Researchers / Scientists / Series: Prized Possesion

Asha De Vos: Keeping Time

Asha De Vos and her watch have been all but inseparable for nearly 15 years. A gift from her father, well-known architect Ashley De Vos, the watch was an acknowledgement of what her family recognized as Asha’s “strong desire to be at least five minutes early to anything I attended or did.” Punctuality, however, isn’t something she inherited from her paternal side – “it’s ironic yet symbolic because my dad has the laid back personality of a Sri Lankan – time isn’t the be all and end all of things. I on the other hand inherited the time keeping skills of my mum – North Indian by origin.”

The watch with its metal strap and light blue face does nothing else apart from tell the time. “I like that – it’s not cluttered, very simple, no numbers, just dots,” says Asha. It is, however, waterproof to 50 m depth – an essential requirement in a timepiece for a marine biologist. Asha says it’s an essential on any expedition: “I generally have my watch on my left wrist while casting my instruments to measure the salinity and temperature of the water column within my study area off Mirissa, the same place that I study the incredible blue whales in our waters. What they are doing, how they survive, what makes them stay, and what threats they face.”

In recent years, this work has garnered her plenty of attention. Most recently, Asha was named a 2012 TED Fellow. Travelling to Long Beach in California earlier this year, she was encouraged to find many people who were very interested in Sri Lanka’s whales. “Most of all it was a huge honour to be selected as a Fellow,” she says, adding that the highlight of her experience was meeting the other inductees who hailed from a range of disciplines. “It was the first time I have been surrounded by people who feel as passionately about something as I do…it was, in short, inspirational.”

Unfortunately, a few days before the event a pin fell out of her watchstrap – but she chose to carry it anyway in her pocket throughout the conference. She’s pleased to report it’s now in relatively good shape – “considering how long I have been wearing it, non-stop at that, it’s minimally scratched. I guess it reflects how particular I am about my stuff.” However, it isn’t immune to the passage of time. The watch hands used to glow-in-the-dark but since Asha has been taking it swimming, surfing and snorkeling for years, she says a slight corrosion on the hands has robbed them of their “super powers.” The problem may have even spread and Asha fears she and her watch are running out of time. “This saddens me. Despite not being a very materialistic person, I get very attached to some things that I own and sentimentality takes over,” Asha admits.

In the meantime, she can’t imagine heading out without her watch. She confesses to feeling terribly naked without it and says she’s never quite as happy with a substitute. “The strap is the perfect size so it’s not too loose or tight, being metal it is also very airy so I don’t feel like my wrist is being suffocated. It’s always just… there.” She only ever takes it off while scuba diving, out of concern that it was not designed to withstand the crushing pressure in the deep. “I am not about to take any chances,” she says.

For now, however, the watch remains her cherished companion. Together, the two of them have travelled far and wide – they’ve shaken hands with amazing people and seen many wonderful things. “If this watch could talk, the stories it would tell would be incredible!” says Asha.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 20, 2012 as part of our Prized Possession series. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Asha De Vos.

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