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Monday, 29 July 2019 05:28

For the love of whales

Dr. Asha De Vos on whales, elephants, their complex social structures and why these creatures need protection
By Madushka Balasuriya

Dr. Asha De Vos is on a mission, a labour of love some may call it, to make an indelible mark on the planet. And with good reason. Not a day goes by that there isn’t some new bit of information released, further cementing the notion that we as a species are doomed. Indeed, for many, the coverage on climate change might have even reached a saturation point – such that most are quite possibly desensitised to its realities – but that is all the more reason people like Asha are needed.

The last time she addressed the monthly Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) lecture, she spoke about whale poop. Yes, you read that right. It was early 2017, and her endless hours studying Blue Whales had reaped the ultimate dividend – a correlation between their species and saving the planet. So there she was passing on this knowledge to the next generation, trying to imbue in them the same curiosity that has held her in such good stead over the years.

At the time she was already Sri Lanka’s foremost marine biologist, with her work having been featured in leading scientific journal Nature and National Geographic, as well as several other local and international publications. She was also a TED Fellow. But since then Asha’s celebrity has arguably gotten even bigger; this was no doubt aided by her ground-breaking work starting up the non-profit marine conservation and research organisation, Oceanswell, which led to her being felicitated as one of the BBC’s ‘100 Women of 2018,’ while she also had her portrait hung at Oxford University.

All this meant that getting a seat to listen to her earlier this month was a real challenge. If her lecture two years ago was packed, the room was positively overflowing this time around. I was aware that this would be the case, and so I made it a point to arrive about half an hour early, though even then all the good seats had been taken. But I digress.

Listening to Asha speak – for only a second time in person, though there have been many hours whiled away online – there’s the unerring sense that she could just go on. Though to be fair, she makes no secret of this.

Enthusiastic storytelling
“My favourite thing in the world is storytelling,” she says, as she begins her lecture with trademark enthusiasm. Then she turns her attention to the kids in the room.

“What I want you to know is that tonight is your night. It’s you guys who are going to make a difference in the world.”

And therein lies the whole reason that she makes the time for lectures such as this, no matter how freely available her content is online, nor however many times similar points have been made; when there are kids present, Asha knows that that is where a lasting difference, one that matters, can be made.

“We need kids who are speaking out, and who realise there’s a problem. Don’t hide the truth from them. When they go whale watching don’t just point out the beauty of the animals, point out the problems,” she says towards the end of her lecture, as she responds to a young boy’s observation about whales actively swimming away from cruise ships that attempt to get closer to them for photo ops.

“We want the best view, we want the best photo. And we have iPhones, so how on earth are you getting the best photograph unless you’re really close right?

“It’s not necessary. The best experiences you’ll ever have with these animals is if you find an area where you can switch off the internet and just watch. I have seen some of the most magnificent things just by being invisible. That’s what we should all strive to do.”

To better get this message across, Asha devoted this latest lecture to help improve our understanding of these magnificent ocean-dwellers. The talk was separated into three parts: Part one looked at and compared Sperm Whales and Blue Whales in Sri Lanka; part two will not be repeated in this article as it contains yet-to-be-published data about Sperm Whales in Dominica; and part three, interestingly, looked at Sperm Whales and their general similarities to elephants.

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For the love of whales
When listening to Asha weave her story, the innate scientific curiosity present within her that has led her on this path is clear as day. Nowhere is this highlighted more than in how she first came to dedicate her career to the study of Blue Whales. “Many of you know me as the ‘Blue Whale Girl,’ many of you also know me as the ‘Whale Poop Girl’. And I own all these titles, I’m all good with that, but many of you won’t know is that I started my career in love with Sperm Whales.”

Indeed, Asha’s undergraduate thesis in 2002 was on Sperm Whale acoustics, where she would spend “endless hours with my earphones on, listening to them chatter”.

“I thought, ‘wow these are amazing animals, and I want to dedicate my life to studying them’. So after my undergraduate, after I wrote my thesis, I was working on data that other scientists had collected and so I wanted to then go and see something out there in the world.

“And then at this time I got on to a whale research vessel that was circumnavigating the world, it was called The Odyssey, which was where my journey began. There we were tracking Sperm Whales acoustically, so that we could take these tiny biopsy samples that would allow us to understand how the pollutants in the ocean were affecting the whales.

“We’d just listen to the sounds day in, day out for months, and for me it was just the most beautiful sound. And I was like: ‘this is where I wanna go, I want to do a PHD in this stuff, here’s the data, I’ve got everything set up’. But then you all also probably know that I got distracted. I got distracted by an aggregation of Blue Whales, and a floating pile of whale poop off the south east coast of Sri Lanka.

“I knew Blue Whales were supposed to go to cold waters to feed, my professors and my textbook said they go to Antarctica to feed because there’s more food. That there was no way these giants in the ocean would try and feed in tropical waters. That’s what everyone told me, but here I was with evidence they were feeding. Poop. Right off the south coast of Sri Lanka, as warm and as tropical as you can get.

“And so that point, I thought, this is my eureka moment. These whales are doing something completely different, they’re bending the rules, they’re destroying what my textbooks and my professors told me, this is what I’m dedicating my life to.”

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Pix courtesy WNPS

The rest, as they say, is history, with Asha spending the next 10 years studying Blue Whales and their behaviour. But throughout all this, Sperm Whales still remained close to her heart.

Of sperm whales and elephants
For Asha, it is crucial that we all understand just how intelligent and wondrous these animals are. While many of us may lump them all in under one simple tag, whales, for Asha they’re as diverse, different and unique as the many members of someone’s family.

“Think for a second what a privilege it is for us to live on this planet, side by side, with these incredible creatures. I think we take them for granted, rather than celebrate them for the amazing things that they are.

“Blue Whales typically are very solitary animals. We do see them aggregate, yes, but it’s in places that they’re feeding. That’s the only time you’ll see lots of Blue Whales together. But otherwise they’re very solitary animals, they’ll roam the oceans completely on their own. And when they make their sounds, it’s a low rumble that sounds like a jet engine.

“Sperm Whales on the other hand are not solitary animals. These are maternal groups, grandmothers, mothers, children – each group is genetically connected. And then the units can come together from time to time and make these bigger groups. How do they keep themselves together when you have these children running around? You need to be more conversational.”

This is where Asha’s comparison between Sperm Whales and elephants comes in, with both species known to have maternal groups, and complex social organisational structures. Sperm Whales, for example, communicate in a series of clicking sounds. While this may sound all the same to the human ear, it is in fact, extremely complex. Elephants also use infrasonic sound to communicate.

“These animals have different ways of communicating and we have to learn to appreciate these differences. These two species also have the biggest brains in their respective environments. Sperm Whales have the biggest brains in the marine kingdom and elephants have the biggest brains on land. And as a result they have very complex social organisation.

“And while they both have big noses they use it for different purposes. The elephant’s trunk weighs 120kg, but they can do these tiny little things like picking up crumb. They use it as an extra limb almost.

“Sperm Whale noses are the largest sound-producing organ in the world. They produce the cacophony of noise you were listening to earlier from their noses.

“Elephants also have maternal groups. They use infrasonic sounds to stay together. They use touch and smell, and they love each other, this is all part of their communication. Sperm Whales also communicate over large distances. In fact they’re also very tactile, they’ll caress each other with their flippers, with their jaws; they communicate through touch and clicks, but specifically with a click called a ‘Coda’ that they use only for communicating with their maternal groups.

Asha also points out, that like humans, elephants and Sperm Whales also protect their elderly, for the simple reason of passing on knowledge.

“Elderly elephants and elderly Sperm Whales don’t leave their maternal units, even past their reproductive periods. Why? Well because they’re repositories of knowledge; they have learned so much stuff over their lives and it’s all about social learning. It’s about passing that knowledge down to the young. And that’s what’s really important to remember.

With species like Sperm Whales, they have culture. Culture is defined by the act of social learning, passing on knowledge. And we see that. And these units have their own little cultures. It’ll have a common call that it will charge with everyone in that region, but each unit will also have a different call as well that’s characteristic. It’s almost to say: ‘hey you’re one of me. Yes, we’re Sperm Whales, but we belong to unit A.’”

The importance of understanding other species
For Asha, the reason for highlighting these facts about these creatures is simple. All three species referenced in her talk are threatened by the same things: Pollution and habitat destruction.

And therefore, the better we understand them, the more likely we are to protect them, and more importantly, view them as intelligent species worthy of consideration and protection.

“What happens if we don’t look after these populations at the smallest level? We have to think about the most meaningful way to protect these species. It’s not blanket protection over oceans, it’s not even blanket protection over regions. It’s specific needs that each of these smaller units have, and that’s why studying them and understanding them is important.

“Imagine you are hosting a family lunch, sitting there having a great time, and then a stranger comes crashing through the front door, playing really loud music, throwing garbage everywhere, just unannounced crashing through your house. You’re really scared, you’re really afraid, it smells, it’s noisy, you’re stressed out. This is exactly what we do.

“We don’t think about it this way. But the ocean is the home of the whales, of the fish, of the dolphins, of the sharks, of the rays. When we go in there, we’re going as uninvited guests. We’re walking in chucking garbage everywhere, we’re making noise, we’re not worried about what’s going on.

“If we want to be respected in our homes, we have to learn to respect these animals in their homes.”

Pix courtesy WNPS