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Big Discovery and Big Challenges for the World’s Biggest Animal

During the TED Fellows presentations at the 2013 TED Conference in Long Beach, California, marine biologist Asha de Vos presented an update on her work with blue whales off the coast of Sri Lanka (get blue whale facts). While most other blue whales migrate vast distances between cold waters to feed and warm waters to raise their...

During the TED Fellows presentations at the 2013 TED Conference in Long Beach, California, marine biologist Asha de Vos presented an update on her work with blue whales off the coast of Sri Lanka (get blue whale facts).

While most other blue whales migrate vast distances between cold waters to feed and warm waters to raise their young, this population stays in the Indian Ocean throughout the year, surprising researchers around the world. What makes it possible? A seemingly endless supply of krill, the tiny crustaceans that make up nearly all of the whales’ diet. Watch the video above to see a full feature on her discovery from Channel 7 Australia.

Later in the afternoon I sat with Asha and geeked out over the awesomeness of blue whales.

Though its large image is impressive, a real blue whale wouldn't even fit on the stage where Asha de Vos stood during the 2013 TED Fellows presentations in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Ryan Lash)
Though its large image is impressive, a real blue whale wouldn’t even fit on the stage where Asha de Vos stood during the 2013 TED Fellows presentations in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Ryan Lash)

 

So let’s start with these tiny critters it eats. It blows my mind to think that a blue whale is basically made of krill. 

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the most fascinating things about these animals. It’s the largest animal that’s ever been on the planet, it feeds on one of the smallest, and it survives, it manages fine. It’s so mystical, there are so many secrets lurking in that huge animal. We know next to nothing about it.

Why don’t we know more? It’s not like the giant squid that we had never been able to see before.

[In the past] we knew them intimately because we harvested them. Now we’re starting to try to learn about them for different reasons–to understand them so we can protect them–but because we did all this damage before, we have so few left. So time is running out.

It blows my mind that in Ptolemy’s first map of the world, Sri Lanka was this massive island called “Taprobane.” The shape of the land is not accurate, but he did use some coordinates to place it. And there’s this one spot called cetcum promotorium, which means “cetacean promontory” on the southeast corner of the island. And that’s where I saw my first blue whales in Sri Lanka. That’s the thing, for so long they’ve been there, and we don’t know anything about them.

"Ceteum" promontory is shown in the south east corner of Sri Lanka, called "Taprobana" on this 1535 map by Michael Servetus after Ptolemy's original from the second century A.D. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“Cetcum” promontory is shown in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka, called “Taprobana” on this 1535 map by Michael Servetus after Ptolemy’s original from the second century A.D. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

But now we’re learning something at least. So what makes these whales live so differently and not migrate?

The only other non-migratory population of baleen whales, which is this really endangered population of humpbacks, also resides in the northern Indian Ocean. So to me, it’s the structure of the landmass, the bathymetry, it’s the only ocean basin that’s not linked from north to south. So I think that all has something to do with it, to make a really interesting place.

Are these whales separate from the other populations?

Some of them have been recorded on acoustic devices in the Crozet Islands, which is thousands of kilometers away. But we don’t have visual confirmation of is it a group, is it just one guy cruising… But what’s really interesting is they have a different call. They speak this dialect. So you can use passive devices to sort of identify where the different whales are coming from. And actually the Sri Lankan blue whale has the highest frequency call of all the blue whales.

So how different are they? Could they diverge and become a subspecies?

How it works is you have subgroups of blue whales, but then you have the pygmy blue whale. These guys are considered pygmy, which I think is ridiculous; they’re like 80 feet long. [Also,] they haven’t been genetically identified yet. That’s what the debate is now. They have enough differences to make us think they’re probably something different.

See Asha de Vos puppet-ized and teaching kids about blue whales in a new video for the educational group TED-Ed.

 

You’re also passionate about communicating this to a younger audience. What do you think is the value for kids to learn about blue whales?

One of my missions in life is to inspire the next generation of marine biologists. People are so aware of space and mars, but the ocean’s at our doorstep and we take it for granted, and it’s such an important part of our survival.

I think it’s really sad that people look at the ocean as just a massive tank of water. Peel off the top layer, and there’s all this magic, all these secrets.

Because [the blue whale] is so iconic, it’s a great way to draw people in.

What do you love about blue whales that most people don’t know?

They’re not actually blue! They’re grey mottled, but when they skim underneath the surface, they’re just an incredible turquoise blue. It’s a really stunning color. Also its babies are 8-meters long. My boat is 6 meters, and I’m like “Wow, look at me, I’m pretty big!” A whale pops up, I’m like “oh man, I’m not really very big.” And then a massive big container ship goes by.

This 60-foot blue whale was found draped on the bow of an 846-foot container ship in Colombo Harbour, Sri Lanka on March 20, 2012. (Photo by Sopaka Karunasundara)

 

Reducing blue whale deaths from container ship strikes is the next big focus for Asha. Through her research she hopes to identify the areas where the whales’ range intersects shipping lanes, and then to work with the shipping agencies to try to find a solution that will save the most whales’ lives without having a negative impact on the business of shipping.

You can follow Asha’s research and conservation efforts on her blog “The Unorthodox Whale.”

Her work was also featured in the New York Times in July 2012.

You can also view Asha’s entire TED-Ed blue whale lesson plan.

NEXT: Blue Whale Interactive

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Meet the Author

Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.