SRI LANKAN OF THE YEAR
Dr. Asha de Vos
A commitment to increasing awareness on northern Indian Ocean blue whales and inspiring the next generation of marine biologists make for a true scientist role model
The likes of sporting and civil society icons, industrialists and prominent policy makers typically hog the limelight for having placed the national interest above all else – and doing Sri Lanka proud each year. Such individuals are also hailed for setting new benchmarks and inspiring future generations to contribute towards the country’s progress. This in fact is the basis for LMD’s annual nomination for the prized accolade ‘Sri Lankan Of The Year’ (a.k.a. SLOTY).
But despite the mega efforts that make for what are often pioneering endeavours, those from among the academic or scientific communities tend to languish within the ranks of unsung national heroes. Indeed, it takes years of striving towards a goal – not to mention the negative responses of naysayers who arbitrarily dismiss their findings at times – for them to gain the recognition they richly deserve.
Innate curiosity Fuelled by an innate curiosity and interest in all that surrounds them, the scientific researchers among us are also often unafraid to go against the grain, to posit theories and models that never cease to astound lay members of society.
In such a milieu, Dr. Asha de Vos has gained traction for championing the cause of one of the most overlooked members of the natural environment – our ocean giants.
A Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research in the northern Indian Ocean, de Vos refers to the population of blue whales in Sri Lankan waters as ‘unorthodox whales’ because through many years of research, her work has revealed that they are simply different.
THINKING BIG And while she holds a number of academic qualifications in her area of expertise, de Vos bypassed academia to establish Oceanswell – Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education nonprofit.
The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, which commenced in 2008, is the first long-term study on blue whales in this region – it is Oceanswell’s flagship project. The research conducted through this project has led to many key research publications, and is used to dictate policy at both local and global levels.
Oceanswell is engaged in ‘thinking big’ to solve challenges, mentoring to mobilise, conservation research, storytelling to save oceans and educating to empower.
The organisation says that “Sri Lanka may be a beautiful tropical island but marine biology is a largely unorthodox career choice. Our founder Asha followed her passion but did not have the privilege of a peer group or mentors. She feels strongly about changing this and provides mentoring opportunities to students dreaming of exploring or entering this field.”
PASSION PAYS De Vos travels across the world to ensure that the oceans of the global south have a voice on the international stage – and indeed, to increase awareness of the magic of what lies beneath them while also sharing her stories here in Sri Lanka.
In an interview with The Wiley Network earlier this year, she confessed to being “obsessively passionate” about sharing her ocean adventures and science with everyone. Moreover, de Vos emphasised the need to protect blue whales and that “there are ways to ensure that the economy of the country is not affected while also protecting this species that we use for our tourism industry.”
She was recently featured on the BBC 100 Women 2018, which is a list of inspiring and influential women from around the world.
GIVING BACK Having earned global repute in her field of study, de Vos remains committed to giving back to her native land: “I had to leave Sri Lanka to study. Even though we are a beautiful, tropical island, it is rare to have marine biologists here and impossible to get a degree in this field.”
“So I went to Scotland. Sri Lankans would always ask me what I was going to do with my degree. They were convinced I would never come home. But my intention was always to go away and learn, to amass the knowledge I needed so I could come back and serve Sri Lanka,” she adds.
Most recently, de Vos partnered with Colombo Jewellery Stores (CJS) to launch a marine conservation project titled ‘From Ocean Blues to Oceanswell’ to raise awareness among the public and policy makers.
To be rolled out in three phases, the project will encompass collaborating with fishermen “to understand the impacts of increasing ocean noise levels on local whale populations,” produce an information guide for whale watching tour operators in order to educate them and focus on skills development for people seeking a career in marine conservation.
IN GOOD COMPANY As LMD’s 24th SLOTY, Dr. Asha de Vos finds herself in the company of some of Sri Lanka’s most eminent citizens over the years, a number of whom have had their names etched in the annals of the nation’s rich history.
De Vos’ passion, persistence and hard work have evidently paid off, and they ought to stand her in good stead in the years ahead. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she inspires Sri Lankans and citizens across the world to continue to reach for their dreams – even when they may seem impossible.
Or in her own words: “Challenges are things you can climb over or walk around. There’s no such thing as a never-ending wall. Life is all about the story, and it’s a better story if there are ups and downs.”
ON TWO COVERS Purely by coincidence, Dr. Asha de Vos also features on Living’s groundbreaking ‘Christmas cover’ along with six other Sri Lankan celebs. In an exclusive interview with Ruwandi Perera, she says of her New Year resolutions: “Every year is about how to be the change I want to be; it’s the one resolution I can keep – to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
Asked to name the one thing she could change about herself in the New Year, de Vos responds: “In general, I don’t like to change things about the past. I will take the lessons – good or bad – and move forward. We can’t live in the past since it is unchangeable. Rather, it’s about learning lessons and moving forward.”
“I’m totally driven by the cause of protecting the ocean. So for me, it’s always another day to be grateful for the job I do while working to get people more excited about the ocean and its inhabitants,” she adds.
Indeed, life is all about the story.
ADVENTURE SCIENTIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
Google ‘Dr. Asha de Vos’ and you will find a slew of headlines announcing the numerous awards and commendations she has received. While some of the images that pop up show her accepting these awards, most feature Asha sitting in a boat and smiling broadly as she gazes out to sea wearing sunglasses.
The quintessential Dr. Asha de Vos is the one we see in these pictures, watching for the creature that (thanks to her efforts) we’ve learned so much more about – the Sri Lankan blue whale.
A marine biologist, Marine Conservation Action Fund fellow and National Geographic Explorer, de Vos is the first and hitherto only Sri Lankan to gain a PhD in marine mammal research. As an ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research in the northern Indian Ocean, she founded the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project in 2008.
Her tireless research led to the recognition of the Sri Lankan blue whale as a species that’s in urgent need of conservation research; and it gave birth to a collaboration between the Government of Sri Lanka and International Whaling Commission (IWC) to battle whale ship strikes.
PERENNIAL WATER BABY De Vos traces her interest in the sea to her childhood. A swimmer from the time she was three years old, water has always been the element she’s most at home in. Combined with her adventurous spirit and curiosity, this had the makings of a child who set her sights far afield.
Curiosity was an attribute her parents encouraged, exposing their children to many different people, places and experiences. Sitting with renowned science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke and listening rapt to the tales of his many intriguing dives are mong de Vos’ strongest and fondest memories.
Similarly, she recalls the hours spent leafing through the secondhand National Geographic magazines that her parents bought. The pictures awakened her desire to discover and explore. Enthralled by the world between the pages so to speak, Asha knew she would one day be an ‘adventure scientist.’ And by the time she was 18, this dream had a sharper focus thanks to marine biology.
CHAMPION OF THE UNORTHODOX LMD’s ‘Sri Lankan Of The Year’ is quite literally responsible for discovering a subspecies of whale. But her pioneering work on the ‘unorthodox’ blue whales of Sri Lanka may never have transpired if it hadn’t been for the fact that she herself isn’t very orthodox.
It was sheer determination that got her onto the research vessel that would carry Dr. Asha de Vos to Sri Lanka. After three months of writing to researchers everyday until they agreed to take her on board as a deckhand, de Vos soon became the team’s science intern – and as she’s famously said, “a pile of blue whale poop” led to her phenomenal discovery.
De Vos’ identification of the unorthodox blue whales of Sri Lanka set the course for her life as she became the foremost authority on and champion of this unique subspecies.
Her efforts to ensure protection of the blue whales of Sri Lanka form the heart of her work: “One of the biggest problems we have in the developing world is that there’s not enough awareness. If I want to solve a conservation problem, it’s not about me. It’s about how many other people I can make sure understand what the problem is and what the value of this thing is in our ecosystem.”
KNOW YOUR SUPERPOWER De Vos is also passionate about challenging the limitations faced by people in the developing world who seek to enter the field of marine conservation, and strongly committed to creating opportunities and encouraging diversity.
In 2016, she received a Pew marine fellowship, which enabled her to establish Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education nonprofit – Oceanswell. The organisation is de Vos’ way to create sustainability, providing training and education for Sri Lanka’s next generation of marine conservationists and policy makers.
Oceanswell also creates and spreads public awareness through online and hands-on field educational courses in marine ecology and conservation. For de Vos, Oceanswell is a way of ensuring that her work with her beloved blue whales will continue long after she’s gone.
Her visibility is her superpower – a medium that she can use to disseminate information, exchange ideas, educate, inspire, collaborate and reach out.
Becoming a role model wasn’t part of the plan but she wears the hat with pride. And Asha never fails to thank her family and parents for supporting her dreams, and providing the freedom to pursue them.
Dr. Asha de Vos is a true inspiration – in the field of marine biology certainly but perhaps more importantly, for anyone who is chasing an unorthodox dream.
To all those who seek to explore and adventure, de Vos’ message is simple: “Be free to dream and live a life that is truly yours.”
SO WHO IS TRULY A ‘SRI LANKAN OF THE YEAR’?
It is the time of year again when we are wont to look back. To the glory of the past so that the future is in some way safeguarded and streamlined. The French have a saying for this sort of thing: ‘reculer pour mieux sauter.’ What this means is to take a step back in order to be better able to take a running leap forward. Sadly, it is in no way a security against the vicissitudes of tomorrow, for the world takes quantum leaps into an uncertain future every day.
In this context, there is no guarantee that identifying the source of excellence or outstanding achievement in the present will ensure improvement in the quality of life for our islanders’ ‘many-splendoured’ panoply of people.
We have discerned a distressing tendency for sociopolitical Darwinism to be blind to ‘upward evolution.’ If the Sri Lankan cricket team does well one year and jointly deserve an accolade as they did in 1996, not the rest of their fans nor cricketing aficionados are assured of similar success the next year. Or the very next match.
So the search for superiority worthy of recognition is subject to the stresses of uncertainty. As much as it is a reflection of public sentiment – exceptionality being a function of surveys’ results as much as the spirit of the team that selects the ultimate recipient. Not to the victor the spoils. But to the popular the laurels. And more often than not, merely to rest on them. This is a milieu where politicians of all stripes and hues have feet of clay. MS, MR, RW.
LMD has conducted such a search annually since its inception almost 25 years ago. Year after year, it has scoured memory and media reports alike, to determine where such a burden lies and where honour due must go.
That the awardees have spanned the gamut from statesmen to sportswomen says less about Sri Lanka’s predilection with these two spheres than it does about our temperament. It is a penchant of us islanders to value the individual and his or her accomplishment above the team effort – an irony for a race prone to herd mentality.
What this all means for the true state of the nation is anyone’s guess, however. That captain of commerce and industry who’s mighty illustrious today may well be tomorrow’s agent in a bond scam or instrumental in asking for oppressive regimes to return to the roost and rule the realm with a fist or iron. That other skipper who was so cool in the field might feel hot under the collar when the sphere of action is listing to port and he finds the nation less than grateful that he’s considered his brother’s keeper.
With that said, the prestige of the trophy has not paled.
There are a host of mimics for this award. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there’s really and truly only one – a most singular – ‘Sri Lankan of the Year’: LMD’s.
Much of the credit for this must go to those stalwarts who have championed and defended the faith with their integrity and incorruptible sense of service, to the country and its citizens. In my book, these stewards of statesmanship include a stellar career diplomat of yore perhaps more than any other nominee. Sad that some would-be stars have since blotched their escutcheon.
By failing to live up to the public admiration – and often even adulation – some erstwhile Sri Lankans Of The Year (a.k.a. SLOTYs) have compromised their personal copybook while blotting their respective playbooks from which their fellow islanders could or should have drawn. An ex-prez, ex-PM and an always MP sometimes minister. So much so that one often wonders whether – in a world where climbing the planet’s highest peak counts for as much as plumbing the depths of political chicanery – it might be better to do nothing worthwhile than something eventually worthless?
For others like premiers and members of parliament who tread the primrose path of dalliance to impermanent political ambits, there’s coming a time in Sri Lankan politics where integrity would measure a man better against his more pragmatic peers who dare and do, and fail. For adroitly navigating a political minefield is no guarantee of being an exemplar of an inspiring Sri Lankan vision or identity.
The age of gentleman cricketers, savvy sporting personalities leveraging personal gravitas for a general good, smart energetic new-generation leaders who embrace the value of the traditional while responsibly exploring what popular trends and alternative voices can teach us all is not quite over.
Thus let us encourage this year’s awardee – as well as all other SLOTY grandees for whom a glory has not passed away – that if one can keep one’s head and heart intact, in a world where all and sundry seem to be losing their mind or even soul, you would be worthy of honour.
Not merely that of a readership’s approval. But the gravitas of approbation from an entire nation!