Photograph by Yasha Hetzel
Asha de Vos has stopped at nothing in her mission to become a marine biologist. Low on cash after graduating from university in Scotland, she worked in potato fields to save money so she could travel to New Zealand, where she lived in a tent for six months and worked on conservation projects.
She later made her way onto a whale research vessel bound for her native Sri Lanka by writing to the researchers every day for three months, until no turned into a yes. She was permitted to join the vessel on its trip around the globe as a deckhand in the Maldives. She soon became the team’s science intern and was allowed to stay on for Sri Lanka.
On that vessel, she encountered the marine mammals she would eventually dub the “unorthodox whales.” The first and only Sri Lankan to have a Ph.D. in marine-mammal-related research, de Vos has dedicated herself to studying Sri Lanka’s blue whale population and the many threats they face, from ship strikes to pollution. Through a Pew fellowship, she is paving a way for others to follow, building what will be Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization. —By Christina Nunez
They break our stereotypes. As an undergrad, I was taught that blue whales do these long-range migrations between cold feeding areas and warm breeding and calving areas. But when I first met them, they were also feeding in warm tropical waters—Sri Lanka is as warm and tropical as you can get. Their [habitat] range is very restricted, and they’re actually a population of pygmy blue whales, so they’re a subspecies. Acoustically, they have a different dialect. They are the smallest of all blue whales, so they’re half a meter (1.5 feet) shorter than the other pygmy blue whales that live in the southern Indian Ocean. These guys have all these different characteristics that make them quite unique.
The southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places for them to be because it’s one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. [But] it’s clearly an area that they rely on for their feeding, breeding, and calving needs and being an ecological cul de sac, they have nowhere else to go.
—Asha de Vos
There’s no straight answer, but I’ve always been a water baby, a swimmer from the time I was three. [I was] brought up in very rural, very amazing places, and sent out to be curious. My parents really encouraged the curiosity, but they also exposed us to lots of different things. One of the people that I was exposed to was Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer. He moved to Sri Lanka to dive our wrecks. He would come to my swimming club and I would sit with him. He’d tell me these stories about his dives. There was a lot of intrigue around that.
Everybody saw the ocean as a big blue tank of water but for me there was something more going on, and I wanted to know what it was. My parents used to buy secondhand National Geographic magazines from this little store down the road. I’d flip through them and see these beautiful images. I used to think, wow, one day that could be me. I wanted to be that explorer and discover what no one else had discovered.
To me it was like, Sri Lanka is an island, why is no one else a marine biologist? That’s the thing that’s baffled me for so long. How come nobody has ever considered this pathway? I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m saying that it’s possible.
One of the biggest problems we have in the developing world is that there’s not enough awareness about the oceans. The ocean is very much a vocational space and not a recreational space. The connection to and fascination about the ocean is largely missing.
[Now because of media appearances,] people from around the world, but mostly Sri Lankans, write to me and say, I didn’t know we had whales in our waters. I think that’s hugely significant. That really showed me that if I want to solve a conservation problem, it’s not about me. It’s about how many other people I can make sure understand what the problem is and what the value of this thing is in our ecosystem. In that sense, I’ve had really good success, because over time I have seen how much more aware people have become of all aspects of these blue giants.
It’s funny, I didn’t set out to be a role model. I just felt really privileged that I had the opportunity to do this. I had the support of my family—my parents said do what you love, and you’ll do it well. So that’s all I set off with, coming from a culture where everyone is encouraged to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I was clearly being as unorthodox as the whales that I would soon study.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that my visibility is my superpower, particularly because the parts of the world I serve don’t have access to much information other than what they get through the Internet. That’s why I use social media. I have a lot of scientist friends who say, I don’t have time for social media. I’m like, you have two minutes to post something that can help someone else. You never know who’s reaching out and watching you.
It’s been amazing to watch how young people from the developing world, from Sri Lanka, from India, write to me and say, now I feel like I can do it. People see me and they’re like, whoa, she’s just like us. She walks down the same streets, she goes to the same ocean. Whatever I do, I try to make sure I’m setting a really good example, and at the same time allowing people to come on the journey and be inspired in whatever they do. It doesn’t have to be that they’re inspired to become marine biologists. I want people to be inspired to live a life that’s their own, but also to know that the world is an incredible place with so much opportunity. We don’t have to pigeonhole ourselves but we should all be free to dream.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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