The Call Of The Whale
Apassionate marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research, Asha wants to change the way people think about whales. Many still think whale conservationists do what they do only because these creatures are beautiful, but this is a disservice because whales are actually ecosystem engineers. They help to maintain the stability and health of the oceans. Here, she talks about why saving whales is critical to the resiliency of the oceans. Tell us more about what you do.
My overall aim is to reduce blue whale deaths by ship strikes in Sri Lankan waters. Currently, I am trying to figure out how the physical environment influences the biology in the area. Why do Sri Lankan blue whales hang around our shores, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world? Why is it important to them that they risk everything to be here? The questions are endless.
Why do whales matter to our ecosystem? As whales dive to the depths to feed and come up to the surface to breathe, they release enormous fecal plumes. This whale pump, as it is called, brings essential nutrients from the depths to the surface waters where they stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which forms the base of all marine food chains.
The whales also transport fertiliser to various places in the form of their faeces. Technically, having more whales pooping in our oceans is beneficial to the entire ecosystem!
They are also important after they are dead. Whale carcasses are some of the largest forms of detritus to fall from the ocean’s surface (called whale fall). As these carcasses sink, they provide a feast to some 400-odd species, including the eel-shaped, slime-producing hagfish.
Over the 200 years of whaling, while we were busy killing and removing these carcasses from the ocean waters, we had likely altered the rate and geographic distribution of these whale falls that would have descended into the deep oceans, and as a result, probably led to a number of extinctions of species that were most specialised and dependent on these carcasses for their survival. What are the key issues that you want people to know?
We need to learn to contextualise our conservation messages, so people really understand the true ecosystem value of these creatures. We need to address the pressing problems that these whales face in our waters today, including getting ploughed down by container ships when they are in their feeding areas and stopping them from getting entangled in fishing nets.
What are some of the challenges you face in your line of work? Conservation has never been very high on the agenda in Sri Lanka. We have very few marine-protected areas and none of them are well managed. It is really quite sad to see people walking on coral and chasing turtles. Our education system makes no mention of conservation either. The drive is to bring in tourists (beyond carrying capacity) at any cost, so hotels are being built, national parks are being rezoned to allow for development, and little thought is being given to the very resource that we have.
What advise would you give women on following their dreams and making that change?
I would say to them to just take that leap of faith. It is not necessary to do something big. Sometimes it is about asking the right questions.