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

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. http://bit.ly/15bzQAE

….and here’s the link to a couple of related posts that I authored for the National Geographic Voices blog http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/author/ashadevos/ (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 http://ashadevos.com.

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 whalessrilanka@gmail.com 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 

whalessrilanka@gmail.com 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.