Asha De Vos on following her dream to become a marine biologist, studying pygmy blue whales
Though people in her home country Sri Lanka thought that becoming a marine biologist was 'frivolous', Asha De Vos decided to follow her dreams. She works towards making the oceans safer for whales
“If you want to be respected in your home, why can’t we respect these creatures in theirs?” questions Asha De Vos during her TEDx Marriott talk in Bengaluru on 6 September. The Sri Lankan marine biologist is best known for studying a population of pygmy blue whales that she discovered off the island nation’s coast back in 2003, and the creatures she’s referring to is this very population of whales.
Almost everyone remembers what his or her childhood dream was. Pilot, firefighter, archaeologist, astronaut are all careers that seem attainable as kids, though those dreams usually fall to the wayside, as dreams give way to practicality, capitalism and the daily grind. De Vos is one of those people who has followed the path of her childhood dream, and now spends her time as a whale researcher. De Vos says she, “wanted to be an adventure scientist and National Geographic explorer,” — and she has fulfilled both those goals.
As a child, she credits her parents with letting her have the, “freedom to choose my own path.” Says De Vos, “Water was my element and that was where I was happiest.” By the age of 18, she had decided she wanted to be a marine biologist, and she found her way to Scotland’s University of St Andrew’s, “a school that’s very focused on marine mammals in general,” says De Vos. She admits that those around her doubted if she would come back, but she was clear. “My intention was always to come back home, to serve my country.”
Talking about the sea, De Vos is passionate. She speaks quickly but is eager to inform and share her knowledge. About the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, she says, “In our parts of the world, our relationship with the oceans is very different. It's not recreational, it’s extraction-based. Only fishermen really use the oceans, and so people thought that me becoming a marine biologist seemed very frivolous.”
In 2008, De Vos founded the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project where she has been undertaking research, conservation and recently, trying to influence public policy. Explains De Vos, “Right now, the biggest problem we’ve found with blue whales is that they hit container ships and get killed.” Later that night, at the talk, she illustrates this with a photo of a dead cetacean on the bow of a shipping vessel. De Vos reports that freight from Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and other large ports in Asia has quadrupled since the 1970s, and as a result, she says, “One of the things that I’ve been doing for about six years now is some research on how can we reduce this negative interaction between the whales and ships.”
Tourism, and more specifically the rise in whale watching vessels in the water around the island, are another problem she’s working with multiple stakeholders on, but ultimately De Vos is clear that her job is one that is all-encompassing. She says, “Part of my work is about how we can get more people into the field, and how we can make it more inclusive for students from under-represented nations,” to engage with their coastline.
Speaking about her trail-blazing role, she says, “My super powers are visibility and vulnerability, because the more people that see me for who I am, see themselves in me and realise that I’m just like them.” She’s now working with the next generation to use her contacts to give them the opportunities that she had to fight for when she got started as a marine biologist.
It's been an uphill battle for her, because in Sri Lanka as in India, “People didn’t value the work at the start especially and they didn’t think it was something that a person in South Asia would do— because you’re a doctor, lawyer, engineer or businessperson — otherwise why would you go to University? It seemed pointless.”
Getting back to the pygmy blue whales she discovered, De Vos remembers, “I actually found this aggregation of blue whales and this pile of whale poop,” (which incidentally floats and is bright red). This led her to realise they were feeding in the warm waters off the coast — a new phenomenon, as most whales feed in cooler waters. Over the years, she’s discovered that the whales are non-migratory – travelling only between the Maldives, Oman and the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. The population is unique in multiple ways, as they have a different vocal dialect, and they have different behavioural adaptations, like diving deeper than blue whales in other parts of the world.
No chat would be complete without asking De Vos about her opinions on pollution, especially plastic in the oceans. She says, “When I’m out at sea, I do see plastic, I see entangled turtles and we’ve rescued many turtles from ropes and stuff made out of non-natural fibres.” She credits a new consciousness that has made it a point of discussion all over the world, but explains that a lot of the plastic in the ocean is invisible to the eye. These micro-plastics, explains De Vos, “they’re in your food – they’ve found salt that has micro-plastics and a third of the fish that you buy in supermarkets in the UK and increasingly in other places have micro-plastics.” As a call to arms, she says, “Even if people don’t care about the impact on the environment, at least start being selfish and think about what it is doing to your body and your health and the health of your family.”
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