Defending the Way of Leviathans
“Whales are ecosystem engineers. Take them away and the system can fall apart,” says Asha de Vos, a marine biologist from Sri Lanka who charts the habits and movements of the sea’s great, near-mythic mammals. Her focus: the pygmy blue whale, the slightly smaller cousin of the world’s largest animal, the standard blue.

Bonus: Read our Q&A with Asha

De Vos urges you to care about whales, too, even if you’re no lover of blubber and blowholes; their behaviors sustain life in far-reaching and surprising ways. For example, whales help produce more than half of all the oxygen on the planet.

Whale “poop”—a word that may prompt a giggle or two in the audience—is vitally important, de Vos says. When whales come to the surface to breathe, she explains, they release massive plumes of excrement that are rich in nutrients and that fertilize phytoplankton at the water’s surface. These tiny plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produce oxygen through photosynthesis, and are the basis of every food chain in the marine environment.

Further, when whales die, de Vos says, their bodies sink to the depths to provide food to many species. These carcasses also trap carbon dioxide on the ocean floor, helping to combat rising global temperatures from climate change.

“Every time you breathe, you need to say ‘thanks’ to a whale,” she adds. “Their survival enables us to survive.”

Take Action: De Vos cites ship strikes in busy shipping lanes and net entanglements as top threats to whales in the northern Indian Ocean. Policy change on these issues occurs at the international level. De Vos says she hopes “to get everyone on the planet to talk about the ocean at least once a day. That’s when we’re going to see change.” ashadevos.com.

 

Zack Piánko

It’s even easier than bringing your reusable grocery bags to the store.

By Interview by Lauren Paige Kennedy; Produced by Lauren Phillips

Asha de Vos, Founder, Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project

This marine biologist from Sri Lanka, and founder of the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, charts the habits and movements of the sea's great, near-mythic mammals. Asha de Vos’s focus: the pygmy blue whale, the slightly smaller cousin of the world's largest animal, the standard blue. De Vos urges you to care about whales, too, even if you're no lover of blubber and blowholes; their behaviors sustain life in far-reaching and surprising ways (hint: It involves whale poop).

Read more about Asha’s work, whale poop, and the rest of Coastal Living's 2017 Ocean Heroes here.

You may have seen Asha’s viral TED Talk, “Why you should care about whale poo,” around the web. Here, learn more about why whales are so important and what you can do to protect them.

Coastal Living: What makes saving whales so important?

Asha de Vos: We’re not just saving whales because they’re beautiful and charismatic. Yes, they are incredible creatures, but they’re such a vital component of our planet. They’re so deeply interconnected with us, and we need to learn to treat them with respect and to protect them, if not for them at least for selfish reasons.

CL: What do you think is key in increasing awareness of the issues the ocean faces?

AdV: I’d love if everybody on the planet talked about the ocean at least once a day. That sounds like a ridiculous wish, but I think the problem is that the ocean, for so many people, is out of sight, out of mind. The more we have conversations, the more we create communities that have these conversations, the more we engage people, you start to realize this is not a big tank of water. There’s magic underneath. You lift that lid and you dive in, and it’s a whole kingdom. To me, that’s one of the most significant things. Of course I would love to see shifted shipping lanes, I would love to see a public that bans single-use plastics, I would love to see us figuring out how to be more efficient with our transportation. But I think if we can just get people to talk about the ocean once a day with the person next to them, we’re going to see change. But until then we’re going to struggle a little bit.

CL: Your background is in marine biology and in studying the behavior of these creatures; how does that connect to protecting them?

AdV: In all the research that I do, our ultimate goal is conservation. This is a population of the largest animal that’s ever roamed the planet and we knew next to nothing about it nine years ago. To me this is ridiculous. So we had to start asking some questions to understand these population’s needs in an effort to try to protect it better. Out here the biggest threat that we have documented is ship strikes. The whales get hit by ships and they get killed. We’ve collected evidence that it’s a problem, we’ve shown that there are certain things we can do to allow the shipping industry and these animals to live in harmony, somewhat. I always say shipping is all of our fault because 90 percent of everything is shipped, so we can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem.

Related: 11 Amazing Organizations Fighting to Save Our Oceans

CL: Has your work had an impact on people’s knowledge of these whales?

AdV: When I started, an Australian news crew did a 10-minute documentary on the kind of work I do, and the video went viral. I started getting emails from people from all over the world, but mostly Sri Lankans, writing and saying, “We didn’t even know we had whales in our waters before we saw this.” And that’s where we started from.

CL: What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve learned over the course of your research?

AdV: I discovered a species of whale that’s new to Sri Lankan waters. It was first described in 2003 off the waters of Japan. That’s 14 years. That’s really recent. Things like this are symbolic: We have overlooked these giants in our oceans. What else are we missing? What else are we not talking about? For me, I would love in the next 10 years to create a whole army of people working for the ocean. 70 percent of our planet is the ocean, but 1 percent [of people] actually works for it. It’s so disproportionate, and we need to change that.

Related: 12 Cool Products Made from Recycled Ocean Plastic

TAKE ACTION

De Vos cites ship strikes in busy shipping lanes and net entanglements as top threats to whales in the northern Indian Ocean. Policy change on these issues occurs at the international level. Help the cause: Talk about the ocean and encourage others to do the same until policymakers hear you; ashadevos.com

Responses edited for clarity and conciseness