Dr. Asha de Vos to the rescue

Interview by Bhavna Mohan

The mass beaching of 100 pilot whales along the coast of Panadura recently had Sri Lanka, and parts of the world too, holding its breath as news reports kept viewers apprised of the situation.

Whilst it is now safe to say that the pod of whales – barring a few whales that unfortunately didn’t make it – are now safely in deeper waters, Sri Lanka’s efforts to rescue these marine mammals in the midst of a pandemic that has the world crippled, and that too whilst the Western Province was under quarantine curfew, have been commended by experts the world over.

Also luckily for Sri Lanka, we had with us in the island our very own award-winning marine biologist, Founder of Oseanswell Dr. Asha De Vos, who, upon hearing about the incident, offered her expertise.

Colombo Gazette reached out to Dr. De Vos to speak to her about why the beaching may have occurred, also discussing any connections to an international naval operation in the Bey of Bengal the next day; the almost 12-hour long rescue mission; and plans on establishing a standard protocol on beaching, considering this was not a first occurrence in Sri Lanka.

Whilst Dr. De Vos wasn’t physically at the scene at the time of the stranding due to restrictions posed by the quarantine curfew and her waiting on a curfew pass, she shared information (via her Instagram: @ashadevos) on what should and shouldn’t be done, and what experts in the field know so far about whale stranding; subsequently, shared live updates when she was on location.

Her interview with Colombo Gazette follows. 

I noticed you said scientists don’t fully know why whales strand. Is that due to lack of research?

Well, if you think about it, if you want to study how an animal dies, you have to expose it to things that kill it, to test theories to see what exactly causes their death – which is unethical.

Is there no way to determine why the pod of pilot whales beached in Panadura?

In this situation, if you saw my (Instagram) update on the science behind mass stranding, you would’ve seen that these are pilot whales, and pilot whales have a tendency to beach. However, why they as a species are so prone to doing this is very, very hard for us to know.

However, we have certain assumptions which are based on the fact that they are family groups and that they are normally deep-water mammals, and so when they come into shallow waters they can get disorientated and get caught up in the waves and pushed to shore – and that is as much as we will probably ever know, because we cannot test our theories as it will be unethical to do so.

There were reports that samples of the carcasses were being sent to the Veterinary Research Institute (SL) to be studied, after which they would determine the cause of why the whales beached. Is this then not possible?

First of all, hopefully they know what they’re looking for.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certain things you can garner from a necropsy; like whether the animal’s stomach was full or empty at the time of death, whether it fed on something it shouldn’t be feeding on like toxic algal blooms or even plastic which would cause starvation, you can look at its blood stream for evidence of nitrogen accumulation or similar, determine whether it was hit by something if the animal washes up dead onto the shore, etc.

However, you need to know what you’re looking for. There are things you can look for if you have done the necropsy in the way that actually considers the correct path of the animal’s body, but then again it’s very specific; you need to know what you’re looking for and you need to know where you’re looking for it – and that should drive the necropsy as opposed to doing the necropsy and then evaluating what is gathered.

I don’t know what was done as I was not involved in the necropsy, so I don’t know what signs they will look for. But that’s something for us to wait and see I suppose.

So, you are saying that whilst you can gather certain information through a necropsy, it’s difficult to really pinpoint and say why the whales beached, is that right?

Yes, exactly.

We also have a sample of four whales out of around 100 that beached, which is a very small sample size.

So four out of the pod of 100 died?

Yes, so as far as we know.

I saw two carcasses, and then I got a report that two more carcasses washed up.

We’d like to think that the others that were sent back all survived, but of course there’s a chance there could have been more deaths with the carcasses not having washed up to shore.

It was reported that the whales beached at around 1.30 p.m., and based on your updates I gathered the efforts went on late into the night. At what time did you all decide that you had done as much as possible and then wrap up?

To clarify, I wasn’t on the scene when it happened, and unfortunately no one informed me until the news broke, which was around 5 p.m. However, the people who were at the scene from afternoon confirmed that it happened around 1.30 p.m.

Unfortunately there was curfew, which meant I had to get a curfew pass, so I was further delayed in getting to the scene. Had I got there earlier, we could have made sure that we were more efficient in getting the animals out; I would’ve given little tips that would have ensured the animals weren’t as exhausted.

I was there till about midnight as I was restricted by my curfew pass. By that time, we were struggling with one individual whale, and I also witnessed one death. So I think the last couple of individuals (whales) that we were trying to save just didn’t make it.

Basically, I think everyone did their best, right up to the absolute end. And I can’t say anyone gave up; I’d say everyone kept going, hopeful they could rescue each whale that needed rescuing.

Were jet skis utilised in getting the whales into deeper waters? How did that process work?

What happened was these animals had come over the reef into an area where the waves were breaking, and as pilot whales are deep-water species, navigating shallow waters is difficult for them. So in order to get them back safely, we had to guide them beyond that reef, to calmer waters. They were stick in what I have been describing as a treadmill, where they swim forward only to get pushed back.

However, the water was too deep for the rescuers to actually escort the animals all the way out there, so the only option towards the end – and it was the last resort – was to use the jet skis that were made available to us.

A rope attached to the jet skis was gently put around the tail to gently drag the animals beyond that reef and further out to sea to give them a chance to get out of that really exhausting zone they were trapped in. It was done with the utmost care.

I would like to point that the jet skis actually belong to a private, 4×4 club, I-CERT (Ironman 4×4 Community Emergency Response Team).

Someone I know asked me what we needed on the ground, and I said we needed lights as there were no lights on the beach and it was difficult to see, and the 4×4 club was willing to help. They actually came with their jeeps, and that is why we had light.

It’s really important for us to highlight the community effort and also the very big collection of people from all around who – despite a curfew, despite a pandemic – came together with a lot of compassion for a species they’re very, very unfamiliar with.

In fact, nobody even realised these were pilot whales until I pointed it out – that is the level of our knowledge of this species. But nevertheless, their compassion and desire to help these animals were huge. That is I think the most heartening part of the whole process.

Were the whales monitored to see how the pod was doing after being sent out to sea? Or if not, is there any way that can be done?

Unfortunately, due to the curfew there were a lot of restrictions on all of us.

However, what happens with these animals – pilot whales – is, because they are so family-oriented, they tend to hang around for their family to come together, after which they would move off. So unless we see more carcasses that didn’t make it, the assumption is that they swam out to deep waters again.

But is there not a possibility of them re-beaching?

I think that’s what we saw that day. In Panadura, the people refloated the individual whales and sent some back, and then afterwards at around 7 p.m., I heard that a hotel had reported that they had sent back to sea four individuals (whales) that came onto their local beach.

So I think what happens is if we don’t get them out fast enough and don’t get them far out enough, there is a chance they’ll come back. One thing is that they can come back looking for their family members, or, if they are not escorted far enough, they can get pushed back because of the currents and the waves. 

What are your thoughts on the Malabar 2020 Naval Exercise that took place on Tuesday (3) off Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal being associated with this beaching in many news reports? With the beaching occurring the day before the naval operation, could there be any connection?

That’s a really easy thing to pinpoint, but I want people to think about this logically. This association is actually why we (Oceanswell) produced the post on what causes mass stranding, because there are few key points we need focus on.

Firstly, the stranding occurred on the 2nd, and this naval exercise happened on the 3rd. It is impossible to attribute the stranding event to something that happened after it.

Secondly, it was really far away. Whilst sound travels quite fast and far in water, what we have to remember is that with all the noise pollution in the ocean, the radius of  movement or dispersion of sound is limited.

Also, all the studies on sonar activity having caused beaching or stranding pertain to beaked whales, which is a very specific species that is not pilot whales. Additionally, these beachings happen after the naval exercises, and also within the 100 km radius.

So those are three key points that we need to drive home.

Also as I said before, pilot whales are notorious for stranding. Last year, in September, 470 washed up on a beach in Australia, and there are a couple of other places in the world, like New Zealand (In 2017, 600 pilot whales were beached), too. Particular beaches are famous for these pilot whales stranding, so that tells us it is more the environment that impacts them because there’s something about that place; the shallowness, the way their navigation happens in those places, that causes the beaching, rather than some external factor. Because if it is as a result of an external factor, the beaching would be a one-off.

So we have to be a little careful about our assumptions and try not to build correlations out of nothing, because I think that is actually quite dangerous; and there is also science available. 

It was clear we were very unprepared to handle this situation, especially since, as you pointed out, people were even unable to identify the animals as pilot whales. How can we be better prepared? Should there be a dedicated team to handle such incidents? How do you think we should move forward?

So we have been in talks with the State Minister of Ornamental and Freshwater Fish Kanchana Wijesekera since the incident, about drawing up a protocol so that we can be prepared if this were to happen again – and since this is not the first time this has happened in Sri Lanka, we know it can.

We need to see how to ensure we do a better job; from the scientific side of how we should care for the animals in this process, how to do it efficiently, and who should be brought in as different players to assist is also incredibly important.

So we’re definitely in talks right now and we’re definitely moving forward with trying to build a plan for being more prepared. 

I suppose we were lucky you were in the country when this happened.

Well, that’s not to say the people weren’t doing the right thing in terms of getting the animals out, but there is a way of getting the animals out.

I keep reiterating the simple fact that these animals breathe from their blowholes at the top of their head, and people do not realise this because they assume these are fish – which they are not; they’re marine mammals, and as mammals, they have to come to the surface and have lungs.

The minute I gave that simple instruction, everyone on the scene then knew what to. So I think simple information needs to be out there and available, and we need to include it in our protocol, which will make a huge difference in the rescue effort.

In the meantime, we also need to ensure the people are safe; even that night, the sea was pretty rough. It is key that we not only look after the animals and make sure that they are safe, but the protocol should include how we keep the people who are involved in the rescue also safe.

It should cover aspects like life jackets, making sure there’s light, making sure the people who are working are fit, whilst also ensuring the whales are watered though this process. We need to make sure we are not risking life for the sake of life. 

Was anyone injured during the operation?

No. There were no injuries. But everyone was super tired.

The animals are also stressed, and they were moving their tails around a lot. And it can be very dangerous if you get hit by a tail if you’re in deeper waters.

That is why I want to design our protocol so it will look at not just the survival of the species but also just really taking care of the people who are at that point giving a hundred percent to make sure that these animals are saved.

(Colombo Gazette)

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