When Asha de Vos and her team of experts ventured into the uncharted waters off the coast of Sri Lanka to study the blue whale population, they had no idea they were about to make a groundbreaking discovery. Decades of civil war in Sri Lanka and raging violence across the island nation from 1983 to 2009, gravely stunted scientific discoveries and advancements everywhere in the country, including the surrounding ocean waters. When the smoke finally cleared and peace was declared, scientists would make a shocking discovery and find that a rare and unknown creature had been lurking in the water all along. But what it actually was no one expected! Read on for a mysterious and trailblazing tale of discovery.
After nearly 30 years of civil war between the government and rebel forces, all walks of the Sri Lankan population finally started to come back to life as they’d known it before all the violence wreaked widespread havoc and limited their day-to-day activities and abilities.
As life got back on track in Sri Lanka, great advances had already been made in other parts of the world. Although the country lagged behind in certain fields, it would soon be making headlines for a rare and unexpected discovery not far from its tropical coastline.
Sri Lanka is surrounded by warm ocean waters on all sides where aquatic life thrives. Despite the country’s close proximity to the ocean and the mysteries of the deep, the country had been relatively undiscovered by marine biologists up until a recent turning point.
Higher education related to the ocean had been scarce in the years until the end of the civil war and the people of Sri Lanka didn’t even know that something rare and mysterious had been subtly making its home in the depths of the nearby Northern Indian Ocean. However, that was all about to change.
After finishing her studies abroad, Sri Lankan native Asha de Vos returned to her homeland as a marine biologist and conservationist. She was already no stranger to breaking professional and gender barriers, having become the first and only Sri Lankan to earn a Ph.D. in marine mammal research.
Already having set herself apart, it seemed that Asha de Vos was destined to do something unprecedented. However, at that point, she had no idea that she would also make history for another reason when her research would lead her to something unimaginable.
Once back in Sri Lanka, marine biologist Asha de Vos dedicated her work to researching blue whales. As part of her efforts to learn more about the giant marine mammals, she set up the Sri Lanka Blue Whale Project in 2008.
Her research consisted of numerous expeditions into the sea to catalog and observe the largest animal on Earth. It was amid her routine field research on the blue whale that she’d unintentionally come across something else that would shock the scientific world!
Despite the fact that Sri Lanka is an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the country’s culture wasn’t very connected to the ocean at the time in which Asha de Vos first embarked on her research there.
The ocean was mainly viewed by Sri Lankans as a necessary source for fishing and boating. Apart from that, however, most people in Sri Lanka didn’t swim or use the ocean for recreational reasons. And yet, this wasn’t the only reason the mysteries of the oceans hadn’t been properly explored there.
During the war that had raged for more than two decades in Sri Lanka, the waters around the country had been inaccessible for the most part. The threat of violence made it hard for scientists to get to the ocean, let alone carry out studies.
Even after the war ended, sea mines were placed in the ocean to thwart terrorism. With the known and unknown perils that faced anyone who wanted to better understand the underwater secrets of Sri Lanka, Asha de Vos undoubtedly had a big task ahead of her. But it didn’t end there.
One of the world’s busiest shipping lanes lies in the waters off the coast of Sri Lanka. Whales were becoming unfortunate victims of these shipping routes, and Asha de Vos nobly took it upon herself to do something about it.
With her research, she wanted to inform the government and public about such threats to the local whale population and the steps that could be taken to help prevent the dangers posed to the marine wildlife. So she set out on her pursuits not knowing what else lay ahead.
In February 2017, Asha de Vos organized an expedition team for one of her many routine ventures to do field work on the blue whale in the Indian Ocean. The group packed the boat with their observation equipment and set out.
Strapped with her cameras and scientific instruments, the marine biologists were hopeful that they’d have several sightings that day. But they had no idea that something they never expected to find was also living in the waters around Sri Lanka.
Marine biologist Asha de Vos and her team were only seven kilometers (4.3 miles) offshore from Sri Lanka when they reached an area frequented by fishermen and whale watchers. It was there that something very unusual was about to happen.
In such a populated area teeming with human activity, the team of researchers weren’t expecting to find many blue whales, let alone something that had never been discovered there before. What happened next would mark one of the biggest moments in de Vos’s career.
Since the Sri Lankan civil war ended, tourists have flocked to the island nation to get a glimpse of its relatively unknown population of magnificent sea life. The increase in tourism and sea traffic, however, have largely driven the marine life away from the coastal waters where they prefer to feed.
Seeing that Asha de Vos and her crew were fairly close to the shoreline, they weren’t expecting to come across any blue whales until her team ventured further out to sea. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t long until they came across a huge unknown discovery; and it was larger than a school bus!
The team of researchers accompanying Asha de Vos had been hoping to get a glimpse of some blue whales. The gigantic animals had been in the waters near Sri Lanka for centuries, but scientific knowledge of the population there was relatively understudied.
That started to change as Asha de Vos returned to her homeland and began her eye-opening research on the subject. On that day, however, what her team would find during their outing would not be a blue whale at all.
After a short time on the water, the team was shocked when they spotted a large sea creature quickly approaching their boat. It was when the animal started slowly circling the research vessel that marine biologist Asha de Vos noticed that this was a particularly unusual animal.
Not wanting to miss a rare opportunity, De Vos rushed to grab her camera and started to fervently snap photographs of the creature, all the while jotting down as many detailed notes and observations as she could. And luckily she did!
Asha de Vos was able to take plenty of pictures of the mysterious sea creature, capturing many of its characteristic features. Luckily, the whale was relaxed, which made it possible for the team of researchers to take plenty of time to gather evidence.
Asha de Vos knew this wasn’t a blue whale, but at first she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking at. As soon as her team arrived back on land, they rushed to their field house where they would made an incredible discovery.
Back on shore, the team of whale researchers started sorting through the numerous photographs that they had taken during their most recent expedition. Although this was always their standard routine upon returning from such trips, this time would be different.
With the help of her students, the group going through the images could barely contain their excitement when they noticed that they were looking at something none of them had ever seen before! But what exactly was this creature they were observing?
It’s usually hard to determine the defining characteristics of whales because they’re shy around boats (except for the more showy humpback). However, this marine animal had not been shy. Asha de Vos noted how comfortable this animal seemed to be around humans and their boat.
Luckily, her organization had a policy of keeping photo-IDs of all whale species in the waters off the coasts of Sri Lanka. This meant that de Vos came prepared to collect the necessary documentation that would later make history. However, she’d need to make sense of it first.
This animal was different from the type of marine mammals de Vos usually dealt with. The coloring and markings were unusual. The right side of its jaw was light while the left side was dark. Along with its asymmetrical coloring, this particular animal had other distinguishing features.
Its skin was water-colored and displayed chevron markings, and it bore a scar on its upper left jaw, which probably indicated that the species got entangled in fishing nets. Still, the encounter with the large creature made de Vos question what she’d seen. So she took action.
Due to the unusual observation Asha de Vos and her team had made, she decided the best course of action would be to send the photos to her colleagues, whom she thought could provide some more insights about the animal.
The photos of the large animal seen off the shores of Sri Lanka made their way to de Vos’ colleagues Dr. Robert Brownell and Dr. Salvatore Cerchio. And much to everyone’s surprise, they shockingly confirmed what de Vos had suspected all along.
It wasn’t long until Dr. Robert Brownell and Dr. Salvatore Cerchio confirmed that de Vos and her team had made an unprecedented find. Much to her astonishment, it turned out that the mysterious sea creature sighted by the team in Sri Lanka was something that had long eluded scientists.
What they had found was the rare Omura’s whale, and the one seen by de Vos and her crew was the first documented sighting in Sri Lanka of the mysterious species. The extreme rarity of this species only made the discovery even more groundbreaking.
Although the Omura’s whale can be dated back to ancient times, it was only recently classified as its own species. Thanks to modern science and DNA testing, the Omura’s whale was distinguished as its own distinct species in Japan in 2003.
Still, the scientists that determined that the Omura’s whale was its own unique whale species had used dead specimens to come to the conclusion. Live sightings were still uncommon, so a further look at the extraordinary marine animals left de Vos and her team questioning ‘why.’
It’s surprising it took so long to classify the Omura’s whale at its own species due to its fairly distinct (by marine biologists’ standards) features. The rare whale has a narrow body and can measure up to 33 feet long.
Its unique markings and size means the Omura’s whale was far from being too small to notice. Remains of dead specimens provided scientists with most of the information on the newly discovered species until recent years, and although they’re still very mysterious, evidence of them surprisingly exists in many areas around the world.
Before it was officially categorized as its own species, the rare Omura’s whale had likely been spotted by unknowing fisherman for generations. To the untrained eye, these whales may be hard to distinguish from other species. However, they seem to prefer certain waters that may account for their rarity.
Skeletal remains that were later used to classify the whale as its own species have been found in the South Atlantic, Eastern Pacific, Eastern and Western Indian Oceans, and even one dead stranded specimen in Iran. But the discovery made by de Vos changed everything.
Scientists have observed that the Omura’s whale tends to be prevalent in the shelf (shallow) and deep waters of tropical and subtropical regions. However, until Asha de Vos’s coincidental discovery, it wasn’t known that the rare whale species lived in the waters off Sri Lanka.
But de Vos’s sighting in 2017 proved otherwise and the discovery was hailed as a huge development in the scientific world. Despite this development, the rare whale species remains shrouded in mystery as there are many questions that scientists still haven’t been able to answer.
Although the type of research gathered by Asha de Vos and her team on the Omura’s whale provides significant insights into the rare whale species, there is still plenty of basic information we don’t know about these enormous ocean creatures.
It still remains a mystery how many of these rare whales exist and what their migratory habits are. Most of the information that is known about the Omura’s whale has actually been collected by scientists who happened to discover a population of the rare whale species in another place, but even then they almost evaded experts.
Thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka, marine biologists conducting research off the shores of Madagascar were excited when in 2013, they made the first documented sighting EVER of the Omura’s whale since it was determined its own species in 2003.
Scientists almost missed the first live evidence of the elusive whales when they at first mistook them for a similar species. Luckily, they encountered over a dozen sightings that ultimately convinced them of the breakthrough. And those amazing findings revealed some incredible discoveries.
The research gathered on the Omura’s whale in Madagascar provided an incredible, previously unknown glimpse at these animals. It was actually Asha de Vos’s colleague Dr. Salvatore Cerchio who led the study on the whales near Madagascar. He then became regarded as one of the leading experts on the species.
According to him, these whales are built for speed. They are also smaller relatives of the largest animal on Earth – the blue whale. Omura’s whales also all have their own distinct patterns that make them individually recognizable, but that’s not all.
For a long time, the Omura’s whale was commonly mistaken for the similar Byrde’s whale, another little-known marine mammal that lives in the Indo-Pacific ocean. Although Omura’s whales are easy to mix up with other similar species, they also have distinct behaviors that set them apart.
Interestingly, Omura’s whales never show both their heads and their dorsal fins at the same time. Additionally, they never lift their tails out of the water during a dive. But there is a particular social trait that makes them difficult to spot and study.
Unlike other whale species, like the humpback, Omura’s whales like to stay out of the spotlight and they almost always travel alone or in loose groups. It’s common for Omura’s whales to keep within hearing range of each other but with enough personal space, sometimes up to a distance of several hundred meters apart.
One of the biggest questions that has evaded experts so far, is how many Omura’s whales exist. Likewise, it’s hard for scientists to determine whether they are an endangered species. Further understanding of these whales is pertinent for better conservation efforts, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Despite the leaps in research made in recent years, scientists still admit that there is plenty to discover about the Omura’s whale. In general, little is known about the their behavior and diet. Their mating and migration patterns are also relatively unknown.
Scientists admit their work on these whales is far from conclusive and plans are in the works to conduct further research on the whales and the potential threats that could pose mortal danger to this rare species. For marine biologist Asha de Vos, however, the mysteries of Omura’s whales only touches the surface of a larger reality.
Her documented sighting of the until-then-undiscovered Omura’s whale within Sri Lanka’s waters means there are more discoveries for the island nation to make. “Seventy percent of our planet is ocean, but we have only explored less than 5 percent of this space,” she said.
“The discovery of this whale in Sri Lanka’s waters just serves as a reminder that we live in an incredible world where exploration and discovery is still possible,” said de Vos. “The more we know, the more we can care and protect!”
If the discovery of the Omura’s whale species near Sri Lanka was made at this point in time, when we already have a diverse list of species in the ecosystem, just what else do we still not know about the world?
In the words of Asha de Vos: “If we can overlook a species that is so big and obvious and moving close to humans, imagine what else we might be missing out on?” Will you be the next one to find it?
Sources: TED Fellows Blog, BBC Earth, National Geographic