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.”
Though the sea is full of many creatures we have yet to discover, sometimes, they end up right on our shores. Which is why in September 2018, two New Zealand parents rushed to stop their kids from touching an alien-like blob that washed up on the beach.
Adam and Eve Dickinson via News Hub
As soon as the Dickinson family — comprised of Adam, Eve, and their two kids — stepped on to Auckland, New Zealand’s Pakiri Beach, they saw this purple blob in the sand. They had no idea what it was — or what it was capable of.
So naturally, the two kids, Sofia and Lucas, sprinted over to it with all the reckless abandon of children on a mission to satisfy their curiosities about something wildly unsafe and potentially dangerous.
Adam and Eve Dickinson via Newshub
This concerned Adam and Eve, who didn’t wish to see their children succumb to a purple, potentially poisonous beach blob, so they, too, approached the mysterious thing in the sand.
Eve Dickinson / Facebook
“My initial thought was ‘don’t let my kids touch it,'” Adam told the news sometime after the ordeal. With the family of four now all gathered around the mystery substance, they all echoed the same question: what the heck was it?
The Dickinsons launched an informal investigation. The first thing they noticed? The purple blob was pulsating. Moving. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it was alive.
“It almost looked like a load of muscles contracting,” Adam recalled. “It was pretty incredible and really hard to describe.” Meanwhile, the kids were reminded of something oddly specific when they looked at the blob.
Lucas told his mom the creature looked like a volcano; it had, after all, sloping sides and what looked like a crater of bubbling purple lava. This was obviously no volcano, so the Dickinsons investigated further.
Despite their initial concerns about the pulsating creature, the family — to our benefit — proceeded to place check after check on the list of things you should not do to foreign, potentially dangerous things…
Eve Dickinson / Facebook
For instance, Lucas and Sofia blew on the thing. To the kids’ delights, the more they blew on the creature, the more it moved, confirming, yep, it was very much alive and was very much aware of outside stimuli.
With this understanding, the Dickinsons grabbed a stick and prodded the blob. Sure enough, Eve recalled the creature moved even more when the stick prodded its meat.
While the kids poked, prodded, and blew on the creature, Adam and Eve noted something peculiar about the beach: tons of jellyfish were scattered across the shore. This answered the question, right?
2cycle2gether / flickr
See, for a moment, they thought their mystery creature was just a jellyfish washed ashore. But still, their pulsating friend looked nothing like the other jellyfish. Maybe their guy was just upside down or something?
So with their stick, the Dickinsons flipped over some of the other jellyfish that’d washed up on the shore, hoping this would prove their creature was just a really big, really upside-down jellyfish.
But even upside-down, the landlocked jellyfish still looked nothing like the captivating creature that had so entranced the family. They were back to square one, so, eventually, the marine experts chimed in with answers.
A member of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Diana Macpherson, knew almost instantly what this “common” creature was.
The purple, pulsating blob that had entranced Adam, Eve, Sofia, and Lucas on the jellyfish-laden shores of Pakiri Beach was, according to Diana, the largest species of jellyfish found in New Zealand waters: the lion’s mane jellyfish!
These huge jellyfish can grow as big as seven feet wide with tentacles a hundred feet long. Those long tentacles give it a sort of lion’s mane — hence the creature’s name.
As it turned out, Adam was right to want to keep his kids away initially. While these jellyfish aren’t deadly, their tentacles carry toxins that can deliver some serious welts to those unfortunate enough to get caught in the “mane.”
This particular jellyfish was also a bit of an oddity. Normally, lion’s manes wash up on shore in the summer or spring, when plankton start blooming. This one washed up in autumn.
Whatever the odds of a lion’s mane washing up in September, the Dickinsons were delighted with the experience. “It was incredible,” Adam recalled.