When Asha de Vos spotted blue whales off the south coast of Sri Lanka in 2002, it wasn’t just the sight of the creatures that affirmed her interest in marine biology research — it was their poop.
De Vos had come across a population of blue whales that had never been studied before: a subspecies that dwells in the warm, tropical waters of the northern Indian Ocean. Most blue whales migrate to colder waters to feed, but these whales were different.
“One of them pooed, and that was a sign of feeding,” she said. “I wanted to know more. I needed to know more about them to protect them better.”
De Vos and lion biologist Thandiwe Mweetwa, both 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorers, will lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater, discussing their extensive animal research and conservation efforts.
For Mweetwa, her passion for researching carnivores in Zambia began while watching nature programs on a small, black-and-white TV as a child, but solidified when she heard lions roaring in real life.
“Being in that presence with them just roaring their heads off was a very, very powerful experience,” she said. “I had heard them roar on TV, but it was shaking the ground.”
Both de Vos and Mweetwa are actively engaged in research in their respective home countries of Sri Lanka and Zambia, where they collect and analyze data on animal populations.
De Vos, who has led the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project since founding it in 2008, helped conduct the first long-term study on blue whales in the northern Indian Ocean. One of her key focuses involves protecting whales from human activity: the whales are often hit by ships.
Her work is fairly varied, she said, but often involves spending most of the day on the water with researchers to observe and collect data on the whales. At night, she returns to land to analyze her findings.
“It’s when I sort of unravel the mysteries of the data that I’ve collected,” she said of her analysis.
In addition to conducting field research, de Vos also spends her time spreading the word about the blue whales’ importance. She writes grants, works with the Sri Lankan government and tells stories through speaking engagements and social media, she said.
“If we don’t know about these giants and what they’re doing and what their needs are, what else are we missing out on?” de Vos said. “That aspect fascinates me. They’re such a great example of how little we know about the largest portion of our planet.”
Amid her years of research, de Vos received a bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental biology from the University of St. Andrews, a master’s degree in integrative biosciences from the University of Oxford and Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia. She also conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, Santa Cruz before moving back to Sri Lanka permanently.
Another one of de Vos’ goals is to inspire young people in her country to care about conservation.
“Our parts of the world have so much talent but have a lack of opportunity,” de Vos said. “A lot of students in Sri Lanka now realize that jobs exist. Students who are like, ‘How do I study, where do I go?’ ”
Mweetwa, a senior ecologist at the Zambian Carnivore Programme, also works as manager of the organization’s conservation education program. She manages outreach programs with local schools to help students get involved in field-based research projects.
“In Zambia, the field of conservation is perceived to be something that only foreigners and white people are supposed to do,” she said. “We need to show young people here that it’s a viable option for anyone interested.”
At the program, Mweetwa conducts research on the population dynamics of lions and other carnivores, such as hyenas, wild dogs and cheetahs. The program also focuses on protecting species, treating human-caused injuries and discouraging poaching.
Mweetwa first started working at the program as an intern in 2009 before joining full time in 2012. She earned a bachelor’s degree in applied animal biology from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in natural resources conservation at the University of Arizona.
Both were surprised to be named National Geographic Emerging Explorers last year, they said. The program names people “early in their careers making a difference and pushing the boundaries of knowledge and exploration,” according to its website.
Notably, de Vos said she was inspired by the second-hand National Geographic magazines that her parents bought her as a child.
“From the time I was young, my dream was to be an adventure scientist,” she said. “In some ways, it’s come full circle.”