Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Saving the magnificent blue whale

By Asha de Vos, Special to CNN
October 28, 2012 -- Updated 0404 GMT (1204 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Asha de Vos: Northern Indian Ocean is home to unusual population of blue whales
  • She says they choose to stay in tropical waters all year round
  • Whales are threatened by heavy container ship traffic lanes, she says
  • De Vos: My mission is to decrease blue whale deaths caused by ship strikes

Editor's note: Asha de Vos is a marine biologist and TED Fellow whose research focuses on the blue whale population around Sri Lanka. She is a graduate of the universities of St. Andrews and Oxford and is studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Western Australia.

(CNN) -- It's a beautiful day to be on the water a few kilometers off the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Within view of shore the spinner dolphins twist and turn energetically, flying fish launch out of the water and cruise for what seems like ages, and a manta ray gracefully glides under my boat. In the safety of my 20-foot research boat. I am the biggest thing on the water.

Suddenly, a blue whale emerges close by, and as it breaks the surface, it exhales. This creature is so immense that the vertical tower of mist that escapes from its blowholes is taller than my boat is long. As it calmly swims, it teases me by revealing just parts of its huge self. It is hard to fathom just how large this creature truly is. I am mesmerized by the scene, impressed at how the buoyancy of the ocean has aided this giant to achieve near maximum size.

Asha de Vos
Asha de Vos

My moment is disrupted when I become aware of the fleet of container ships close by. Each carries thousands of containers, which are on average twice the length of my boat. Welcome to one of the busiest shipping highways in the world.

What I see is no different from what I hear when I drop my hydrophone (underwater microphone) in the water. The cacophony of the ships' propellers drowns out all other sounds in the ocean before, during and often even after we have lost view of them in the distance. These ocean-going monsters are at the beck and call of human needs and their increasing numbers are a reflection of the escalating wants of an ever-growing global population.

This morning's lesson has been about perspective but I soon realize there are many more lessons to be learned.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Moments like these concretize my desire to scientifically understand these whales in order to protect them. Moments like these drive me to work harder.

Over the years, my research has shown that these whales are different, unorthodox even. Science has often described baleen whales (the group that blue whales belong to) as creatures of habit. They travel to the poles to feed and then migrate to the lower latitudes to mate and calve. But we find that quite incredibly, those within the Northern Indian Ocean choose to remain in tropical waters year-round.

These blue whales grow up to 24 meters (78.7 feet) and have incredible energetic requirements so it makes sense for them to exploit the most productive areas of the ocean to ensure their survival. But these waters are often considered less productive than their temperate or polar counterparts, and this anomalous behavior leads me to question why? How? The Northern Indian Ocean clearly holds many secrets that we have yet to unravel.

What excites me most is that the waters around Sri Lanka, slap-bang in the heart of the Indian Ocean, are home to a resident group of Northern Indian Ocean blues. My research is just beginning to shed light on what sustains this group of the largest animals to ever roam the oceans throughout the year. But besides fulfilling their nutritional needs, Sri Lankan waters provide a safe haven for mothers and calves and have given me the opportunity to observe mesmerizing portrayals of the persistence of males and the pickiness of females engaged in courtship rituals.

The Northern Indian Ocean is as unorthodox as the blue whales that live within it. It is the only ocean that is not connected from the North Pole right through to the South Pole. The effects of this geographic isolation are profound, and the differences these blue whales display may be driven in part by this.

Unfortunately, this isolation and their dependence on a restricted area for their most fundamental needs -- feeding, breeding and calving makes these blue whales increasingly vulnerable to threats. Very little is known about the causes of natural mortality for blue whales. They are after all, very large. However, human-induced threats abound. Not least, off the south coast of Sri Lanka.

Sadly, the overlap between prime blue whale habitat and extremely busy shipping lanes increases the risk of mortality by ship strike. Blue whales do not belong wrapped on the bow of a container ship. They belong swimming freely in the ocean.

Available data tells us that commercial shipping densities off the southern coast of Sri Lanka are double those in California's Santa Barbara Channel where measures are already being taken to mitigate the risk of collisions with blue whales.

My mission is to decrease whale mortality by ship strike in the waters off Sri Lanka with the support of a strong network of scientists from around the world. But to achieve this mission, I realize I have to be an unorthodox scientist. I have to ensure that people, not just scientists know of the problems faced by this population. I believe that the more we know, the more we care and the more we feel responsible and subsequently, the greater our chance of success.

My dream is to work to protect these whales as best I can to ensure that the immense blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling of the Colombo National Museum since 1894 is not the only option for seeing blue whales in the future.

----

To find out more about The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, please visit here

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Asha de Vos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT