The Unorthodox Blue Whales of Sri Lanka
It’s no secret that at 100 feet long, blue whales are the largest living animal on Earth. A blue whale can be the size of a passenger plane, or the size of three school buses, with a heart the size of a car, and a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant. Despite all we know about their incredible size, these undersea giants still have secrets to hide. That’s why Dr. Asha de Vos has dedicated her life to studying the mysteries of the blue whale.
Dr. Asha de Vos, Photo: Yasha Hetzel
Asha’s experience with blue whales started in 2003, when she was on a research vessel tracking sperm whales near Sri Lanka. The ship was using underwater microphones (called hydrophones) to locate their targets while Asha was on deck standing lookout on a clear, calm day. Suddenly, a tall spout broke the surface of the ocean, reaching high up, up into the sky. The enormous spout could only come from one animal: a blue whale.
That one blue whale turned out to be two and as Asha and the ship followed them, they found something that would change the course of her whole career. They came across bright red neon nuggets of whale poop.
It’s easy to laugh at this discovery, but the poop revealed a clue about the nature of these blue whales. Blue whales typically feed in colder waters and migrate to warm waters to breed and calve. It doesn’t get much warmer than Sri Lanka, a tropical country five degrees above the equator. The poop was a sign that these whales were actually feeding in warm waters.
This breakthrough launched a path for Asha’s pioneering work with the “unorthodox blue whales” of Sri Lanka. They were behaving in a way that no other blue whales do, because they are the only population of blue whales in the world that do not migrate. The uniquely enclosed ocean basin of Sri Lanka and monsoon weather can be remarkably productive for plant and animal life so they have no need to migrate.
Threats to Blue Whales
Whales in the northern Indian Ocean have never had to face the threats of whaling except for a time in the 1960s when Soviets hunted about 1,300 blue whales. Today, the threat of whaling is all but obsolete, leaving ship strikes as the biggest threat to blue whales here.
The south coast of Sri Lanka has one of the busiest shipping lanes in the entire world. Everything that travels between Singapore and Dubai, two of the biggest ports in the world, go through this area. Ship traffic has actually quadrupled in this part of the ocean in the past century.
The blue whales in these waters are caught in the crossfire, their ranges overlapping with the modern shipping lanes. Even with their massive size, the whales can’t compete with the force of a speeding container ship, their broken bodies coming into port wrapped around the bow or floating in the ocean with enormous gashes.
Something must be done to separate the ships from the whales. Using science, it shows that ninety percent of ships aren’t coming into Sri Lankan ports. By shifting shipping lanes 15 nautical miles off shore, it would be possible to avoid the places where whales breed, calve, and feed. The remaining ten percent of ships that do enter the country could do much less lethal damage if they would at least slow down in the areas where whales are found.
Blue Whales’ Vital Role
Blue whales are iconic and beloved, but they also have a vital role as ecosystem engineers. These 300,000 pound animals dive deep into the ocean, consuming iron and nitrogen that can’t be found on the surface and bringing it back to the top when they breathe. As they do, they release enormous fecal plumes full of nutrients—the ocean’s fertilizer. The phytoplankton (tiny forms of plant life) released in these plumes are the foundation for of the marine food chain and also release oxygen into the environment for the whole planet.
When they die, blue whales’ bodies provide food for scavengers and as they sink to the ocean floor, they remove carbon from the atmosphere. Blue whales remove 190,000 tons of carbon a year from the surface of the atmosphere, bringing it to the ocean depth and delaying the effects of global warming.
Creating Opportunity for Marine Conservation
Sri Lanka is rich in biodiversity but less than 1% of their oceans have been protected. The country has been listed as one of the forty worst funded countries for conservation. The country struggles with meeting the challenges faced by the marine ecosystem.
Part of the problem is that marine biologists in Sri Lanka lack opportunity, which is why Asha established Oceanswell. Oceanswell is the first marine conservation research and education organization in Sri Lanka; the organization hopes to answer the growing need for marine conservation in the region using homegrown talent to address local issues and create conservation solutions.
Seventy percent of the planet is ocean yet there’s a disproportionate amount of conservationists working to save it. Asha believes that if we really want to make a difference, we will need custodians on every coastline who can empower, engage, and enable people to care about and protect our oceans.
We believe in Oceanswell’s mission to create the next generation of marine conservationists who will show everyone the magic of the world’s oceans.
Check out Dr. Asha De Vos’ presentation from the 2017 Fall Wildlife Conservation Expo