We sail, we swim, and we even scuba dive, but very rarely do we thoroughly explore marine life. Instead. we toss our plastic straws into the water and plow through waves with our ships without realizing what we could be hurting — or what could hurt us.
One Sri Lankan marine biologist wanted to know more about what lurked in the Indian Ocean near the coasts of home. Not far from the shores, however, she spotted something that irreparably changed the way that she thought about the future.
When a marine biologist from Sri Lanka went out exploring the ocean with her team, she was looking to broaden her and others’ knowledge about regular marine life behavior but ended up discovering something entirely unexpected.
See, after studying abroad, Sri Lankan native Dr. Asha De Vos returned with a Ph.D. in marine mammal research — the first from her country to earn one — along with a passion to conserve marine life no matter what it would take.
Before Dr. Vos’s return, Sri Lankans battled in a 25-year-long civil war, which didn’t end until 2009, so it was no wonder citizens weren’t focused on marine life. With the war over Dr. Vos turned his attention back to the sea.
The natives tended to use the water for consumption — for fishing and boating only — and Asha wasn’t satisfied with that aquatic relationship. She wanted to know more about what went on beneath the waves in the ocean near her homeland.
So in February 2017, Asha set out to do field (or water) work with her team, bringing cameras, notebooks, and scientific instruments. They were hoping to spot a whale or two.
Only 4.5 miles from shore, Asha was not expecting to find any large marine life yet. Nevertheless, the expedition boat was suddenly approached by a gigantic sea creature. Unsure of what it was, Asha quickly reached for her camera.
The creature was a whale, an animal Asha had always been fascinated with because they stabilize and support other marine life. But Asha, who was well versed in all things whale, had never seen one like this before — at least, not outside of a book.
Upon her return to the shore, she and her team looked at the photos they had taken of the unidentified whale species. They noticed its asymmetrical coloring and peculiar markings. But… it couldn’t be…
Asha had a theory of what whale species she may have encountered, but she wasn’t quite sure. She quickly placed a call to consult with some esteemed colleagues, Dr. Robert Brownell and Dr. Salvatore Cerchio, left. Amazed, they agreed with her theory.
Asha believed the whale she met at sea was an Omura’s whale. Named after Japanese cetologist Hideo Omura, and also known as a dwarf fin whale, it wasn’t categorized as its own species until 2003 — and only one had been spotted ever since… until now.
It was actually Dr. Salvatore Cerchio who led the exploration that resulted in the only other finding of a live Omura’s whale. In 2013, he and his team spotted one off the coast of Madagascar but were unable to get samples or learn more about its territories.
Most information gathered about Omura’s whales was based solely on dead specimen, so to run into a live one was extraordinary. The whale has a narrow body and can grow up to 33 feet long. It tends to live in tropical or subtropical waters, but was never before found near Sri Lanka before — and for good reason.
Off the coast of Sri Lanka lies one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, which means whales don’t fare well there. The increase of tourism didn’t help either: whales tended to shy away from boats full of tourists trying to take their pictures.
Asha knew the consequences of endangering whales better than anyone. She was once asked to give a TED talk about how we’ve harmed the whale population, what this means for the ecosystem, and what we can do to prevent further damage. Whales, Asha knew, are more important than you may think.
“Ultimately,” she said, “many people still think that whale conservationists like myself do what we do only because these creatures are charismatic and beautiful, but that is actually a disservice…”
Whales tend to dive to the depths of the ocean to eat and come back up to the surface to breathe. During this process they often go number two, which spreads essential nutrients from the deep waters to more shallow parts, letting other sea-life can enjoy it.
The other way in which whales sustain marine ecosystems is even more gruesome than the first: if left at sea after they die, their carcasses sink (this is called whale fall), and become a gigantic meal for animals like sharks, seagulls, and hagfish.
For these reasons, Asha fought to conserve whales and spread awareness about the issue for years. She promotes an end to whale hunting, suggests a safer route for ships, and collects whale poop regularly to further study its effects. No wonder she was so excited to spot an extremely rare species!
The finding of the Omura’s whale sends a positive message: there may be hope for all whale species yet. “Our planet is 70 percent water,” she said, “but we have only explored about 5 percent of it. This serves as a reminder that we live in an incredible world where exploration is still possible. The more we know, the more we can care and protect!”
Marine biologists from all over the world are working hard to not only learn about life deep under the sea but to also stress the importance of keeping marine life alive. Whale hunting, seal clubbing, pollution, intensive boating and other human activity is hurting the oceans, and something has to be done.
As of 2018, Asha was still conducting research about the blue whale (and now the Omura’s whale as well), but her main focus was educating people about the importance of whales. “My dream is to be a voice from a part of the world to which we rarely listen,” she said. “Speaking on behalf of the planet that is often overlooked.”