Protecting the Enigmatic Blue Whales of Sri Lanka: In Conversation with Asha de Vos

The largest animal on the planet, the blue whale, is found in Sri Lankan waters. Unusually, the blue whales off our coast do not to migrate to polar waters for feeding – a characteristic of other populations. We do not yet know why. In this interview, we talk about additional qualities that make them unique and interesting while highlighting the need for a scientific understanding of the population in order to manage and protect them into the future. In light of current and growing human encroachment in our oceans, Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos makes a strong case that the time is now.

Asha’s Sri Lanka’s second TED Fellow (and the second TED Fellow to be featured on this site). 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 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. Most recently, at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, she delivered a presentation titled “The Unorthodox Whale”. 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’.

Relevant to our conversation was the fact that Asha leads the first major study of the unique Sri Lankan blue whales, and is attempting, over the long term, to get an estimate of the numbers of whales in Sri Lanka.

We begin by going into how Asha began her interest in cetology and marine biology, and how it was a journey on a ship near Sri Lanka’s coastal waters, and a random encounter with blue whales, that started her on a path to study these amazing mammals. Asha comes out strongly on two points, the need to regulate the whale watching industry that’s blossoming in Sri Lanka and the whale population’s proximity to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the inevitable, tragic consequence of collisions.

Image courtesy Wired. The lines in yellow reflect lanes with the most amount of ships per annum.

Photo courtesy Sopaka Karunasundera, taken in Colombo harbour in late March 2012. The ship’s crew didn’t even know they had hit and killed a blue whale.

Asha notes that she’s using technologies never been used in Sri Lanka before to more accurately map the area in which these amazing mammals swim and breed in, and stresses that aside from the obvious danger of fatal collisions, the sonar pollution from the low range frequencies of ship propulsion pose a serious threat to the health of the whale population. On regulations, Asha expresses her concern that there are no regulations around whale watching in Sri Lanka, which leads to policies and practices that are harmful to the mammals. Asha also notes how disruptive the practice of charging right towards whales on boats is, in search of a good photograph. Instead, she notes that the best chance of a great shot of a blue whale is to stop, sit, wait.

Asha’s 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. Towards the end of our conversation, we talk about how technology, including Asha’s output on the web and through her blog, advances our understanding of the issues she is working on. Asha also responds to a question as to whether technologies that bring closer, to those who haven’t experienced a blue whale sighting in real life, the magic of the mammals enhances interest in its conservation, or makes it an experience more ordinary, and as a consequence, more forgettable. Inspired by this question on our programme, Asha went on to host and curate a great conversation on TED, titled Technology doesn’t kill the magic.

We don’t talk about it much, 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”. We end our conversation with Asha stressing the importance of pursuing one’s dreams, and never giving up on them, especially if the interests lie with marine biology and conservation.

  • luxmy

    Hope you realise your dreams.
    There is an urgent need for conservation of ALL marine biological forms. We have been reading here and there about the Army and Navy have their own rules on environmental protection in the Northeast. Will Environmental Agency and other environmentalists take an interest in the protection of the environment of the Northeast as well as the rest of the country. We know that if the people in the Northeast argue with the Army or the Navy, what awaits them. We need to be their voice.

    We also need to conserve sand, rock, water, etc.

    Use of land must be carefully planned for the growing population and decreasing natural resources:
    ”During the last five years, along roadsides (mainly along popular highways), main towns and in residential areas, shrines, temples, statutes and commonly venerated tress and physical objects have been constructed /planted on an ad hoc basis. It is unlikely that these constructions / occupation / planting  have formal approval of the authorities nor the respective land allocation made with lawful regulatory approval (especially in respect of the rights attaching to the use of such sites for religious purposes)
    These illegal constructions and occupation will deter the use of these land holdings for future community value adding public purposes and will in addition restrict road network expansion and road widening linked development initiatives” –

    Use of land has a great deal of overlap with justice, peace and reconciliation in the country.

  • Ranil Senanayake

    It is great that someone is addressing the aspect of marine pollution. Below is a letter on the subject sent to the Minister in 1995 and to Government bureaucrats attending to marine pollution at least four different times afterwards, WITH NO RESPONSE TODATE. It is enclosed in the hope that you can help move the argument

    Keep up the good work



    Hon. Minister of Environment
    Ministry of Environment
    Sri Lanka

    Honorable Minister,

    A Note on the Potential for Marine Pollution Through Oil Spillage and a Suggested Response Strategy.

    The marine resources of Sri Lanka are considerable and crucial to the well being of the population and the economy. As an island nation oceanic fisheries, provides a greater part of the protein input. The value of the western and southern coastline to the tourist industry cannot be overstated. The deposits of mineral sands maintain a high value as they are concentrated and uncontaminated. The value of the estuarine fisheries, mangrove ecosystems and biodiversity conservation status of the maritime ecosystems cannot be overemphasized. Yet, all this is under constant threat every day, a threat that increases statistically with each passing day. The subject was first brought to the attention of the government in a letter to Hon.Minister of Environment on 20.10.1995. I quote:

    “One urgent issue is that of Marine Biodiversity a theme that is scheduled to be discussed at the COP2 due to be held in Jakarta in November this year. Sri Lanka is constantly placed in a position of jeopardy vis-a-vis our marine biodiversity and fisheries potential by the inherent threat that super tankers laden with oil. It is a fact that these tankers pass through our national waters on an intensive basis. Yet it appears that we have not yet invoked the CBD in protecting ourselves against the imminent danger. It mat be in the interests of this nation to have our representative to the COP focus on this issue as one of our national strategies.

    There is provision within the Convention to address the issue. Article 14 contains many elements that we can develop. In fact when I represented Sri Lanka I raised the following query
    ” One representative drew attention to the possibility that in the open environment GMO’s will mutate and change with time and raised the need to examine the question of accountability in the case of local or national disaster.”

    The question of accountability is crucial, as we will not have the resources to deal with disasters of large magnitude. A relevant article in the convention is article 14 which addresses Impact Assessment and Minimizing Adverse Impacts. This article is crucial as it requires countries to use biodiversity as a criteria for its proposed projects with a view to avoiding or minimizing its impact. This article also requires states to take initiative in reporting to other states a imminent danger to the biological diversity of that state. Where possible it encourages joint contingency plans. Further, it directs the conference of parties to begin examining the question of liability and redress, including restoration and compensation when the damage was wrought by a state or organization that is not a part of the country concerned. The clause on liability and redress (14.2) has been downplayed by many developed country nations and their media as it goes against the commercial interests of these nations. However, if we were to raise it and request the COP to examine the question , we could take the initiative in building up a system of accountability that will give our nation some degree of protection form what statistically seems to be an imminent crisis.”
    For the sake of the record, it was unfortunate that the Sri Lankan delegates who attended the Conference of Parties (COP) of the CBD were totally uninterested in the national issues around the subject and chose to ignore the letter and personal advice given on the conference floor.

    I am still interested in empowering Sri Lanka to protect its territorial waters and biodiversity potential. I can develop a response strategy with the government and will be happy to develop a strategy paper with any nominated group of senior officials. The following points outline a possible scenario :

    1. A workshop on aspects of marine pollution orgainized jointly between a Government agency and the Environment Liaison Center International (ELCI)

    2. The findings will be distributed to the international media and the convention secretariat

    3. Sri Lanka commissions a study to develop a response strategy to the perceived threat

    4. This is tabled at the COP of the CBD to be held in Buenos Aries in October 1996.

    6. It is also developed into the a set of maritime rules for potential dangerous traffic passing through our waters

    7. A monitoring system (such as being developed by the University of Tucson) will be designed for surveillance of the Southern and Eastern oceanic waters.

    8. The total project will be presented to the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) for support in implementation.

    The gain, in both economic input and national security terms can be substantial.

    I will be happy to provide further information on the process if there is interest in developing these ideas further. I can also advise our permanent representative to the United Nations Environment Programme on strategic interventions at the governing council.

    Ranil Senanayake
    Executive Director
    Nairobi, Kenya
    Tel : 254-2-562015
    Fax : 254-2-562175
    e-mail: [email protected]

    Sri Lanka:
    Colombo 693613
    N’Eliya 2481

  • luxmy

    ”…the incredible devastation of the environment in Hambantota (the electoral district of Mahinda Rajapaksa), where over 6,000 acres of forest land are earmarked to be cleared. ….”

    Let’s connect all these up!!

  • Bedrock Barney

    Congrats for TED. Keep up the good work!