
Sri Lanka, while we do have these sort of regulations, regulations are not enough. They are not going to enforce themselves. We need to make sure we are training the people who are enforcing those regulations. If we incentivize to actually care for these resources and also the industry itself has to take the initiative to self-regulate. There are very few operators like that. And it is a big problem. We just need to stop taking what we have in this country for granted.
This is not to romanticize what you are doing, but how does it really feel actually to work with these magnificent species?
Whenever I travel, if there is an opportunity to be on a boat and see a whale or a dolphin I will always take it. And so many times, I have been on boats, seen an animal and have been the most exciting person on the boat to the point where tourists have been asking me ‘is this your first whale?’ And when I say, ‘no, this is what I do for a living’, people get confused. It is magical. You are sitting there and you are thinking we are so privileged. We live on a planet side-by-side with the largest animal that has ever lived in the history of our planet. When I see these creatures I get very excited. All these questions run through my head and that is the kind of stuff that gets me so excited. I just say it is magical and maybe that is not the most scientific way of describing but it is very powerful, magical, and it captures the imagination.
Watch Asha on TED Talks:
Find out more about Asha’s work: http://ashadevos.com
Date of Interview: 7 September 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage