Photos of Rare Blue Whales Inspire Conservation

Pew fellow’s photography spotlights at-risk animals, surprising science—and a delightful birthmark

A blue whale “flukes up” before a dive off Sri Lanka. Since the 1970s, shipping traffic has quadrupled in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Ship strikes are now the biggest threat to blue whales in the northern Indian Ocean.

© Courtesy Asha de Vos

The first time she saw blue whales off Sri Lanka, Asha de Vos knew she had found her heart’s calling.

In addition to being a Pew fellow, marine biologist, and founder of the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, de Vos is also an amateur photographer. Her images help track individual whales to paint a picture of their travels, behaviors, and population sizes as they also educate and inspire followers of her popular Instagram feed.

For World Whale Day on Feb. 18, we asked de Vos to take over the @pewenvironment Instagram feed. The results, shown here, offer a peek at life on the water for a blue whale researcher.

De Vos photographs a blue whale’s flukes for photo-identification catalogs—used to estimate population size and add to scientific knowledge.

© Courtesy Asha de Vos

The waters around Sri Lanka are highly diverse, supporting not only blue whales—the largest animals on Earth—but also at least 27 other cetacean species, flying fish, turtles, manta rays, and whale sharks.

But like many coastal areas, Sri Lanka’s marine environment is challenged by human activities, including growing development and increasing shipping traffic. “Whale death by ship strike is now the most prevalent threat to the blue whales in the northern Indian Ocean,” de Vos says.

Despite the danger, the region’s blue whales don’t migrate—a mystery de Vos is trying to unravel through her work in the Indian Ocean.

Taken 27 years apart, these photos helped identify Whalentine—named for the heart-shaped marking on its fluke. Whalentine is the oldest known blue whale in the northern Indian Ocean.

© Courtesy Asha de Vos

In addition to tracking individual whales through her photography, the native Sri Lankan studies whale feces.

As blue whales dive and resurface, they release large plumes of fecal matter rich in nutrients rarely found at the water’s surface. These nutrients are exactly what the tiny microscopic plants called phytoplankton need to photosynthesize, so the excrement is literally life-giving.

“More poop means more phytoplankton means more fish,” de Vos says. “It also means more oxygen, because at least 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced by plants in the ocean. This is why we consider whales ‘ecosystem engineers.’” 

And more feces study means more answers to questions such as what the whales depend on for food—questions that could inform plans to protect these vulnerable giants.

De Vos displays freshly collected whale feces, which can identify, among other things, what the creatures might be feasting on.

© Courtesy Asha de Vos

Already de Vos’ data is driving real change. For one thing, her research has helped compel the International Whaling Commission to designate Sri Lankan blue whales as a species in urgent need of conservation research. But she’s far from finished.

De Vos is using her Pew marine fellowship to build an organization that provides online and hands-on educational courses in marine ecology. She hopes such experiences will inspire Sri Lanka’s next generation of marine conservationists and policymakers.

But de Vos wants to make a difference at sea, as well.

Because human demand drives the shipping traffic that threatens Sri Lanka’s blue whales, “we are all part of the problem,” she says. “If that’s the case, then why can we not all become part of the solution?”

Polita Glynn directs the Pew marine fellows program for The Pew Charitable Trusts.