Not everyone can say that their life’s purpose was inspired by a run-in with scat. Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) poop to be precise. But Sri Lankan marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos cites a chance encounter with a group of blue whales—and their poop—off the country’s southeastern coast in 2003 as the event that ignited her ground-breaking scientific and conservation career.
Born in 1979, Asha de Vos grew up pouring over old copies of National Geographic and dreaming of exploring the world’s oceans and the life within them. From a young age, de Vos found her aspirations questioned by people around her, whether it was because of her gender or the fact that there were no programs to study marine biology in Sri Lanka, so she decided to create her own “niche”. When she went abroad to study marine biology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and later to pursue her master’s at the University of Oxford and PhD at the University of Western Australia, few people expected her to return to Sri Lanka. Well-meaning people encouraged her to consider more lucrative careers in law or medicine, that would not only bring financial stability but also better marriage prospects – something that as a woman she was expected to prioritize. Then there’s also the fact that the most visible marine biologists at the time were all from North America, Europe or Australia, and scientists, especially female scientists, from low to middle income countries are underrepresented in marine sciences. “Being a marine biologist [in Sri Lanka] is unheard of”, de Vos said in a 2016 TED Talk, even though Sri Lanka is an island nation whose economy is heavily dependent on fishing, shipping and other activities in the northern Indian Ocean. Still, all de Vos could see in Sri Lanka was potential, and her dreams of exploring the world’s oceans inspired her to “live beyond the boundaries… of my gender, my culture and all those other stereotypes that society has placed on me”.
This brings us back to that moment in 2003. De Vos, at this point still waiting to hear if she was accepted to Oxford’s master’s program, was aboard a research vessel in the Indian Ocean with a team of scientists when they stumbled upon the small group of blue whales, their bright red poop floating to the surface. De Vos knew these were not ordinary blue whales. Up until then, blue whales were migrators; passing between feeding in cool, polar waters and breeding in warm, tropical waters, like the Indian ocean. But this bright red excrement floating in the Indian Ocean that day meant that not only were these whales feeding in unexpected waters, but also feeding on shrimp and other small creatures native to the Indian Ocean. This was perplexing as blue whale diets were widely believed to consist mostly of krill which are tiny, plankton-sized crustaceans. All signs pointed to a blue whale population that was nonmigratory, meaning they bred AND fed in these tropical waters—something no one had ever considered. When de Vos reached out to leading marine scientists for advice on how to put together a research project based in Sri Lanka, many replied not with advice or collaboration requests, but instead with offers to come and carry out research on the whales themselves. De Vos saw little support for the idea of basing research on the newly discovered blue whale population in Sri Lanka. But de Vos was undeterred. And so, by combining small grants, donations, and her personal savings, de Vos launched the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project in 2008 to study this cryptic population of blue whales.
Throughout her graduate career and subsequent years Asha de Vos spearheaded trailblazing research efforts, including starting the first blue whale research project in the Northern Indian Ocean. Her research on these “unorthodox whales” as she calls them began in earnest in 2008, and since then has offered incredible insights on the biology and ecology of this non-migratory population. Compared to migratory blue whales, these whales: are a smaller size, display different behaviors, vocalize in a different dialect, and because of the area’s unique geographic features, there is a rich food supply that can sustain them year-round in this area. While these results stand alone in its impact on marine ecology, it is arguably de Vos’s integration of people into both her scientific and conservation work that has had the biggest impact on the field of wildlife conservation as a whole.
Conservation efforts, while meaningful for preserving ecosystems, don’t always consider the communities that co-exist within these ecosystems, leading to “parachute science” wherein scientists from high-income countries conduct research in lower-to-medium income countries but do not contribute to local capacity-building or empower local scientific efforts. One-size-fits-all, fortress-style conservation efforts are ineffective in many parts of the world, especially in lower income countries, according to de Vos. De Vos is an active speaker on inclusive conservation and uses her outreach efforts to empower other aspiring scientists in Sri Lanka and abroad. Increasing representation in the scientific community is an important step towards long-term sustainability using “local solutions”, argues de Vos, especially when roughly 70% of the world’s coastlines lie low to middle income countries but over 90% of marine scientists come from high-income countries in Europe, North America or Oceania. Such exclusionary practices can lead not only to ineffective, unsustainable conservation practices, but also to biased ones. Ending these colonial, parachute science practices is a subject de Vos has been outspoken about . The “unorthodox whales” de Vos studies illustrate this perfectly, and de Vos has used her experience to highlight why such conservation practices do not work, and, more importantly, why science needs to be more inclusive of people. De Vos is not only passionate about conservation including local naturalists and scientists in the research process, but encouraging the participation of the broader community and stakeholders. De Vos established Oceanswell, a Sri Lankan non-profit foundation, to create more opportunities to conduct local, on-the-ground conservation that integrates community members. Oceanswell volunteers and scientists regularly conduct beach sweeps, coastline habitat assessments, and fish counts with the help of fishers at various ports. Many Sri Lankan citizens are also increasingly using social media to send information on interesting marine sightings to the NGO. Notably, Oceanswell has shared citizen tip-offs about the unusual sighting of a Southern Elephant Seal in 2019 and dolphin and other cetacean carcasses that wash up on beaches. De Vos’s work with Oceanswell, her dedicated outreach and communication efforts, as well as her resourceful scientific work have inspired many other conservationists to better integrate people and science and to make science more inclusive.
Asha de Vos is now a well-known, highly respected scientist, educator, and conservationist. She still leads fieldwork and research on whales in Sri Lankan waters, including the long-running Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project. She is a National Geographic Explorer, a TEDx fellow, and the recipient of multiple prestigious fellowships and awards. Most recently, she collaborated with the BBC on the series “A Perfect Planet”, and was one of four scientists working on James Cameron’s upcoming six-part series OCEANXPLORERS, which will combine science, cutting-edge technology, and storytelling to look at pressing questions in marine conservation. Meanwhile, she and the team at Oceanswell continue to build relationships between people and marine conservation in Sri Lanka through youth outreach and mentorship programs, skills building workshops for storytelling and citizen science methods, and a series of small-scale fisheries assessments started in 2020 in the wake of the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Community outreach and storytelling are something de Vos sees as key to bridging gaps in representation in science and to creating meaningful and effective conservation.
“Our conservation solutions [have] to have a human dimension because humans are an intricate part of nature,” and empowering people and scientists around the world is a key step towards creating lasting marine conservation. Discoveries and conservation, in de Vos’s view, can come from anywhere and anyone!
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Check out NatGeo Live’s How Finding Blue Whale Poop Changed My Life.
WANT TO READ DR. DE VOS’S PUBLICATIONS?
 De Vos, A. (2020). The Problem of “Colonial Science” – Scientific American. Scientific American, 1–10. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-of-colonial-science/
De Vos, A., Brownell, R. L., Tershy, B., & Croll, D. (2016). Anthropogenic Threats and Conservation Needs of Blue Whales, Balaenoptera musculus indica, around Sri Lanka. In Journal of Marine Biology (Vol. 2016). Hindawi Publishing Corporation. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/8420846
De Vos, A., Christiansen, F., Harcourt, R. G., & Pattiaratchi, C. B. (2013). Surfacing characteristics and diving behaviour of blue whales in Sri Lankan waters. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 449, 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jembe.2013.09.010
De Vos, A., Pattiaratchi, C. B., & Harcourt, R. G. (2014). Inter-annual variability in blue whale distribution off Southern Sri Lanka between 2011 and 2012. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 2(3), 534–550. https://doi.org/10.3390/jmse2030534
Olivia Feldman is a PhD student in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis, in Justine Smith’s lab. Olivia studies how wildlife, livestock and people interact in working landscapes in Argentina, and how these dynamics shape human-wildlife conflict. Olivia is passionate about integrating people into the study of ecological interactions and making conservation science more inclusive and collaborative, especially when it is international.
National Geographic. (2019). “Find Explorers.” https://www.nationalgeographic.org/find-explorers/asha-de-vos
Turrentine, J. (2020). Putting an End to “Colonial Science” | NRDC. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/putting-end-colonial-science
National Geographic announces intrepid team for OceanXplorers. (2021, February 9). BBC Media Centre. https://www.bbc.com/mediacentre/bbcstudios/2021/national-geographic-bbc-studios-natural-history-unit-oceanx-oceanxploerers-team
Asha de Vos. (2021, March 25). National Geographic Society, Impact. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/find-explorers/asha-de-vos
[Featured photo of Dr. de Vos was captured by Ryan Lash, TED Conference]
[Edited by Karli Chudeau]