How one UCSC marine biologist with a lifelong passion for whales is saving them from ship strikes on the other side of the world
Asha de Vos was perched precariously above the deck of the Odyssey, a research vessel in the Indian Ocean. She had been trying to climb 80 feet up the ship’s mast, into the crow’s nest, but froze halfway. She had only two choices, the captain reminded her: go up, or come down. So de Vos decided to climb. When she got to the platform, she looked out over the water, and saw something that changed the course of her life: her first blue whale. It was almost as long as the 93-foot Odyssey.
This was 2003, and the ship was on a voyage near Sri Lanka. Later, the researchers came across a group of six blue whales. It shocked de Vos to see them feeding, because it went against what the Sri Lankan native had learned during her undergraduate years at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland: that blue whales feed exclusively in polar regions, where waters are rich with nutrients and dense with krill. This was the first time de Vos had heard of them dining in tropical waters. The sighting suggested to her that marine biologists had much to learn about these unique whales.
Since then, de Vos has dedicated her early career to studying Sri Lanka’s native giants. Now a postdoctoral scholar at UCSC, her research suggests that this group of whales might be fragile and threatened—and in a policy coup, her activism has convinced the government of Sri Lanka of the need to alter the routes of ships, which plow into the whales far too often.
“My sense is that this population was never very big, and then it got hammered by illegal Soviet whaling [in the 1960s], and now is even smaller,” says Bernie Tershy, an adjunct professor at UCSC. “Asha’s work has tremendous potential to have an impact. I’m really optimistic.”
Sri Lanka’s recent civil war, which raged from 1983 to 2009, made it difficult to study these animals, known as pygmy blue whales. But some distinctions are clear: they are 15 feet smaller than Antarctic blue whales, they breed six months out of sync with their cousins elsewhere, and they call to one another using a unique dialect. This call signature allowed scientists to confirm that Sri Lanka’s blue whales don’t migrate to Antarctica, like other populations; acoustic monitors don’t detect the whales there. Further, de Vos showed that they behave differently. For example, they “fluke up,”—lift their tails high in the air before deep dives—more often than blue whales in other populations.
Scientists most commonly spot the pygmy blue whales along Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Ship traffic between Africa, the Middle East and Asia all converges there as well. The intense ocean commerce—some of the world’s busiest—must harm the whales, but de Vos doesn’t yet have firm numbers. It’s a hard problem to study because whales hit by ships may drift out to sea or sink. If carcasses do wash up on shore, they are often too decomposed for scientists to identify the cause of death.
Despite these challenges, de Vos thinks it’s clear that ship strikes are a major threat. Data on strandings in California show that for every whale that washes up on shore after it is struck by a ship, at least 10 are lost at sea. And in Sri Lanka, strandings are common. People send de Vos photographs of stranded whales, and those wrapped around the bows of ships in Sri Lanka’s harbors, and she has seen whale carcasses with obvious injuries from ships floating out in the ocean. She has also witnessed several close calls while observing the animals in the wild. Now, she is seeking to prove the impact on pygmy blue whale numbers—and to chart where the collisions occur.
“The ships are like huge bowling balls,” de Vos says. “They just wipe out anything that is in their way.”
To complicate matters, after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, the government built a new port in the southern coastal city of Hambantota.
“When that came up, I immediately knew it would cause a bigger problem for the whales because there would be ships closer to shore,” de Vos says. “Ships are traveling from Hambantota to Colombo, right where the whales are going to be.”
At UCSC’s Coastal Conservation Action Lab, de Vos is now working to attach numbers to her suspicions. She collaborates with Tershy and marine biologist Don Croll on a photo identification system that will help her estimate how many blue whales call Sri Lanka’s waters home. She has also joined with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to build habitat models that will allow her to predict where the whales usually linger. The work is based on successful research by biologists that compelled federal officials to shift shipping lanes off the coast of California in 2013. The new models will show how the shipping lanes overlap with blue whale habitat—and suggest how to minimize collisions.
“Asha approached us with a problem that was tangible and had a real solution,” says Croll. “Most whales are being threatened by things like climate change, where it’s difficult to identify specific conservation actions that can make a difference. But Asha can.”
Her work has gotten a lot of media attention, and it seems to have sparked reactions in high places. Her first victory came in 2010, when the Sri Lankan fisheries minister stated in one of the country’s newspapers that he would not change the shipping lanes because of the blue whales.
“A lot of people would have been defeated, but I chose to take a positive spin. It was the first time they’d ever said the words ‘blue whales’ and ‘shipping’ in the same sentence,” de Vos explains. “It means that someone had prompted them to think.”
In every interview de Vos has done since then, she has talked about ship strikes. She shows the photographs people send to her in all of her talks. And in May 2014, it paid off: the fisheries minister announced his intention to move the shipping lanes. Now, de Vos plans to work with the relevant government stakeholders in Sri Lanka to help determine where to place the new lanes and to understand the feasibility of such actions.
A PERSONAL CRUSADE
De Vos says she has loved whales for as long as she can remember. When she was 6 years old, she drew a Save-the-Whales poster that depicted the animals with teeth and red lips—she had an active imagination. Her passion for marine mammals led her to choose the University of St. Andrews; she wanted to work with the world-class researchers on staff there.
Inspired by her experience on the Odyssey, de Vos started the Sri Lanka Blue Whale Project in 2009. One of the project’s goals is to build a pygmy blue whale photo ID database. With the help of an intern, de Vos compiles photos from whale-watching boats in Sri Lanka. They comb through the images to look for unique markings that identify individual whales. By combining what she learns with a future mark-recapture study, de Vos will be able to estimate the number of pygmy blue whales in Sri Lankan waters.
De Vos returns to the Indian Ocean for three months each year to do field work. Every time she spots a blue whale, she records the date and time, the location, and the weather conditions. Next, she uses an instrument called a conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) recorder to measure the salinity and temperature at different depths nearby. This information, along with satellite data on chlorophyll concentrations, will get plugged into the habitat models de Vos is working on. The models will then compute where and when the blue whales are likely to be found.
“These are the types of things we’re trying to put together as tools,” says de Vos. “We can combine what we learn from the models with the different types of usage in the areas the whales frequent—such as fishing, whale watching, and shipping—to figure out how to have the least amount of effect on the whales in the area.”
It has taken de Vos a long time to earn the respect of officials in Sri Lanka. Not only is she a female Sri Lankan marine scientist, she is the only person in the country who focuses on scientific research related to marine mammals. “I remember when I finished my master’s degree and went back home, and even at that time I was the most qualified for this type of work in the country,” de Vos says. “I’d go to the government meetings, and they would ignore me because I was female and not senior enough. I’ll always be too young, and I’ll always be female. Now they’re finally starting to accept me.”
The lack of resources in Sri Lanka has also stalled her work. Even finding a boat can be difficult. Once, visiting researchers from Duke University brought an echosounder to map krill density in the water. She spent months preparing for their visit, even having a special stainless steel mount built for the equipment on the vessel she had reserved. When she parked the boat after a test drive, she heard a suspicious gurgling sound: the boat was sinking. After losing a few days, she managed to find a close replacement, but the team had to use duct tape and bungee cords to secure the expensive device.
Measurements with the CTD recorder can also be challenging. On big research vessels, scientists lower instruments using a winch. Having no such luxury, de Vos raises and lowers the CTD more than 300 feet each way by hand. Sometimes, she does this at least 50 times a day.
She plans on spending another year at UCSC before returning home for good. She hopes to start her own nonprofit organization, devoted to marine research that drives both conservation and educational outreach. She wants to inspire the next generation of marine biologists globally, but specifically in the developing world.
“That’s where my heart is,” de Vos says. “The only reason I would live somewhere else is to scour this information together and take it back home. I want to develop the field in Sri Lanka. We have a lot of talented and passionate students, not just there but throughout the developing world, and people tend to overlook them.”