The most isolated baleen whales in the world!

Humpback whale off Southern Sri Lanka. Photo credit Tony Wu.

Humpback whale off Southern Sri Lanka. Photo credit Tony Wu.

Location of the Arabian Sea

Location of the Arabian Sea

At the moment I am attending an Arabian Sea Humpback Whale meeting in Dubai. It’s nice to have so many like-minded people from our region in one space. So far, I’ve learnt a lot. Based on recent genetic analyses the ASHWs as they are called are potentially the most isolated baleen whale population in the world. They are also potentially the only non-migratory humpback whale population in the world. At the moment there are about 86 individuals in the population that seem to hang out only in the Arabian Sea. The IUCN Red List categorises them as Endangered and there has been a lot of interesting debate about whether they should be upgraded to ‘Critically Endangered’ status on the basis that they are possibly the only population of humpback whales that are not making a dramatic recovery. That’s a tricky one because they have only ever been comprehensively studied around Oman and they may well stray to other parts that we are yet to survey.

I’ve definitely learnt a lot about these whales in the one day I have been here. Here’s a few quick facts:

1. The song of the ASHWs was first recorded by Hal Whitehead in Sri Lankan waters in 1982.

2. The first photo of a live ASHW was taken in 1985 by M. Gallagher. This is therefore the first individual in the ASHW photo ID database.

3. Soviet whaling data supports the theory of a resident Arabian Sea population (for example none of the ASHWs they caught had cookie-cutter scarring which is apparently associated with migration across the equator.

4. We are still trying to figure out the limits of the range of these animals – perhaps their core area of occupancy is in the Arabian Sea but maybe some of them venture beyond?

Essentially, the picture is a bit more complicated than we think as with ALL marine mammals.

In fact, on the 21 of February 2014 underwater photographer Tony Wu took this photograph of a humpback whale (potentially a juvenile) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. A rare sighting given that we only have a handful of verified sightings from our waters and a couple of strandings. No sooner had he taken the image, he emailed it to me asking what I thought. Knowing that the Environmental Society of Oman maintained the comprehensive photo ID catalogue for this population, I immediately touched base with my friends out there in the hopes of finding a match. What does that mean? Well we wanted to see if this whale, photographed by Tony, had been photographed in the Arabian Sea. If it had, then we would know the origins of this rare sighting. Thanks to the expertise of Dr. Gianna Minton who has worked with this population since 1995 and knows the population inside out, we soon had an answer. The match was negative. Turns out, this guy didn’t match with any in her catalogue, indicating that (potentially), this whale had come from elsewhere and NOT the Arabian Sea. As with all cetacean stories, this one too remains unsolved….

To read Tony’s blog piece about this please head to

National Geographic Weekend interview

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Listen to my six-minute interview on National Geographic Weekend with Boyd Matson right here! It’s a little fuzzy because the interview was done over the phone with me in Sri Lanka and Boyd over in Washington DC. I hope you enjoy it though. This segment was part of Episode 1503 that was aired on the 19th of January 2015.



- When blue whale biologist Asha de Vos found red floating clods of poop in the Indian Ocean, she became curious. She immediately assumed the world’s largest animals were mating, because the warm tropical waters typically are too warm for blue whales’ favorite foods. But as it turned out, they had found enough krill to support something of a feeding frenzy. De Vos warns that despite the fact that there are about 10,000 blue whales around the world, the whales live in separate populations, each facing their own risks and difficulties of survival. Although blue whales aren’t being actively targeted, the increase of global shipping puts the whales at risk of getting hit, because it’s impossible for container ships to see or steer around the whales. De Vos explains that although it’s assumed these collisions happen with some regularity, it’s very difficult to accurately estimate how often whales are killed in this way.

….and here’s the link to a couple of related posts that I authored for the National Geographic Voices blog (in case you missed out!)

Opportunity for blue whale research in Sri Lanka!

The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project seeks interns for the upcoming field season commencing February 1st 2015 and running through to the end of February. This represents the oldest research project on blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean. Its efforts to bring attention to the unusual Sri Lankan blue whales and the threats they face have been showcased internationally by Channel 7 Australia (2010), the BBC (2010), the New York Times (2012), CNN (2012), WIRED UK (2014), the New Scientist (2014) and TED talks (2015). For more information on the project please visit

This Internship Program is designed to provide students interested in a career in marine science valuable research experience in a real-world setting. Interns will participate in blue whale research in Sri Lanka. As an intern, you will be trained in all aspects of blue whale photo-identification and survey methodology. Furthermore, interns will be trained in science communication methods and the use of social media for the benefit of science.

Interns must:

•                Commit to the 4-week internship period.
•                Have a strong sense of responsibility, work ethic, willingness to learn, attention to detail, and ability to admit mistakes.
•                Be physically capable to participate in all aspects of the work.
•                Exhibit strong interpersonal skills.
•                Have good English communication skills.
•                Principal Duties include: data entry, learning all research protocols, sorting photo-id images, boat based field research
•                Field days: Interns must be able to spend many hours on the water in small boats in temperatures averaging 28ºC. Field days are typically 8-9 hours long, take place on all good weather days and require early starts.
•                Bonus abilities include the ability to make short films in the field.
•                Applicants must have a genuine interest in marine research. It is preferred but not necessary if applicants are actively pursuing a college degree or are a recent graduate in oceanography, marine science/biology, biology, or related field. Previous research experience in any capacity is a plus. Applicants must be able and willing to fulfill all duties outlined for this Internship Program. This is an unpaid position and Interns are requested to contribute towards their housing, transportation and meal costs (please contact for rates).

If you are interested in this position please send your CV, a 300 word paragraph outlining why you are interested in this opportunity and two letters of reference to by the 25th of January 2015.

#Healthyoceans Twitter surge success! #Action2015

Fisherman off southern Sri Lanka.

Fisherman off southern Sri Lanka.

Great news everyone!

The twitter conversation on #healthyoceans #Action2015 I was a panellist on yesterday reached over 720K people and had over 2 million impressions. The conversation also reached 12 different countries – from Brazil to Germany to Tunisia!

If you missed it, don’t panic – sign into Twitter and use these hashtags to track back the conversation #healthyoceans #Action2015. Or check out the storify below to get the gist of the conversation!

My hope for tomorrow’s presidential election

Sunset off Colombo, Sri Lanka with a silhouette of a container ship. Photo credit: Asha de Vos.

Sunset off Colombo, Sri Lanka featuring the silhouette of a container ship. Photo credit: Asha de Vos.

Tomorrow my island faces yet another presidential election. It’s a little hard to figure out how things will go because everything feels fairly polarised. I am not about to blurb on about my political choices but I do hope that whoever comes into power next, can drag Sri Lanka out of the list of 40 worst funded countries for biodiversity conservation. In fact we are 37th on that list, so we are really not far from the bottom (for more details check Waldron et al., 2013, PNAS). Sadly this is the legacy left behind by generations of politicians who have failed us. What does that say about how much we value our environment? This land is blessed with incredible natural beauty but many take it for granted. In fact this land is blessed with a whole host of things but sadly, when given the choice to cherish or destroy, many choose the latter. Destruction in the name of development, it’s a common theme and we all know how that ends.

This month I have been trying to coordinate meetings with relevant government officials in Colombo. It’s been interesting as some people may remain or go depending on who comes in to power. Some of the allegiances I have already formed may end up being of no use. So I will start from the very beginning – all over again. Such is life.

But, there truly is no place like home. I am very grateful and proud to be Sri Lankan despite the chaos and madness. I for one hope for a peaceful free and fair election that will support conservation of our environment that will help pave the way for a better future for my people.

Why you should care about whale poo:!


Talking whale poo at TEDGlobal 2014!

Talking whale poo at TEDGlobal 2014!

It may seem that I talk about whale poo an awful lot ~ i do. Undoubtedly. If you missed my previous National Geographic blog post about my adventures with whale poo, you can read it here:

Today I am super excited because my recent TED talk has made it to the front page of! It’s important because we need more fun science stories out there so people can connect and become more curious and kids can start to see science as an adventure rather than a job till death do us part. It is the obligation of scientists like myself to step out of our ivory towers and do more than talk to other scientists, but in fact to tell the stories that will make people care. I firmly believe that the more people know, the more responsible they start to feel and the more they care. We need to be the change we want to see in the world. Who wants to leave a legacy of destruction after all?

I hope you enjoy this talk and I hope you will help me share it far and wide!

Where the sky meets the sea

A fine day for a dive off Dehiwala, Sri Lanka. In the distance, you can catch a glimpse of Colombo where the sky meets the sea.

A fine day for a dive off Dehiwala, Sri Lanka. In the distance, you can catch a glimpse of Colombo where the sky meets the sea.

Home is definitely where the heart is. Mine is deeply rooted in this land oozing natural beauty. This morning I did my first two dives of the year, 15 minutes from my home with some of my favourite people. We were brought together by our common love for the ocean and it’s mysteries. I hope that future generations will also have the privilege to explore this space and be bonded by its magic for life. To make this a reality, we all need to come together and fight for our oceans, our environment, our heritage.

#indianocean #sea #dive #blue #shades #colours #diving #friends #wreck #colombo #srilanka

Happy new year 2015!

New year 2015

Happy new year! Today I want to introduce you to my friend who is an incredible human being. He has been walking the streets of Colombo for 32 years selling Bombai muttai – our version of candy floss or fairy floss.It’s tastier and has more texture and is made fresh everyday. He must walk upwards of 20 km everyday ringing his bell hoping that people will run out of their houses and buy his product.I’ve been a loyal customer for more than 10 years, partly because the stuff is yummy but mostly because I am humbled by this great example of a true human being. He is my reality check – he makes me realise that I don’t know what hard work is, what dedication truly means.So henceforth I am dedicating my work to him and people like him who make me proud to be a human being, who make me proud to be Sri Lankan. Do you know anyone who has inspired you who is an #everydayhero? Do you have anyone you spend a few moments with and chat to even just to be humbled by their lives? If you live in Colombo and ever see my friend, please buy some tasty BM and salute him for all that he represents. Thank you to all of you for standing with me and supporting me through 2014 – I wish you a 2015 filled with dreams that are bigger than those you ever dreamed you could dream!

#everydayheroes #humanity #hardwork #reality #bombaimuttai #myheroes #colombo #srilanka #thankyou #newyear2015 #2015 #dreams

Whaley merry Christmas greetings!

imageExcited to be home and preparing for my field season. So much to do – raise funds, hire a boat, get out on the water, do science and get as many people involved as possible!

I am so grateful for everything life has given me so far, in fact I feel blessed. All of you play a key role in keeping me going and I want to thank you. With that I want to wish you all a Whaley Merry Christmas! Don’t forget to be grateful for the little things, to enjoy the journey and laugh! We are so lucky to be alive! Xx

(Blue whale) Poo’s clues @NatGeo

Blue whale poo! Photo by Asha de Vos

Blue whale poo! Photo by Asha de Vos

My latest blog on National Geographic is up and ready for your eyes! It’s all about whale poo – why I am so fascinated by it, what it tells us and why it is important! The world is too beautiful to overlook these little (butt) nuggets – portals into a different world!

Check it out here :)