Coastal heroism

In conversation with Dr Asha de Vos

“We are not going to save our ocean if we don’t have an army of ocean heroes along every coastline.”

Dr Asha de Vos is a marine biologist, an ocean educator, pioneer of long-term blue whale research within the northern Indian Ocean and founder of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organisation. She is a National Geographic Explorer, a senior TED Fellow, was named one of BBC’s 100 most inspirational and influential women of 2018 and a winner of the inaugural Maxwell-Hanrahan award in field biology (2020). In this interview, we catch up with Dr de Vos about these extraordinary blue whales and the power that can be harnessed by supporting local ocean heroes.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Dr Asha de Vos (AdV): I’m a tropical child, but actually, my first memories of the ocean are fear. I just remember being afraid, thinking of it like a big beast. Culturally, Sri Lankans don’t tend to interact with the ocean in a recreational way. But over time, seeing the ocean every day, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the idea of adventure and exploration at about the age of six because of the National Geographic magazines my parents would bring home. As a kid, I wanted to become an adventurer scientist and then I stumbled upon marine biology. I soon realised that it had all the ingredients I needed – ocean, adventure and science, so I decided to pursue that.

OM: You’ve spoken in the past about how facts should and can always be challenged. Why was it such a significant discovery to find out that the Sri Lankan population of blue whales were non-migratory?

AdV: When I had this chance encounter with these blue whales and a floating pile of their excrement, I reflected on my textbooks and what I had learnt in university. My textbooks and professors had taught me that large whales undertook long-range migrations between cold feeding areas and warm breeding and calving areas. As a result, I was convinced that the blue whales we were seeing could not be feeding in Sri Lankan waters, five degrees above the equator. But that’s exactly what I did find. These whales had figured out how to feed in our warm tropical waters, busting all the stereotypes we had built for them. Through my PhD I found that they could only do this because the productivity of the oceans around Sri Lanka was higher than would be expected for a similar latitude elsewhere because of our position within the northern Indian Ocean, a unique monsoonal climate and the resulting circulation. I also did some research using whale poo to try and understand what they were feeding on. I spoke to a fellow scientist about our finding that they were feeding on a type of shrimp rather than krill. But he just kept saying, “that can’t be, because all blue whales feed on krill”. I told him that we had to stop assuming that we already know everything we need to know, because we will just block our own progress. We need to admit that things change, facts are fluid, and that’s the beauty of science.

OM: What is it about these waters that allow the blue whales to stay year-round?

AdV: We found that we have two different systems that create productivity throughout the year. These shifting currents change direction twice a year because of the monsoons. The way these currents and the way this circulation interacts with the sea floor drives productivity. The whales stay because there is food. My theory is that blue whales elsewhere are gorgers – they’ll go to cold waters and they’ll feed and feed and feed. Then they’ll migrate to mate and calve. However, I think the whales out here are grazers. There’s food – maybe not in the abundance that you’ll get in Antarctica – but there’s enough food for them to keep grazing, moving, mating and reproducing. Why waste energy doing massive migrations if you can be energetically more efficient, stay in these areas, maybe eat less, maybe eat constantly, but still have a good life. Who doesn’t want to live out their lives in the tropics?

Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales Oceanswell
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales fluke
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales fishers
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales drone

OM: Can you tell me a little bit more about their threats and how we should be working to resolve those?

AdV: Ship strikes are one of the top threats for whales around the world. Ninety percent of everything is shipped so we’re all to blame, and we just have to accept that. In places like the south coast of Sri Lanka, I would say it is a resolvable problem, because if you can figure out where the ships and the whales overlap and you can separate their spaces, which has been done in some parts of the world, then we can reduce the risk of strikes. We can also reduce lethal ship strikes by slowing ships down. These whales are also at risk of entanglement in ghost gear and harassment from the whale watching industry, which can get pretty chaotic. We have to think about these things – what are the long-term implications of whales constantly getting chased down by boats? Then there’s the ‘invisible’ threat, which is omnipresent for animals that see their world through their ears – acoustic pollution. It’s incredibly difficult for whales to live in a world of ever-increasing noise, because it increases their stress levels, can prevent them from finding their mates, chatting to and keeping their kids in check and even impacts their ability to find food. There’s a range of threats out there and we still don’t fully understand how these whale populations are impacted by them.

OM: Why is it so important to bring local and indigenous voices to the table during conservation discussions?

AdV: It’s incredibly important because we don’t have all the answers and we can only start to drive change by being inclusive. Just because I have a degree in marine conservation, just because I have a PhD, that doesn’t automatically make me the most knowledgeable person in the room on everything to do with the ocean. Sure, I’m well equipped to try to understand problems and to try to resolve them. But there are a lot of people who spend so much time on the water, who have observations and experiences – sometimes generations of experiences – that we definitely need to incorporate into the science. Oftentimes, scientists sit in their offices and do a lot of theoretical work. But if we’re not speaking to the people who are reliant on these spaces, then how are we ever going to know if what we’re thinking is correct? Mutual learning is key, both parties need to listen and understand that each has something to offer.

OM: There have been some examples of small islands reintroducing ancient community laws that protected vital resources, which highlights the value of generational knowledge from those voices.

AdV: Often, those early laws were based on actual observation and experiences in a particular place, whereas today, a lot of laws are put in place as blanket rules. Someone halfway across the world sits at a table and makes a decision that often becomes the one rule that gets applied across the board to a range of different countries. It’s not realistic. We have to adapt these laws to different places and situations on the ground. If we look back, a lot of the ancient laws that were in place were about living in harmony with the environment.

OM: Which traits do you think we very quickly need to adopt together, in order to progress further with our ocean protections?

AdV: If we brought more people into the field, if we got more people excited about it, and were welcoming and more inclusive, we could actually start to really make a difference for the ocean. We definitely need to be inclusive, that’s number one. We need to include people who have real experience of these spaces and work more as teams in equal partnerships.  I have a problem with colonial science, so equal partnerships will make a difference. We have to realise that bringing together people from different areas can help to resolve a problem, and that looking at problems more holistically will make a difference.

Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales whale
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales flukes

OM: Last year there was a study that put a monetary value on great whales around the world. What are your thoughts on theoretically monetising whales?

AdV: I always think, ‘why do we have to put a dollar sign on something that is priceless?’ But unfortunately, the vast majority of people only really understand if there’s a monetary value. So, these efforts allow us to speak a language that’s probably the most common language in the world – money. In that sense, it’s a powerful tool. It’s how we use it that will make a difference. We should do anything to get more people to understand that these animals are not just here for our pleasure, but they actually serve such an incredibly important purpose. People have to accept that 70% of our oxygen is generated in the ocean. I don’t understand why that is not enough for us to want to keep all these species alive.

OM: There is a massive disconnect between most people and the ocean. How do we combat that?

AdV: It’s frustrating as a marine biologist – we live in a world that is mostly ocean, but we’re such inward facing animals. We need to turn people’s heads outwards and for them to realise that there’s this magical kingdom out there that keeps us alive. Just getting people to realise that is an uphill battle. I think it’s a lot to do with familiarity – with the terrestrial environment, there’s a sense of relatability. But when it comes to the ocean, many people just see a big blue tank of water. They don’t realise that the vast majority of that surface has these microscopic plants that are doing so much work. They are the base of every marine food chain and without them, there’s nothing, no fish, no whales, no anything else.

I think historically marine conservationists and marine scientists haven’t done a great job of trying to tell the stories. We’ve lived in these ivory towers where we’ve enjoyed the privilege of being able to go out and spend time on the ocean but not felt the need to share. Most often, what people see is expensive gear and research vessels and that in itself has created boundaries; the assumption that if you can’t afford to go out on a big vessel and have the best equipment you can’t do this kind of research. This is of course wrong and an image that we need to break. In marine conservation there’s an urgency to share our experiences. I do think academic systems should be rewarding more of that and not solely the publishing of a paper.

OM: How do you think open access data could help with that interaction, collaboration and equal partnership?

AdV: My biggest problem with data that’s behind closed doors is when someone has gone to a country, collected data and left. This whole colonial science mentality needs to be stopped for many reasons. I think it should be made public because people in these countries deserve the right to have a look at what that data says to make sure it’s being interpreted correctly. If the writer is projecting their perspective onto data and they perhaps don’t understand some nuances of the country’s culture, it’s important that data is accessible, if nothing else but for vetting purposes and ensuring that the representation is correct.

Also, there is so much data out there that’s not being analysed. It’s just being collected but it’s not accessible. If it was made publicly accessible, at least we could maybe get more people into the field by giving them the opportunity to work with real data, to feel like they have some ownership over a project and can contribute to solving real world problems. Sometimes, the hardest thing about bringing people into the field is creating opportunities to stay in the field. I’m sure we would be answering more questions and progressing faster if we worked together to unravel some of the mysteries of what is going on out there.

Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales cow
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales breach
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales
Dr Asha de Vos Sri Lanka blue whales fishermen

OM: Can you tell me more about the premise behind colonial science and your experiences with that?

AdV: I come at it from a very personal perspective, through my experiences. Colonial science refers to when people come to countries like mine in the Global South – often considered ‘exotic’ – and do their work but leave without any investment in the people or the infrastructure. Oftentimes it creates a power imbalance, because it means that research is driven by motives outside of what the real needs are on the ground. It can even start to derail local conservation efforts. When I discovered that the blue whales in Sri Lanka do not migrate, I wrote to scientists because I was in the early stages of my career and didn’t know how to start a project. So many of them wanted me to get them a research permit so they could come in and do the work themselves because it was such an incredible thing to have found and they thought they would do the research ‘best’.

That’s the mentality this field has grown on, that people coming in from other countries ‘know what’s best’. But then developing countries like Sri Lanka aren’t allowed to grow, the people aren’t given a space to venture into these scientific fields. The opportunities are taken. There’s zero sustainability in the current model, because scientists come and go and the next time we have a problem, what do we do? This model creates a dependency. A lot of conservation problems exist in developing countries for sure, and that’s partly because we’ve never had the opportunity to nurture our own conservationists and experts. We’ve been stifled by this model. In my opinion, the biggest problem in marine conservation has been that. The lack of inclusivity.

We do need knowledge from experts around the world, but it’s about creating that equal partnership. At Oceanswell, we are often the ones raising the funds or working together with our external collaborators to raise funds for a question that we identify as a priority on the ground. We bring experts in that can enhance the work but not take over. Our leads are local, often students. Both parties have a lot to learn from each other – it’s a two-way learning process. That way there are people being trained locally so that they can have a career ahead of them, and both the country and ocean can benefit in the long term.

That’s why I say, if we want to save our ocean, every coastline needs a local hero. They don’t have to have degrees, they don’t have to have PhD’s, they just have to be passionate and care for the oceans.We are not going to save our ocean if we don’t have an army of ocean heroes along every coastline, around the world, actually working directly for the ocean – that’s a fact.

Photography courtesy of Christopher Michael (hero image) and Michael Bamford via Flickr, Sajid Ali and Daniel Klein via Unsplash, and Oceanswell.