Published in Grist
“I have an unhealthy — or, I would like to say, healthy — obsession with poop,” says marine biologist Asha de Vos. Specifically, she’s stuck on kind that comes out of blue whales living off the coast of her homeland, Sri Lanka; in fact you could even say she built her career on a pile of this shit.
When de Vos found the red, gloopy stuff floating at the surface of the North Indian Ocean, it was her first clue that this population of whales behaves very differently than previously thought. While a student, de Vos was taught that all blue whales are migratory, feeding at the poles and coming to the warmer waters in order to breed and give birth. But blue whales are still a mysterious bunch — especially the ones near Sri Lanka, since no one studied that particular population until de Vos began to in 2008. After repeatedly coming across blue whale poop at sea, she realized that the local population actually stays there year-round.
For a woman growing up in Sri Lanka, marine biology was one of the most unorthodox fields de Vos could have chosen. “Most people are encouraged to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or business people,” she says. But “as a child I wanted to be an adventure scientist. I wanted to be the one who discovered things and saw things that no one else saw, explore places no one else would go.”
After becoming the first Sri Lankan to get a PhD in marine mammal research, de Vos has become a pioneer in the study of blue whales, making discoveries that have been recognized across the globe. “My parents just said, ‘Do what you love and you’ll do it well,’” she says. “And I do what I love.”
We talked with de Vos about her smelly passions, the biggest threats to whales today, and why the Save the Whales movement needs a makeover. Here’s an edited and condensed version of what she had to say.
Published in Grist
On an early October morning in 1997, on the west side of the island of Kauai, 18-year-old Mike Coots got in the water with his bodyboard, as he had done hundreds of times before, and started to paddle out. He and his friends went about 300 feet from the shore until they reached the surf break, in water that was 30 to 40 feet deep. They were quickly rewarded by a set of good waves, each about four feet high. Everyone in the group caught one right away. Except for Coots.
It was just Coots and one other surfer still waiting when the last wave of the set came in. “I remember looking at him and we looked at each other wondering who’s going to catch the wave,” Coots recounts. “[A]nd I got on my board and started paddling.” And then, without warning, a tiger shark emerged from the depths and latched on to his leg.
The animal thrashed back and forth with his leg in its mouth. It finally let go when he punched it in the nose. Coots got on his board and began to paddle like mad back to the shore. When he felt his leg spasm, he feared the shark had taken hold of him again; it wasn’t until he looked back that he realized his leg was, in fact, gone. In its place, a raw laceration spurted out blood with every pump of his heart.
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We’ve had plenty of reasons to get scared about sharks. From the recent “summer of the shark” attacks in North Carolina to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week to this nightmare, close encounters with the infamous marine predators seem to be cropping up left and right lately.
In the midst of the media mania, scientists continue to try to reassure the public that the odds of being a shark attack victim are in fact incredibly small. You are orders of magnitude more likely to suffer a drowning incident, get killed on yourbicycle, or meet your end in a collapsing sand hole than in the jaws of a shark.
Yet sharks continue to be one of our favorite things to feel horrified by. Those furtive fins gliding above the water! Those huge, lithe, cartilaginous bodies! And let’s not forget — though how could we? — those rows upon rows of teeth.
Before his attack, however, Coots spent little time thinking about sharks. “I never really had any fear of them, even though I’ve been around them my whole life,” he tells me. “It was just a thing that’s in the ocean that you’ve got to respect and be careful of, but all in all they just do their own thing.”
But after the incident, Coots did fall into to a certain shark obsession — though not the way you might expect. The Hawaii-based surfer and photographer turned his experience into a call to action. Except that, rather than fixate on the harm sharks present to us, Coots is more concerned with what we’re doing to them.
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For Jungles in Paris
From the southern jungles to the high plateaus, beneath the blistering desert sun and Himalayan night skies, out of swarming ports and cities and into isolated rural towns, India's trucks plod along the country's roads to deliver the food, clothes, tools, and fuel that keep the country running.
A driver of one of these commercial vehicles might spend as many as ten months a year on the road. Unable to take part in the more stationary life known to his friends and families, he makes his truck his home—often in vibrant, highly personalized fashion. Indian trucks announce their presence on the road in a way unknown in pretty much every other country.
They are, in short, embellished to the max. Silver tassels might hang from the steering wheel, and flower-printed cushions pad the seat. Bright paintings of Hindu, Christian, and Muslim deities hang next to glossy posters of Bollywood stars. Geometric shapes are scrawled all over the exterior, where decals shout messages—“ROAD KING," “NON STOP"—in English and Hindi, red, yellow, blue, green, and orange.
Eating the right seafood can be a tricky thing. You don’t have to look too far to find examples of species that have been overfished to satisfy our hunger, or creatures that are unintentionally threatened by our nets, or our bad habit of shuffling species and ecosystems together. But ocean advocate Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly still wants you to indulge in the good stuff — so long as it comes from the right sources. She’s the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the country’s leading program for sustainable seafood.
Seafood Watch is based on the premise that consumers, armed with the right information, have the power to drive change. The SFW website, app, and handy pocket guides provide info so that shoppers and diners can decide what seafood to order based on its environmental impact. Kemmerly’s not asking you to give up lox for breakfast or sushi for dinner; she just wants you to ask where it came from.
“Change happens when people are persistent,” Kemmerly says. “We want people to make a little noise and show the business community that this is an important issue. Ask where that seafood comes from. Ask if they have a sustainable seafood program where you shop. And if they do, say thank you.”
We got Kemmerly to give us the scoop on sustainable fishery management, the rising role of aquaculture, and how, in the face of wide scale ocean woes, we fish eaters have the power to turn the tides. Here’s what she had to say.
“Ocean explorer” sounds like a pie-in-the-sky job description, like “adventure archaeologist” or “Jedi.” But for David Gruber, it’s his actual title. A 2014 National Geographic emerging explorer who studies bioluminescence and fluorescence, Gruber hones in on the areas of the world that are still big unknowns and dives deep into them — way deep. Over the years, as Gruber has studied what goes on hundreds of meters below the surface of our seas, he has discovered hundreds of species and even identified entirely new marine phenomena, including some that could lead to breakthroughs in medical research.
A deep thinker, Gruber brings a philosophical approach to his science. He was first drawn to study bioluminescence because it was “an area that was artistic and beautiful to me, and that was really unknown.” Plus, he has an eye for the big picture: “It’s not like we’re just looking at it right now at this moment in time, we’re seeing the ocean as a compilation of genes and organisms that took millions of years to get to this place we’re at now.” And that, he says, gives us a context to understand how we’re changing things now.
We talked with Gruber about his explorations and discoveries, what it’s like to see in a primarily blue world, and what it means that we’re still, today, plumbing the unknown depths of our oceans. Here’s an edited and condensed version of what he had to say.