The Call Of The Whale

Women's Weekly (Malaysia) - - INSPIRE - Ma­rine Bi­ol­o­gist and Pi­o­neer Blue Whale Re­searcher Asha de Vos,

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.

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