Lifestyle

“There’s so much to learn about them” – Dr. Asha de Vos

By Jennifer Rodrigo

We know very little of the largest mammals in our oceans – blue whales and sperm whales, according to marine biologist, ocean educator, and pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean Dr. Asha de Vos.

“But what we do know is fascinating!” she enthused ahead of the monthly lecture of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society to be held on 18 July, where she will be educating the audience with her research on blue whales and sperm whales. The talk titled “The Secret Lives of Sri Lanka’s Giants” will be held at 6 p.m. at the Jasmine Hall, BMICH.

Dr Asha de Vos. Photo: Peter Kindersley, British Council

“They are secret lives because even as we watch these marine mammals, we only get a glimpse of their lives from the surface, but most of their lives are spent below the surface. I find this really exciting because we have so much yet to learn!”

Passionate is a word De Vos would use to describe herself. “This is the word most people use when they meet me,” she said, adding that she believes she is very driven from within to create change for our planet. And change she has created; with her research and the awareness she draws to our oceans and marine life.

“Globally, our oceans aren’t in the best shape. In Sri Lanka, there are many issues related to the various organisms and ecosystems we have. The list is pretty endless from entanglement to coral bleaching; from pollution to overfishing.

For whales specifically, the biggest threat is ship strike, where they get hit by ships and get killed. That said, the biggest problem for Sri Lanka’s marine life is the lack of awareness about our oceans, and the lack of enforcement of regulations that can help protect what we have,” she said.

De Vos thinks our school curriculum should include a component on our oceans so children start to appreciate the ocean at a young age: “Not just as a place of extraction of fish, but also a place of protection.”

She thinks more people need to understand how closely intertwined our lives are with everything that surrounds us. As a child, De Vos wanted to be an adventure scientist. “Most of what I do, even through work, involves a lot of adventure and I guess I thrive on that.”

De Vos was most recently selected as one of the 25 women from around the world to be celebrated by the National Geographic in a publication called National Geographic Women.

“It’s a huge honour for me because not only is it a celebration of my work and my efforts over the years but it also allows me to take Sri Lanka to the world stage for the right reasons.”

When asked if being known or “famous” helps in accomplishing what she wants to with her work, De Vos was quick to add that she’s not sure she’d describe herself as famous.

Photo: Sriyan De Silva Wijeyeratne

“But I am happy that more people know about the work I am doing because it matters. It matters that more people care about our oceans and our planet and their own role in keeping it healthy. Of course the accolades and awards are amazing to receive, but I am not driven by them, by this I mean, I don’t work to win. I work to drive long-lasting change for our planet. So this recognition is really great as a reminder that what I am doing matters and it’s a celebration of decades of hard work, but I know I still have a long way to go to achieve what I want to.”

De Vos does, however, think it is really great to be recognised as a scientist because scientists typically don’t get celebrated in the same way we celebrate actors and singers.

Asha is the first and only Sri Lankan to have a PhD in marine mammal research, the first Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation from Sri Lanka, and also the first National Geographic Explorer from her small island nation. Asha is also a TED Senior fellow, an Ocean Conservation Fellow at the New England Aquarium, a Duke Global Fellow in Marine Conservation, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

“Life is not about being popular,” she mused when asked if she is criticised for being vocal. “Life is about doing what’s right. If people criticise me for what I say, I am fine with it if it is constructive, if what they say teaches me something or gives me something to think about.

If however people criticise me with no justification, I have learnt to switch them off. There are many such people in Sri Lanka and if I had given into them at the start of my career I would not be where I am today. To those who challenge me – I say thank you. You spur me to be even better.”

The monthly lecture of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society titled “The Secret Lives of Sri Lanka’s Giants” by Dr. Asha de Vos will be held at 6 p.m. on 18 July at the Jasmine Hall, BMICH.