National Geographic’s Emerging Explorer 2016
Asha De Vos

Marine Biologist and Conservationist championing the cause of whales
When other people view a sea they just see waves but for Dr Asha De Vos she views the ocean as a planet teeming with a plethora of marine life. Armed with a degree in Marine and Environmental Biology from the University of St. Andrews, UK, a MSc in Integrative Biosciences from the University of Oxford and a PhD from the University of Western Australia, Asha De Vos exudes passion for her pet subject - whales.The founder of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, Asha also has the distinction of being named as Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society for her work with Sri Lankan blue whales. Additionally she is a TED Senior Fellow, A Duke University Global Fellow in Marine Conservation and was recently selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Not content to rest on her laurels she is currently a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she is working on reducing the problem of ship-strikes of blue whales in Sri Lankan waters.

What initiated your passion for marine life especially the blue whale?

My passion for adventure and exploration was initiated by all the second hand National Geographic Magazines that my parents used to bring home. I would pore through the pages and imagine myself as the adventurer scientist, seeing things no one else would see and going places no one else would go. By the age of 3 my family had identified that water was my element and over the years I became a swimmer.

I didn’t grow up in a beach going family so its not that I was exposed to the sea constantly but I was exposed to people and experiences that piqued my curiosity. After my squad practices at Otters I used to sit with Arthur C. Clarke who would tell me stories of his dives around Sri Lanka.

He was clearly a great storyteller and would leave me hanging with sentences like ‘I saw this giant skin go past, and it just kept going and I never found out what it belonged to’. So for me, I knew from a very young age that the ocean was not just a big blue tank of water, and that I wanted to lift the lid and see what was underneath – that’s where I began my love affair with the ocean and today, I want to lift the lid and share the magic of what lies beneath with everyone else on our planet.

What are the threats faced by whales in particular in the ocean surrounding Sri Lanka?

Marine life in our waters face a range of threats. It is important to define the severity of the threat – whether the threat causes death and therefore has an impact on population size, or if the threat comes in the form of harassment with cumulative impacts that we are yet to understand. The biggest threat to whales in our waters is ship-strike, where they get hit by ships and get killed. It is a significant threat but also one that is resolvable by its very nature. This is and has been my biggest crusade for a number of years. Many people tend to focus on the threat from whale watching.

Sure, it is a problem – whale watch boats drive carelessly all over, sometimes almost running over the whales. The harassment caused by these actions could cause high levels of stress, and have long-term cumulative impacts that we cannot understand and won’t be able to resolve in a hurry.

Swimming with whales is also a threat as operators with no experience, eager to make a quick buck drop people haphazardly in front of these whales. Blue whales are not social creatures and therefore these activities can cause high levels of stress to the animals. Other threats include the high levels of pollution we see in our waters.

Have you faced gender inequality in your chosen field?

Absolutely! Here in Sri Lanka! When I finished my Masters and moved back to Sri Lanka, I was working for a global NGO. I used to go for government meetings and very often people would pretend to listen to what I had to say and then turn around and ignore me – I was too young and female. It was frustrating. My advantage is that I never let those incidents stop me or discourage me.

I used them to fuel me to keep going. So everyday I thank all those people who challenged me – they made me who I am! I have dealt with gender inequality in many other aspects of my work too.

How can we make a change to protect the environment?

If we really want to save the environment and specifically the oceans, we need to inculcate a sense of pride in everyone in our nation. If we don’t look after our resources, no one else will. If we, Sri Lankans try to get closer to a whale every time a tourist tells us to, we are destroying our own resource – that tourist doesn’t care. They got their moment and they will go back to their own country and continue to protect their own resources. We need to revamp our syllabuses and get kids outside. We need to allow people to ask questions, explore, see and not be judged. If you aren’t a doctor, lawyer or engineer you are often considered lost a failure. We need to celebrate people in all fields, especially those that work from a place of passion. We need to talk about nature and the oceans in our everyday conversations and Sri Lankans should be encouraged to learn to swim!

What does it mean to you to be selected as an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic?

My dreams of becoming an adventurer and explorer began with that magazine at the age of six. Being recognized for my work and efforts and then being included into the National Geographic Explorer family is something I have to keep pinching myself about. It is made even more special by the fact that I am the first Sri Lankan to achieve this – I get to bring positive light to the place I call home and showcase what we are capable of. For me, National Geographic feels like I am finally home and with this selection starts a new chapter of my adventure – as a life long National Geographic Explorer.

What advice would you give to budding marine biologists?

First, do what you love. It doesn’t matter what you do but just make sure you love it; second, never give up, no matter how many people question why you are doing it, if you are passionate about it and are not having any negative impacts in the process, just keep pushing – even if things begin to look and feel a little bleak. Every cloud definitely has a silver lining; third, build up a fan base of those who respect, love and care for you and keep them very close. They will be the ones who will help you face your biggest challenges, and trust me when I say there will be many; fourth, challenges are temporary because there are always ways around or over them. Remember, tough times don’t last, tough people do; fifth, step outside your comfort zone and live outside the box; the world is a beautiful place with lots more opportunities for exploration and fulfillment.

Embrace them; sixth, always have an open mind and be willing to learn. There is something to be learnt from everyone and everything and learning is what helps us grow; and, finally, do not lose track of your roots and where you come from. Always stay humble.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

On a huge big adventure, bigger than the one I have been on so far. You will have to stay tuned for the details.