The Whale Watcher


Asha de Vos is fascinated by pygmy blue whales, which feed, breed and calve off Sri Lanka’s southern coast, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. A TED Fellow and National Geographic Explorer, the marine-mammal researcher works to protect the subspecies and is using her US$150,000 fellowship from the Pew Charitable Trust, awarded last year, to create and help to fund Oceanswell, a marine research and outreach organization in her native Sri Lanka.

How did you first encounter pygmy blue whales?

In 2002, after doing a marine-biology degree at the University of St Andrews, UK, I was in New Zealand for field experience when I wangled my way onto a whale-research vessel that was circumnavigating the globe. On the trip, I saw my first group of six pygmy blue whales — the smallest species of blue whale.

Why did the sighting matter to you?

Scat nearby indicated that the creatures had been feeding. Typically, large whales migrate between cold feeding areas and warm breeding areas. But these were feeding, breeding and calving in the tropical waters of Sri Lanka. I decided I wanted to spend my life understanding and protecting these whales. Six years later, I launched the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project — the first long-term research project on blue whales of the Northern Indian Ocean. It is now part of Oceanswell.

How did you go about that?

I earned a master’s degree in integrative bioscience from the University of Oxford, UK, so that I could learn field-research techniques. Then I returned home, where I worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on wetland and reef projects. But I had to leave because of a lack of funding. So, in 2008, when the Sri Lankan civil war was coming to an end and the whale-watching industry was beginning, I approached a tour operator.

To do what?

I was the scientist-on-board answering questions about whales. My real motive was to sight blue whales — I hadn’t seen them in six years — and get Global Positioning System locations for them. With the data I had gathered, I went to the University of Western Australia in Perth to do postgraduate work in marine-mammal research, becoming the first Sri Lankan to earn a PhD in the subject.

What is Oceanswell doing?

We are continuing our research on Sri Lankan blue whales: we have unravelled the mysteries of what these creatures feed on and their diving and surfacing behaviours, and have identified some of the threats they face and ways to limit the number of whale deaths. With my Pew funding, we will create a training and education platform for future marine conservationists in Sri Lanka.

You were named National Geographic Explorer last year.

Yes, and this title, which comes with a cash award of $10,000, is very close to my heart. I decided to be an adventurer–scientist at the age of six, after leafing through pages of that very magazine. I wanted to be one of the people featured in them — discovering, exploring and contributing to humanity.

What are your next steps?

Sri Lankan pygmy blue whales live all year round near shipping lanes that see heavy traffic, and their biggest threat is getting struck and killed by ships. During my postdoc at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I gathered field data on these ship strikes and built mathematical models to try to address the problem. I’ve assembled a team of scientists from UCSC and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop recommendations for reducing collisions between ships and whales.

In my new role as adviser to the minister of sustainable development and wildlife in Sri Lanka, I am using our findings to push for policy changes that will help to protect the blue-whale population in our waters.

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