Into The Blue
By Gazala Anver
The ocean covers 70 per cent of the planet and a blue whale is 2000 times the size of a human. Mind boggling as these facts are, what is interesting is the fact that Sri Lanka, despite the tropical clime, is home to its very own population of whales, blue whales included. This is exactly what Asha De Vos is basing her research on.
“Unlike blue whale populations in other parts of the world, those in the Northern Indian Ocean do not appear to migrate beyond this single ocean basin. But traditionally, we think of tropical waters as being nutrient poor and unproductive, so why would these whales spend time here in such great numbers in such a small area? How can it support their immense energetic demands? What processes within this ocean give rise to large blooms of krill – their favourite food? How do the environment and human activities influence the ecology of the whale?” Asha asks, and these questions form the basis of her research here.
The issues : Unregulated whale watching
Advertisements touting whale watching are probably a familiar sight to many by now, with people, both tourists and locals, clamouring to catch sight of these majestic beasts. But do you know that the whale watching industry is completely unregulated? That is, there are currently no regulations in place when it comes to protecting the whales. From large travel companies to just about anyone who has a licensed boat can go out into the ocean in search to catch a glimpse of these whales.
The lack of regulation however, creates problems. “There are International guidelines, like distances observed, that should be followed because whales are acoustically sensitive,” Asha said, adding that these guidelines are however put in practice by very few people. “Some operators go out of their way to find out about this, but on the other hand, there are people out there looking for a good money opportunity or a short term gain, and it is unfortunate because they have no regard for the natural environment of the whale,” she said.
“A vast majority have no skill, some of them care, but others don’t. All that is required is that they register as a boat at the fishery harbour, and the coast guard will take down details of the license and boat,” she said.
Asha however says that the answer is not to ban whale watching, but rather to observe them in their natural environment without harassing them. “I do not say no to whale watching, but you should make sure you watch it in its natural environment. You should watch them on their terms. Do not chase behind them, that is harassment. It is much better to sit and wait rather than chase because the whales will invariably go past you,” she said.
According to Asha, there are at times around 10 to 12 boats in the water at the same time, and added that she has even witnessed instances where boats have, rather than switch off their engines and observe, chased around, and even cut into the path of the whale, disturbing it.
“We have to stop this from happening before it gets any worse,” she said.
Quite literally a larger threat: ships
“Whales communicate at a very low frequency and this travels much further,” Asha explains. “As it happens, ships emit low frequencies too and this acoustically affects them. They do not realise that a ship is coming.”
Sadly, it goes beyond mere disorientation and disturbance. There have also been several instances where whales have died due to collision with ships. In 2004 for instance, Asha went on to say, there was a whale plastered to a ship entering the Colombo harbour.
As it turns out, this is not an odd freak incident because the busiest shipping line in the world, which happens to be off the southern cost of Sri Lanka, is also where the whales can be found: right in the path of the ships. Or rather, as Asha would say, “we are in their way.”
She adds that there is even a theory which says that if there were no ships, then the sound a whale emits would travel all around the world and back. “There is more noise in the ocean now, and this creates a lot of problems,” she said. For instance, whales use their eco-location as a method of communication and as a way to find a potential mate. Ships not only kill whales but confuse them too. “If they cannot mate, the population does not grow. If you add more ships and fishing lines you are degrading their habitat,” she said.
So what are whales really like?
What are the largest creatures on earth like? “When I was 6 I drew a sketch saying ‘save the whales!’ and looking back at it, I had it all wrong! In the drawing they had red lips and huge teeth, but in reality, they are the gentlest and even most graceful species ever. When they dive in, they do not even make a splash. They are so streamlined, so sleek, they are perfectly designed!” she says.
Asha explains that they are like “businessmen” in their own way. “They are not curious or inquisitive,” she said. “They seem to have an agenda of their own, and it could be anything, from feeding to finding a mate. They do not usually interact, they are rather impersonal but it is we who get in the way of their daily business,” she said.
“They are pretty amazing. When a whale comes up, they blow up to around 10 feet into the air. Imagine the sheer pressure coming out their lungs. They are immense! You never see the full creature, and it makes you realise just how massive they are. The width alone is around 6 feet,” she says.
She went on to say that she has in fact never even heard of an incident where a blue whale attacked a human. They are completely and utterly ambivalent to us it seems, going about their business of finding enough krill to feed themselves.
I tried to imagine how large a whale would be, particularly a blue whale. In school we all repeated like parrots facts like the heart of a blue whale is the size of a car. But really, can you imagine how majestic and large they really are? Can you imagine being in the same sea as them, watching them go past and five minutes later, you are still watching because they are so massive.
Although Sri Lanka is a tropical island, there is something in our waters that is conducive to whales, but what? We have an uncounted population of Bryde’s whales, blue whales and sperm whales, including a population of dolphins. “It is obvious they are feeding here. The telltale sign is a red film on the sea, which is their excretion. If you see that, you know there is a whale feeding close by,” she said. Yet it is a mystery that Asha is bent on solving.
“We need to know more about them for conservation purposes. This is the area that ships use, but it is also important for their survival. I am still trying to find out more about why they are, and maybe in a year or two I will have all the answers!”
But while Asha is on her quest to understanding the largest mammal on earth, it might be that they are dying due to what we would normally call “human advancement.” The question however is the price at which we try to obtain this.
To know more about Asha and whales, check out Asha’s blog “The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project,” on whalessrilanka.blogspot.com.