The ocean is such a large, unexplored part of the world with scientists estimating that we know just 5% of what lurks beneath. Luckily, some people make it their mission to find out more – just like this team of scientists in Sri Lanka. However, they weren’t expecting to make this discovery.
Changing The Course Of History
To learn a little bit more about this incredible discovery, we have to say hello to Asha de Vos, the incredible marine biologist behind it all.
A Blue Whale Expert
Back in 2008, Asha de Vos set up the Sri Lanka Blue Whale Project in an effort to learn more about the largest mammal in the world. It may have been common to conduct research trips for this blue whale expert, but little did she know just what a world-changing discovery she’d make on one of them. It was during one routine field research trip that she would find something that would rock the marine biology world.
The Dangerous Seas of Sri Lanka
For over 25 years, Sri Lanka had been embroiled in a bitter civil war both on land and on sea. Because of this, the ocean had been practically inaccessible for nearly three decades. On top of this, sea mines were placed around the island as soon as the war ended, meaning the ocean was a treacherous place to be. Many marine scientists knew they’d be risking their lives in the seas of Sri Lanka.
Very Much Unexplored
Despite knowing it was dangerous, nothing was going to stop Asha de Vos and her research team from carrying out their expeditions. Although this island is surrounded by water, very little is known about what lurks beneath. Sri Lankans often view the sea as somewhere to fish and not much else; most locals don’t even swim. The Indian Ocean surrounding Sri Lanka was still very much unexplored – until Asha de Vos decided to do something about it.
Shipping Route Dangers
One of the reasons Asha de Vos was so keen to research the whales in the local area was so that she could inform the government and public about the threats posed to the local sea life. Just off the coast of Sri Lanka is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world; a route that jeopardizes the health and wellbeing of many whales. Asha and her team wanted to help the whales, and other marine life, in danger.
A World-Changing Expedition
Little did Asha and her team know that they were about to embark on an expedition that would shake the science world, when they set off in February 2017. They piled their boat with all of the equipment they would need for their research, including cameras and scientific instruments. They had no idea what they were going to come up against in the sea that day, but they weren’t expecting anything other than just another routine venture into the Indian Ocean.
Asha de Vos had already made history in her home country of Sri Lanka. After heading abroad to study, she became the first and only Sri Lankan to earn her Ph.D. in Marine Mammal Research. This marine biologist and conservationist knew that she wanted to change the way her homeland thought of the sea and set out to research as much as possible. However, Asha de Vos never anticipated that she would discover something so historic off the coast of Sri Lanka.
Looking For Blue Whales
As the research group set off in February 2017, they were hoping that they might catch a glimpse of the humble blue whale. After all, that’s what they were there to do. Marine biologists already knew that these giant animals lurked in the waters surrounding Sri Lanka, but not much else was known about the population there. However, with their boat just 4.3 miles (7km) away from the shore, in a busy area, they didn’t expect to see much.
Spotting Something Unusual
The area their boat was in was a hustle and bustle of human activity; not the kind of place you’d expect to see the elusive blue whale. With the rise in tourism to the island, all hoping to get a glimpse of a whale or two, it’s also pushed the sea life further out into the ocean. However, on that fateful day, Asha de Vos and her team noticed something unusual in the water. She knew she had to grab her camera.
Whatever Asha and her team had spotted, they knew straight away that it couldn’t be a blue whale. Blue whales are renowned for being shy creatures, hard to detect, and avoiders of human activity. This creature, however, seemed to be comfortable around the humans and their boat. Described as “larger than a school bus,” whatever was lurking beneath was certainly unphased by its company in the water. It started circling their vessel, as the research team got to work.
Looking At The Evidence
Asha de Vos and her team knew they had to document as much as possible of their experience before the creature disappeared back into the ocean. They took photos at every single angle that they could, so that their organization could put together a photo-ID of the creature; as they did with every whale species they came across in the Sri Lankan waters. The team rushed back to look at all of the evidence they’d gathered.
What Could It Be?
The team knew they had found something exciting, that definitely wasn’t a blue whale, but what could it be? As they made their way through all of the photos they’d taken on their trip, they knew it was something none of them had ever come across before. Their excitement continued to build as it started to dawn on them that everything was about to change. This was no little discovery in the marine biology world – this was big!
One of the first things Asha de Vos and her team noticed was the unusual chevron markings on the creature. They also realized that the left side of its jaw was a dark coloring, whereas the right side was light; the rest of its body was the color of water. They had never seen anything like it. On its upper left jaw was a scar, meaning that it had probably got caught in a fishing net at some point, too.
Asking The Experts
Having never seen this kind of marine life in the flesh, the team knew they had to send it to some experts to get some insight into what it could be. Asha de Vos sent the photos they’d taken to her colleagues, Dr. Salvatore Cerchio and Dr. Robert Brownell. She knew that these experts would be able to tell them exactly what they’d seen. As soon as they replied, no one could quite believe what they’d been so close to.
A Mysterious Species
Dr. Cerchio and Dr. Bronwell confirmed what Asha de Vos had suspected all along; they knew what this mysterious species was – it was the extremely rare Omura’s whale. Not only was this species so rare, but there were no documented sightings of the creature in Sri Lanka before. This elusive whale has actually very rarely been seen in the flesh, meaning that Asha de Vos and her team had seen something that had eluded scientists for years.
In fact, it was only recently that the Omura’s whale was classified as its own species. In Japan, back in 2003, a team of researchers used high-tech scientific procedures and DNA testing to confirm that the Omura’s whale should be classified as its own species. However, even these researchers had to use specimens that weren’t alive to come to this conclusion. It was so rare to find a live Omura’s whale, despite the fact it’s thought the species dates back to ancient times.
The Distinct Features
It’s quite surprising that it has taken so long for the Omura’s whale to be classified as its own species, considering its features are so distinct. Measuring up to 33 feet long, with its chevron markings, asymmetrical coloring, and narrow body, the Omura’s whale certainly stands out in the ocean. How it had slipped through the net for so long was surprising, but with very few sightings of the elusive whale, it makes sense that scientists know so very little about this creature.
Although it was only classified in 2003, it’s likely that the Omura’s whale had been spotted by fishermen and sailors for generations. However, unless you’re a marine biologist, it’s unlikely you would think that this was anything other than an ordinary whale. With skeletal remains being found in the Eastern and Western Indian Oceans, Eastern Pacific, and the South Atlantic, it was believed that the Omura’s whale preferred certain types of water. However, what Asha and her team found changed everything.
Asha de Vos and her team were the first people to discover the Omura’s whale off the coast of Sri Lanka, which is a considerable development in the marine biology world. Scientists believed that these rare whales thrived in shallow waters around tropical and subtropical regions, but so little was known about where exactly. After her accidental sighting in Sri Lanka, back in 2017, Asha de Vos has paved the way for more scientific discoveries about the Omura’s whale.
What Little Is Known
While Asha’s finding is a huge one in the marine biology world, there is still so much to be discovered about the rare Omura’s whale. Scientists don’t know how many of these whales exist, they have no idea what their habits are, they don’t know their migration patterns; there is still so much to be found out about these magnificent beasts. Finding one in Sri Lanka is just the beginning of learning more about the Omura’s whale.
Heading To Madagascar
This isn’t the first time the Omura’s whale has been sighted in the flesh, however. Back in 2013, ten years after it became classified, marine biologists made the first ever documented sighting of the creature in Madagascar. It was only when the researchers had seen them over a dozen times that they believed what they found. In fact, it was Asha’s colleague, Dr. Cerchio who led the study into these rare whales, leading to him becoming the expert on the species.
The reason it took so long for the Omura’s whale to be classified was because it can be easily mistaken for the Bryde’s whale; another rare marine mammal that has some similar traits to the Omura’s whale. It doesn’t help that both species can also be found in the Indo-Pacific ocean, causing yet more confusion as to which is which. However, there are some distinct differences between the two specifies, including the fact the Omura’s prefer traveling alone.
What Else Is There To Discover?
Asha de Vos may be pleased with her findings, but she knows there is still so much to discover. She said that the discovery of the Omura’s whale “just serves as a reminder that we live in an incredible world where exploration and discovery is still possible.” With 95% of the ocean left to explore, and so much more to learn about the Omura’s whale, Asha and her team have their work cut out for them.