7 Honest Insights Into The Life Of A Marine Biologist

Story by Dr. Rachael Middlebrook

“I wanted to be a Marine Biologist when I grew up.”
“Ever since I saw that Seinfeld episode about George and the dolphin, I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
“My son/daughter watched Finding Nemo and now want to be a marine biologist.”

These are some of the most common statements I hear in response to the “what do you do for a living” question.

Marine biology inspires visions of travel, scuba diving in the clear waters of the tropics, swimming with dolphins and whale sharks and certainly not a career behind a desk, stressful deadlines, competitive workforce and seriously comical memes. Don’t misunderstand my sarcasm by any means, (as they say, the truth often underlies sarcasm) marine biologists can have extremely inspiring and rewarding careers that can fundamentally influence how we look after the planet as well as researching and creating pharmaceuticals which help to cure cancer and diseases.

However, not all marine biologists’ jobs are the same and they certainly don’t involve swanning on a boat 365 days a year and the reality is most marine biologist wouldn’t want to! Here are 7 things you might be surprised to know.

  • Marine Biologists don’t know all the names of fish

Not all marine biologists are fishy. Marine biology spans such a huge variety of areas from corals to whales and mangroves to fish, which means not all marine biologists are; a) keen fishers, b) know the names of fish or c) like to eat fish.

As with any field of work, people specialise in an area to become experts on the subject matter, even those that do specialise in fish often become experts in certain genera like marine fish, freshwater fish, bony fish, pre-historic fish and the list goes on.

  • When in the field, it’s not always sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and a tan

We often have to do boring repetitive things in conditions that inherently make you want to vomit. Often diving in conditions where the visibility is so poor, you can’t make out your hand an inch from your mask. Trying to dive in areas of high swell and roaring currents, it not only makes it difficult to conduct work but it’s also a safety risk and makes the whole endeavour much more challenging. One of the hardest things is making the responsible decision to postpone the work. More often than not field trips are timed so specifically to coincide with an event like coral spawning which only occurs twice a year, making it tough to put safety ahead of productivity and results. Postponing work can push projects back six months if not a year.

It’s routine to spend 90% of your time in front of the computer or laboratory rather than in the field, and when we do head to sea for field work, the weather, study animals, and tides don’t give a damn about your deadlines so when it all falls into place, there’s a huge sigh of relief. When you take a step back and look at all the variables that can affect a project’s success; a good marine biologist needs to have a pinch of good luck, a cup full of optimism, a scoop of good planning, a bucket load of problem-solving skills and a truckload of passion. Mix that into a crater and you’ve got a mighty fine marine biologist!

  • Saltwater: friend and foe

Salt water is sneaky. You have to treat electronic devices as disposable, no matter how well you think you have waterproofed things, it will find a way in and leave its nice salty damaging mark. The first time you flood your good camera (and you will), a little piece of you dies. It’s always good to carry a bag of rice in a sealed container to use as a desiccant for when you flood your camera, strobe, phone, GPS, dive computer, and the rest. Thin panty liners make perfect desiccant strips that stick inside your camera housing, stopping your dome from fogging (and it has the bonus effect of guys in your group leaving your camera alone), until they cotton on and steal your idea.

  • Ever wonder why marine biologists like the show MacGyver?

Fieldwork never EVER goes to plan. You have to have the ability to MacGyver your way out of situations you could never have anticipated trying to fix things in remote places with limited tools and parts. What all marine biologists quickly learn is that you can fix anything with cable ties, duct tape, waxed dental floss, a needle, neoprene glue, WD40 and a multi-tool – even a boat. Every a marine biologist is heading into the field they will no doubt, have a plastic tub with these items, if not, they are doomed to fail.

  • Maths is everywhere, and marine biologists need to be good at it

“I don’t need to know math to be a marine biologist.” WRONG. This is what I thought when I decided I didn’t need it. In fact, when I was in grade 11, I dropped math as a subject due to a combination of doing too many other subjects and not really being too great at it. Next stop university, first year, Statistics 101 = aka “you better be good at math”. I quickly returned my brain and through understanding the need and application of the math, I understood and applied it and now I am a huge supporter and use it daily and have done across my career. When you are in school, you think “when am I ever going to use this?”, the answer, ALL THE TIME. You’ll need it to prove your theories, to run models, to ask questions and determine probability. Math is an essential tool in a marine biologist’s toolbox. Use it, embrace it and you will go far.

  • Dressing to impress just isn’t a thing, individualism is strongly embraced

In this field of work… you can look however you want.  A lot of jobs put pressure on girls to look a certain way or conform to a certain beauty standard.  While you still have the everyday beauty standards that all women face, there’s less pressure to dress a certain way in marine science realm and it’s generally more relaxed. That’s not to say that there is a time and a place to dress the part, wear professional attire and so forth (i.e conferences, meetings with industry partners and so on) but because the day to day work is primarily office, lab or field base, there is more freedom and you can flaunt that Hawaiian short like it’s 1975.

  • Sticking with your passion is not always an easy road

If you are someone that is intrinsically driven by the intellectual curiosity of the marine and biological realm, then a career in marine biology could just be for you. Not all students who complete a degree in marine biology will end up working in the field and most career marine biologists typically go on to study a PhD or masters, specialises in a particular area and developing themselves as experts in a field of marine studies. If a career in research isn’t for you, then I strongly recommend volunteering with a research lab during your undergraduate years to obtain experience working in the field of marine science as opposed to simply learning about it.

In your career vision be sure to factor in that you need to equally invest time in reading (lots of reading), writing proposals, conducting lab work, managing and analysing data, networking, presenting and conducting fieldwork. The networks you make across different areas of science, industry and government can come in handy years down the track and are worth their weight in gold, which is why your ability to communicate your work is very important. Lastly, if you have passion and drive to excel, you will. Stick with it. The world will thank you.

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