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Programme Speaker: Dr Asha de Vos

Blog by Yvonne Freeman, SI Canterbury

Dr Asha de Vos, Programme Speaker for the Conference, gave us a truly inspirational and informative talk about her work as a marine biologist and ocean educator, with reference to the blue whales living in the Northern Indian Ocean.

Asha, who comes from Sri Lanka, describes whales as ‘Ecosystem Engineers’ because of the part they play in enabling our oceans to flourish. She started her talk by taking us back to 2003 when, as a postgraduate, she was fortunate enough to be able to join a whale research vessel circumnavigating the world researching sperm whales and toxicology of the oceans.  At the end of a long day looking for whales, she suddenly spotted the tall spray of water into the sky, which could only have come from a giant animal.  After persuading the captain of the vessel to explore further, they discovered not only one, but six blue whales, the largest animals to have ever existed.  Shortly afterwards they discovered a large amount of ‘orange whale poop’ lying on the surface of the ocean, which led Asha to realise that these whales were feeding in these waters.  She explained that blue whales normally only feed in cold waters and only come to warmer waters such as the Northern Indian Ocean, to breed and has since been able to demonstrate that this pod of whales are the only non-migratory blue whales in the world, having a very small range of travel.

Asha noted the reason we see whales with their tails high in the air is because it enables them to dive quickly to the bottom of the ocean where they feed on krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans living throughout the earth’s oceans.  The nutrition they gain from the seabed contains iron, nitrogen and phosphorous and as they come to the surface, they release their ‘eco poop’, known as ‘The Whale Pump’.  This fertilises the ocean for phytoplankton, microscopic marine algae, which absorb carbon dioxide and change it into oxygen. When the phytoplankton die, they take the carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean and this is known as ‘Carbon Sink’, which is good for Climate Change.

In the 1960’s Russian whalers took out almost 1,300 whales from this area and as a result, conservation became a critical issue to address.  Fortunately, this is no longer an issue.  Asha told us about her work with the popular whale watching industry, which helps the livelihood of the local people.  Sadly, blue whales are often killed by large vessels in the oceans such as containers and cruise ships as they swim across the bow of the vessel.  However, their carcasses feed seabirds and sharks, which absorb the accumulated carbon in their bodies.  The carcasses finally sink to the bottom of the ocean where they feed approximately 400 species, again vital in absorbing carbon dioxide.

On a positive note, the average lifespan of a blue whale in the wild is 80-90 years and some live well over 100 years.

These amazing animals are indeed our ‘oceans superheroes’.

About the speaker:

Dr. Asha de Vos is an internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of long-term blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean.

She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia. She has degrees from the University of St. Andrews, University of Oxford and the University of Western Australia but escaped academia to establish her own Sri Lankan grown non-profit, Oceanswell – Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization. Her work has been showcased internationally by the BBC, the New York Times, TED and National Geographic to name a few. Asha is the first and only Sri Lankan to have a PhD in Marine Mammal research, the first Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation and first National Geographic Explorer from Sri Lanka, and the first Sri Lankan woman to have her portrait hung at Oxford University. Asha is also a TED Senior fellow, an Ocean Conservation Fellow at the New England Aquarium, a Duke Global Fellow in Marine Conservation, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. In 2018 Asha won the WingsWorldQuest Woman of Discovery at Sea award, was a finalist of the Pritzker Environmental Genius Awards, a global winner for the UK Alumni Awards in the Professional Achievement category that recognizes alumni whose work has created change in their chosen profession, awarded the Woman in Management Inspirational Woman of the Year Award, Ada Derana Sri Lankan of the Year Emerging Global Scientist Award, named one of Asia’s sustainability superwomen, listed on the BBC 100 Women 2018 list of most inspiring and influential women from around the world and named Lanka Monthly Digest’s Sri Lankan of the Year.

In 2019 Asha was named one of 12 Women Changemakers by the Parliament of Sri Lanka and won the inspirational icon awards at the 21st Century icon awards in London.

In 2020, she was named a HCL Technologies Global Goodwill Champion at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, was awarded a Maxwell-Hanrahan Award in Field Biology and named a Scubadiving magazine and Seiko watches of America Sea Hero for November 2020.

In 2021 Asha was awarded a Vanithaabimani lifetime achievement award for her outstanding achievements in her field and for bringing pride to her island nation.