Asha De Vos is the science intern aboard the R/V Odyssey. Part of her role is to take photo-identification shots of sperm whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson
July 8, 2003
Perspectives - Researching Whales in Sri Lanka
Real Audio Report
This is Asha de Vos speaking to you from the Odyssey in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has a reputation for being one of the bio-diversity hotspots of the world in terms of its terrestrial wild life. The arrival of the R/V Odyssey to Sri Lanka has opened our eyes up to the fact that this title can be extended from the tall mist covered mountains, past the golden beaches of its coastline, right up to the 200 mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone. The abundance of marine life, specifically in terms of the number of cetacean species is something to be incredibly proud of.
The secrets of the riches of our seas were initially unravelled during the Tulip expedition of the early 80's. The Odyssey is only the second research team to do a comprehensive study on the marine mammals of our waters and I am proud to be a part of the team.
Daily life aboard the vessel does not merely involve a tedious routine, but many surprises, pleasant conversations, good food and of course a lot of learning. As the boat's science intern cum deckhand I have the opportunity to be involved in the science programme, sailing and boat maintenance, and the education programme. Between my many duties I even get some personal tutoring in decibel speak from Peter our chief scientist, which will enable me to pursue a career in bioacoustics.
I am one of a few people in the world that can claim to have seen a live whale (or many!). Statistically speaking I represent the 5.4x10-6% of Sri Lanka's population to be actively working with whales.
Having completed a degree in Marine and Environmental Biology in June 2002 I knew my chances of a dream whale research job would be nil if I did not gain some practical experience first. I set off to New Zealand where I worked on a number of relevant projects and gained experience not just in terms of research and field skills but also in simpler things like working with people (you wouldn't normally choose to work with) and developing the right attitude to such work. While there my undergraduate supervisor Dr. Jonathan Gordon emailed me regarding the Voyage of the Odyssey sailing via Sri Lanka!! Needless to say I was very excited and from the minute I received news of this I began my barrage of emails to the Ocean Alliance office, asking for a place on board. After many months Iain Kerr decided that my ability to write weekly emails showed genuine enthusiasm and that was enough to guarantee me a two-week cruise in the Maldives. Fortunately my hard work paid off and after the initial fortnight I was offered a place for the passage through to Sri Lanka up to the end of their stay there.
Any of you who think that you may never have an opportunity to send off hundreds of emails in order to get in to a place such as this remember that you create your opportunities. If you want something, no matter what aspect of your life it involves, it is important to know that everything is achievable Ð with an equal portion of hard work of course. If it is your life long dream you will find the strength within you that will allow you to work as much as you need to get to where you want to be. Needless to say you will encounter many obstacles along the way but these will only make you stronger and more focussed towards your goal.
If someone were to ask me what the highlight of my experience was, I would be stumped. Being able to research my own whales and speak to fisherman and students about our work could be one, seeing my first sperm whale in its entirety (from up in the crow's nest) is indubitably another. Seeing a pod of spinner dolphins bully a sperm whale until it fluked and sailing amidst 23 logging sperm whales all fall in to this category of 'highlights'. The reality of the situation is that everything is not perfect. Watching a sperm whale almost get ploughed down by a fast moving container ship along the South coast, finding two turtles entangled in discarded fishing net floating helplessly at the surface of the ocean with the sun beating down on them, and having to release the Odyssey from a tangle of gill nets are moments that will always remain in my mind. These are all events that can be easily prevented. Unfortunately many countries lack a strong environmental voice. Perhaps we can make a change. I urge you to start speaking up when you happen upon situations you are unhappy with. No matter how old you are you still have every right to tell decision-makers when they are wrong or need to look in to something. If you start young, the future of our world will be in better, safer hands.
As part of my long-term goals, I hope to continue in this field and make a contribution, however small. Whilst doing research I intend to share my knowledge with school children so they can make better-informed decisions in the future. I feel that the time has come for me to do my part for the ocean environment.
Written by Asha de Vos