Good Krill* Hunting

Here at The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project we are interested in the holistic picture. While our primary study species is the Northern Indian Ocean pygmy blue whale we get excited when we see all marine life, whale poo or even tiny shrimp-like creatures! Here is yet another sneak peek into our fun lives off southern Sri Lanka. I want to thank my 2015 field team for all their fabulous work and great attitude throughout the season, and particularly Holly for putting this little gem together! Through this series of videos (starting in 2013: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf-iI1ECdQqENt3MB3en52Q) we try to give you a glimpse into our lives and show you that the world is your oyster, as long as you are fuelled by curiosity! Please enjoy and share – you might help inspire the next generation of ocean heroes :)

Big thanks to the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka for their continuous support and research permits for our work. The 2015 field season was made possible by The Marisla Foundation, Packard Endowment Grant for Science and Technology, The Marine Conservation Action Fund of the New England Aquarium, and all those amazing people who funded us through our OpenExplorer crowd-funding campaign (http://ashadevos.com/?page_id=448)!

Uncommon whaleshark sighting off southern Sri Lanka!

Whaleshark off southern Sri Lanka

Friendly whaleshark off southern Sri Lanka

My number one mantra to all my students is “when working on the ocean, always expect the unexpected”. So far, I’ve been right every single day! Never more right than two days ago when we were 50 km offshore in 2 m swell and sea state 4 waters. This little fella (6-8 feet) approached us and just hung around our stopped boat for an hour! As it turns out sightings of juvenile whalesharks are rare because no one knows where the pupping grounds are. So location details of sightings like this and any others (we’ve seen 2 others this season) are super valuable to researchers. No fear, we will be passing on these details to the cool folks at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences. All I have to say for now is – incredible sighting in crystal clear waters ~ so damn lucky! #fieldwork #slblues #weligama#srilanka #whaleshark #ocean #gifts #precious #cute #bff

That day we found an oil slick….

Oil slick in the shipping lane

Oil slick in the shipping lane

It was one of those days ~ we had been out at sea for a very long time. It was getting late and we had to get back in. As we kept chugging forward towards shore I was hanging off the starboard side looking for signs of life. I stared for hours over a silky smooth sea hoping that something would crack the surface and exhale… that towering familiar exhalation I have grown accustomed to seeing. In the distance I could see a dark patch on the water. At first I thought it was the shadow of the clouds but as we got closer I realised it was an oil slick. It was reasonably sized and lay in the middle of the shipping lane. I realise that this photo is pretty rubbish because we had to keep moving without stopping for a photo shoot, but I took it because I wanted to remind everyone of all the other human activities that threaten our oceans…..Ships hit whales, they are the cause of oil slicks and the source of a lot of noise. Most importantly, since ninety percent of everything is shipped, we are all to blame. That’s why my current work looks at ways to make small changes that will help to protect our ocean life better!

More lessons from the field team

Just another beautiful sunset framed by an incoming storm

Just another beautiful sunset framed by an incoming storm

I am a little late posting these but here are two more pieces by my interns Nathasha Chandrasekeran and Holly Wetherall.

Nathasha:

Working for the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project has been a truly unique experience and just within the first week, valuable lessons have been learnt. As an intern, duties in the field include scanning for marine mammals, recording data on sightings, weather and ongoing efforts. Duties at the end of the field day include cleaning equipment, transferring field notes and records to digital datasheets, organization and storage of digital pictures of sighted specimens. The responsibilities are varied and all play an important role in the efficient and smooth running of the project. I have learnt new skills such as identifying marine mammals in usually less than ideal conditions. Other lessons have been reinforced: The virtue of patience, the understanding that no data is still data, how vital communication is for team work. These are just a few and I am sure the remaining days of the internship will come with many more teachings. Every day is a reminder of the vastness, the beauty and the power of the ocean and I am eager to learn all I can from it.

Holly:

I have been an intern at the Sri Lankan Blue Whale project for just over a week now. Having spent hours looking out over the ocean off southern Sri Lanka, I have learnt some important lessons about life in the field.

One of the key lessons learnt so far is to expect the unexpected!

Today was our 9th day out on the water, what stared as a bit of a deflating morning turned out to be one of our most successful days yet. As we set off the sky was overcast and the swell quite choppy, so our chances of making any sightings were limited. Having carried out a transect line and a few hours of searching, we started to head back to land feeling a little disappointed. However, as we approached the coastline we sighted a mother and calf pair of Bryde’s whales, and to our delight they were also feeding! We managed to get some fantastic photos for identification, collect essential weather and location data and even collect samples of tiny shrimp-like creatures that they may have been feeding on!

This is just one of the amazing sightings that really show how anything can happen out in the ocean. It also shows how important it is to be prepared for absolutely anything; whether it’s having your recording equipment at the ready, your data sheets open or simply keeping our eyes focused on the ocean constantly ready for our next sighting!

 

Going in for the krill

I was pretty ecstatic with our find!

I was pretty ecstatic with our find!

Tiny tiny swarming crustaceans with very big eyes

Tiny tiny swarming crustaceans with very big eyes

A few days ago we were cruising around looking for whales when we had an amazing encounter with a feeding mother-calf pair of Bryde’s. My jaw was on the floor for the entire time but sadly that moment was shared with about 10-15 whale watch boats as it happened just outside the mouth of the Weligama Bay. I generally avoid the whale watch boats because their hounding behaviours disturb the natural behaviour of the whales and thereby disrupt my research on their ‘natural’ behaviours. However, sometimes there are moments that are impossible to drive away from and this was definitely one of them. In those instances, we usually hang back and try to keep pace with the animals while not getting in the chaos of the bigger boats. We hope that the big boats will move away sooner rather than later and then we can sit and observe and take notes. While watching these whales feeding voraciously we started to notice swarms of tiny shrimp-like creatures in the water. Given my propensity for collecting things (my research permit from the Department of Wildlife Conservation covers these particular items specifically) we stopped and dropped our very sophisticated scooping device into the water (a tea strainer) to collect a bunch of these little critters. We got some and the swarm quickly dispersed. The excitement on the boat was ridiculous! Everyone was cheering and clapping and that led some of the whale watch boats that had decided to leave to turn right around and come back! It was funny watching people’s faces as we told them what we were really up to :)

Now to figure out what these creatures really are! Looking forward to this new adventure at the end of my field season. Super happy with my new (preserved) pets and staying excited for the next big event!

Learning to wonder

 

Searching for whales and other signs of life

We’ve just spent our first ten days on the water and believe it or not, we have only seen two blue whales. For someone who has spent a number of years on these seas, these off years are part of a bigger picture story and they intrigue me. I remember back in 2011 we had a similar situation with few whales in the nearshore areas and some research I was doing at the time showed that the whales were moving further offshore because of excessive rainfall in the preceding months (de Vos A., Pattiaratchi, C.B. and Harcourt R.G. (2014) Inter-annual variation in blue whale distribution off southern Sri Lanka between 2011 and 2012, Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 2: 534-550. mdpi.com/2077-1312/2/3/534/htm). I am not sure what is happening this time around but its interesting nevertheless.

That said, we have had a number of other very cool encounters – we caught some krill, watched Bryde’s whales feed and have spotted a number of curious turtles. No complaints, life is good, and in every moment there is a lesson to be learnt. To follow my series on Lessons from the Ocean please subscribe to this site, follow me on instagram and Twitter using the handle @ashadevos and/or sign up to my Facebook page at Asha de Vos (https://www.facebook.com/ashadevos?ref=bookmarks)

Lessons from the Ocean: Ananda Chanmugam

Ananda looks out for whales as we survey the waters off Mirissa

Ananda looks out for whales as we survey the waters off Mirissa

Every day is a new day. Every day is a new lesson. As my team spends more time on the water, there are lessons all around them. This week I have asked all of them to write a short piece about what the first week has taught them. Here are a few thoughts from Ananda….

“Many people would shy away from the idea of being on a small boat in rough water looking out into the glare and nothingness in the hope that somewhere nearby a whale will decide to show itself…. just a fraction of itself never the less for a few fleeting moments. The truth is, most of the time a whale won’t make that decision so much of our time is spent watching… and waiting…

In some areas where land isn’t visible the only thing we can see is ocean and the occasional humming cargo ship powering across the horizon acting as a reminder that life on Earth carries on despite the alien landscape we find ourselves in. But every so often, oh so rarely, the strange and different world on top of which we float shows itself through its rough unforgiving exterior. It may be just a glimpse, a mere idea of what life beneath us is like, but these moments are wonderful. It could be a flying fish breaking the surface of the water to glide gracefully into the glare or it may be a blue whale so incomprehensibly huge taking a heaving breath of air before it once again returns to the depths. The past week has taught me to live for these moments. To have every cell in my body prepared for the next awe-inspiring moment the ocean might deem me privileged enough to experience. These experiences however, have taught me to find these moments wherever I might find myself. That these moments exist around us everyday and to have the ability to recognize them is a lesson I truly appreciate and will forever be grateful for to the ocean and its inhabitants for showing me.”

Lessons from the Ocean

Beautiful sunrise in Weligama Bay. Photo credit Asha de Vos.

Beautiful sunrise in Weligama Bay. Photo credit Asha de Vos.

Every time I spend extended periods working on the ocean, I remember the lessons she patiently teaches me. In fact, the greatest lesson I have learnt is patience. People are always so keen to go out on my boat, or come work with me, because they are so captivated by the images they have seen on TV or on YouTube.  Little do they know that the vast majority of our time is actually spent staring out at the vast blue ocean, waiting and hoping for something spectacular to rear its head. It really is like searching for a needle in a haystack. It isn’t easy as you bob around in bouncy oceans in the full glare of the sun. Your body gets fairly beaten and you end up with unattractive sun tan lines but let’s be honest – I do LOVE what I do. This is not meant to be a complaint but more a reality check and reminder.

In the last week, the lesson of patience has been further engrained in my mind. The whales have been a little scarce but we have had some amazing moments….and that’s when you realise patience pays off ~ it pays off BIG time. For this and every other lesson, I am grateful to the ocean and I hope you will keep following us as we experience spectacular sunrises and have amazing encounters!

Stay smiling!

Lang Sandwich (L-R) David, Asha, Ethan.

Lang Sandwich (L-R) David, Asha, Ethan.

When Ethan Lang walked into my birthday party, he immediately felt like an old friend. He very soon became one of the biggest supporters of my work, sharing the stories, supporting financially and pushing his brother David to tweak the crowdfunding platform OpenExplorer (https://openexplorer.com/expedition/savingbluewhalesfromshipstrike) in a way that would better support people like myself. He did this with a big cheeky grin and twinkle in his eye.

A few days ago I kickstarted our blue whale field season. The whales appear to be a bit scarce these days but yesterday we saw our first one. It rolled onto its side right in front of our boat and lifted it’s flipper out of the water. I didn’t manage to capture the moment on camera but I immediately thought of Ethan and I figured there he was, letting us know he was still rooting for us. He will never be forgotten but he will be missed.

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 http://www.tonywublog.com/journal/first-ever-record-of-humpback-whale-in-sri-lanka