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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT