One of my favorite questions to ask people is ‘if you could retrain, restudy and do something different, what would you do?’ Doctor, musician, and artist are popular answers. But a lot of people also have the same dream as I do…… I wish I’d been a marine biologist! Or I wish I worked as a Marine Conservationist! If you fall into this category, you’ve probably done some internet searching and pondered this option. Maybe you’ve already got a relatable science degree or a marine biolgy degree…..great! But what if you don’t?
What if spending the next 3-4 years getting a Marine Biology degree just isn’t possible for you. And now you’re wondering…..is it ever too late to become a marine biologist? Am I crazy for dreaming of working in Marine Conservation?
In this blog post, I’ll cover different ways you can work in marine conservation and what the reality of this work entails. As well as sharing my own journey to working in the field, even though I don’t have a marine biology or relatable degree.
The obvious route….get a Marine Biology degree!
The most obvious way to becoming a marine biologist is to, of course, start by obtaining a marine biology degree. This is the easy way into the field and the right route to take if you are science-focused and eager to work directly as a researcher.
As you’ll see later in this blog post and by my own journey, getting a marine biology degree isn’t essential. In fact, for many of the more desirable marine conservation jobs, other skills and qualifications may prove more useful.
With a marine biology degree under your belt, there are many different areas of work that you may find yourself in. Including: testing and monitoring marine life, working in labs, analysing data and overseeing research. If you are planning to take this conventional route, have a read of this article or explore some of Sea&me’s YouTube videos to get a sense of what’s involved.
Marine Biologist Salary….how much can you make?
Marine Biologists don’t tend to make a lot. An average Marine Biologist salary is around £30,000 a year in the UK, and $55,000 a year in the USA. With a higher salary aim of £50,000 a year in the UK, and $100,000 a year in the USA.
A Marine Conservationists salary is a lot more varied depending on the area you are interested in. Let’s delve further into working in marine conservation without a degree…….
My dream to work in Ocean Conservation
In case you are new to my blog, let me start with an introduction to give you some context. In 2016, aged 28, I completely changed my life.
Up until that point, I had been switching jobs, confused about who I was and what I wanted to do in my life (you can see all the different jobs I tried here)…..although looking back, I think it was less about the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do and more about having a lack of confidence to really pursue my dreams.
The turning point in 2016 was taking a sabbatical to go on my first big adventure, hiking the length of Israel. This challenge built back my confidence and gave me breathing space to start thinking about pursuing different things in life. Shortly after, I founded Love Her Wild – a women’s adventure community – and began crafting a career for myself as a blogger, speaker and expedition leader, organising all-female adventures worldwide. I’ve even had a book published about my story – Three Stripes South!
In short – I started to live life on my terms. With my newfound confidence, I began chasing things that really mattered to me.
While I’m on my quest to craft my dream life, it seemed only right that I somehow find space to pursue that old niggling dream I had to be a marine biologist. The marine world, ocean conservation and anything to do with the sea has always been a passion of mine – despite growing up miles from the ocean.
I wish I’d had a role model or someone to tell me there was such a career as marine biology or ocean conservation as a child. But I didn’t. I ended up with a degree in Film and media. At this point in my life, the financial, time and family commitments (especially since becoming a mum) that come with getting a second degree are out of the question.
So that leaves me with the question – can you become a marine biologist without a degree? In short…..the answer is yes! I’ve made the steps in the right direction to make ocean conservation a part of my life. And I want to share with you what I’ve learnt!
The response to this blog has been pretty overwhelming, esepcially from those who want to help wihtout needing a marine biology degree. As a result, I’ve gone on to write a book – a guide to marine conservation for non-scientists. It includes helpful steps you can take and loads of interviews from people doing their dream ocean conservation job who don’t have a science background. If you’re serious about taking those steps – you’ll want a copy of this book.
How to become a marine biologist without a degree
Firstly we need to work out if becoming a marine biologist is actually what you want to do. From my experience, it’s usually not….
Being a marine biologist involves the study of marine organisms, their behaviours and interactions with the environment. It’s science-based. Another area of Marine Science is going into conservation management and policy. But there are other ways to work in this field without needing the science and policy knowledge under your belt.Ask yourself which of the following you would prefer to do:
- Based in a lab analysing data collected on algae to better understand a disease that is damaging the area
- Working closely with governments and lawyers to implement policies that will lead to huge changes that will protect our oceans.
- Be managing a project on a coral reef, looking after a coral nursery and educating volunteers and visitors by taking them on snorkel trips and teaching them about the marine life and conservation issues
I fall into category number 3. While I love learning about the science of the ocean, what really makes me tick is being in the water, being hands-on with conservation and, mostly notably, inspiring and enthusing others to care about the marine world.
So, rather than working out how to become a marine biologist, I started looking into how to get into marine conservation.
Steps to take towards getting a job in marine conservation
Initially, I thought this would be out of reach without some form of biology or marine-related degree. But, as I researched and connected with people in the field, I found this wasn’t the case.
It’s absolutely possible to become a marine biologist without a degree – maybe not overseeing complicated scientific studies. But certainly assisting marine scientists in their studies or working hands-on in other areas of marine conservation.
Catherine Edsell is a great example (have a read of the interview with Wise Oceans). There are loads of ways to get involved with the marine world, and, from what I found, experience, knowledge and connections can take you just as far as a degree can.
It’s never too late!
Want to know how to get into marine conservation? Here are some ideas to get you started…
#1 Free marine focused courses
Getting a good basic understanding of marine sciences and conservation issues is a good place to start. Not only will it give you an indication of how interested you really are in the topic (and which areas specifically you like), but will also give you a good knowledge base that can be applied to future opportunities.Go into this with an open mind. While I love the big stuff – whales, dolphins, manta rays – I was surprised that when I started to learn about the ocean at a deeper level I developed an absolute fascination with celaphods (octopus!!!) and the deep ocean. It really opened up my view of the world.
There are lots of free marine biology courses available so all you need is a bit of time and dedication. Use Google to keep checking for new courses, although here are some to get you started….
Free online marine courses
- Exploring Our Oceans is an online 4-week Future Learn course run by Southampton University. It’s a fantastic course and I loved working through the videos and quizzes. Future Learn also offer other relevant courses that focus on the environment and conservation.
- Edx do a fantastic 4-week course on Sharks (you can’t be interested in the oceans and not learn about the sharks!)
- TED Studies have put together a Marnie Biology series that covers some current conservation issues.
- Open2Study offer a free online Marine and Antarctic Science course
- The Open University also offers a free downloadable course called Oceans
- You might also want to print out a glossary of Marine Biology terms.
- Although you need to know specifically what you are looking for, Marine Bio has lots of marine biology and conservation information available on the website.
- National Geographic do some great short conservation courses – including an ocean challenges one
#2 Get reading and get interested
A lot of books that focus on marine biology are academic or just really expensive. Some of the best books I’ve read through are just personal accounts or easy to read studies on a particular sea creature or conservation issue.
It’s a good way to hone in on your interests. Plus the personal stories often give me an insight into the area of marine conservation and how different individuals got jobs in this field. When you then start to work in the water or raising awareness you have a bit of background knowledge.
If you are serious about this, you should check out my post on the 60 best ocean and conservation books any marine conservationist should read!
If you are short on time though, these are the top ones I’d recommend that are most talked about. If you read all of these you are going to have a REALLY good understanding of our oceans and the biggest threats….
- Marine Biology: A short introduction
- Ocean of Life
- The Loneliness of a Deep Sea Diver
- Marine Biology for the Non-biologist
- The Extreme life of the Sea
- Beneath the Surface
- Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do
- Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world
- The Unnatural History of the Sea
- The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea
- The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness
- Behind the Dolphin Smile: One Man’s Campaign to Protect the World’s Dolphins
- Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
- What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
- The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds
- Advice from the Ocean: Unexpected Paths into Marine Conservation
#3 Spark your enthusiasm with documentaries
When it comes to documentaries, there is nothing quite like the Blue Planet. Once you’ve gone through this box set, there are some really great films that will keep you informed about some of the biggest issues that our oceans are facing.
#4 Learn the skills you need
If you want to be hands-on with conservation then you are going to need some training. Becoming a skipper or licenced boat driver could be useful. Really though, I don’t think there is any better way to get up close and personal with the oceans than diving.
Becoming a recognised diver
To get recognised as a competent diver, you are going to need PADI qualifications. At the very least Advanced Open Water (which is one level higher than Open Water and combined they take a week to complete). The next level which can really open doors is becoming a Divemaster. With this qualification, you can start to take a lead role in diving. If you are really serious, you can go all the way to Instructor level but this is where the courses get pricey.
Knowing how to dive is great, but marine conservationists need more than just this. They need to be able to recognise undersea components and learn useful skills such as identifying, surveying and gathering data.
Become a marine conservation diver
I did a lot of research to try and find a diving-focused course that would give me an array of skills in marine conservation. I found some great organisations (and some not so great) but time again found that for the price, you were actually getting very little transferable experience. I was very clear that I wanted training, not to be volunteering.
Then I discovered Utila Dive Centre’s (UDC) GoEco course, a new program that was exactly what I was looking for. Over a month, I worked closely with UDC’s resident marine biologist. I learnt how to ID fish, invertebrates, and coral. Gained 6 recognised conservation PADI qualifications. Studied a variety of Utila’s resident wildlife, including dolphins, whale sharks, and turtles. Carried out dozens of marine conservation surveys, learnt how to safely contain Lionfish and carried out advocacy projects, including beach cleanups and ocean debris collection. That’s a lot crammed into 4 weeks!
By the end of the month, I felt like a competent and capable marine conservationist and even went on to set up my own marine project. So I can really recommend the GoEco course! You can read all about my experience on the course here.
For any women who are looking to advance their diving experience and qualifications, check out the Women’s Divers Hall of Fame. They offer a number of scholarships that you can apply for, for all levels and interests.
#5 Become a citizen scientist
What’s great once you’ve got a few skills under your belt, like the ones I got on the GoEco Program, is that you are then free to carry out marine biology conservation whenever and wherever. Anyone can become a citizen scientist.
Every time I go diving, I can now do a Fish ID tally (which is really fun and addictive!!!). I upload this information to REEF, which is free to join. All you need to be able to do this is a good knowledge of fish identification, which you can get from the PADI Fish ID speciality, or even by teaching yourself. REEF has a simple fish ID test that you need to pass to become a surveyor.
Similarly, you can do the same with the CoralWatch program by reporting the health of corals using a simple colour chart. I learnt how to do this on the PADI CoralWatch speciality and can also include this data gathering to future dives or even shallow snorkels.
The data for REEF and CoralWatch data is used by scientists around the world to monitor our seas and support theories and evidence. So the data you gather is really important and directly contributing to marine conservation.
Reef Check also offers a training program where once certified, you can participate in data gathering dives.
On the GoEco Program, I learnt all about the invasive Lionfish species and the damage it is doing to the reefs. With the PADI Lionfish Containment speciality from Utila Dive Centre, I am now qualified to safely and humanely contain Lionfish and, as a result, help protect the reefs and fish.
Organisations like Orca offer short marine observation courses so you can learn how to spot and ID whales and dolphins. With this under your belt, you can then volunteer to join commercial ferries, turning the journey into a marine conservation mission.
If you find yourself in a position where you might be spotting Whale Sharks, learn from Wild Book how to upload information to help identify each shark. We know very little about these creatures so this sort of information from citizen scientists proves invaluable to ongoing studies.
Or how about matching whale sounds in your spare time with Whale FM to help scientists out?
#6 Volunteer, intern and get involved
A good place to start is local. Get involved with beach cleanups or maybe see if there is a way you can help at your local aquarium. For many though, helping with marine conservation will involve looking overseas.
Voluntourism is a big industry and marine-focused volunteering seems to be exceptionally expensive. There are some reasonably priced opportunities such as Wildtracks in Belize who rescue manatees or La Tortuga Feliz in Costa Rica who protect sea turtles. Or CBMWC takes seasonal volunteers ‘for free’ (!!) to help with dolphin research.
If you are considering volunteering, James Borell put together 10 questions to ask yourself as a conservation volunteer.
Set up something yourself
If this is proving too expensive, one approach is to find a way to set up or influence your own marine conservation project. This could be working with dolphin tour companies in the Philippines and joining tours to educate members of the public about conservation issues, or becoming involved with a dive centre where you can carry out surveys or Lionfish containment for a set amount of time. Or launching a project in your home-town to reduce plastic waste on the beaches.
Can you think of any other organisations you could connect with to set up a marine conservation initiative?
Here’s a great article for inspiration on a young advocate who set up her own Whale Shark project in Madagascar.
Volunteer on a research project
You might also feel that volunteering on a research project is better value in terms of the experience it gives you, or maybe through connections you might make.
Check out organisations like eXXpeditions or Biosphere Expeditions. I did a 10-day whale and dolphin conservation project with Biosphere Expeditions which was brilliant and gave me a good overview of whale conservation.
Get a job in marine conservationWith a bit of experience and knowledge behind you, why not take a leap and see if you can get a job in marine conservation? Probably to start with you will want to focus on entry-level ocean conservation jobs.
Wise Oceans is a resourceful website which lists all sorts of marine-focused jobs, internships and volunteering opportunities. Occasionally, you can also find jobs (paid and unpaid) on Environment Job, Conservation Careers and Conservation Job.
#7 Support the seas and shout about it
Probably after doing all the above research and getting involved with projects, you are feeling pretty frustrated and upset with the current situation with our oceans! One way you can really help make a difference is to become an advocate. Change begins with education.
Share what you have learnt, any way you can. Volunteer with great advocacy organisations like the Marine Conservation Society or Sea Shepherd to help fundraise and raise awareness. Sea Shepherd also takes volunteers on their boats (and as land crew) to help stop illegal practices in the oceans. Giving money is often a highly effective way to make a differnece. Support any organisation that you feel passionate about such as the Blue Marine Foundation or Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Don’t just preach. Make changes in your life that you know will help our oceans…..
- stop eating fish, with so much bycatch and the current state of our oceans, there is no such thing as sustainable fishing really
- make as many steps as you can towards a plastic-free life
- wear reef friendly sunscreen
#8 Get a qualification
You might want to get a formal qualification to recognise what you know and to support your interest. If you are serious about becoming a marine biologist or marine conservationist, then this could be the easiest way in.
Getting a degree might not be an option for many, but A levels and diplomas are widely available at nearby colleges and also online. I’ve spoken with a handful of universities that have also said with a relevant A level or diploma, some experience, and enthusiasm, they would accept people onto a marine-related masters, even if their degree wasn’t in a relevant subject.
Here are some distant learning options to take a look at:
There are also options to entirely self-study for a qualification. Here is an interesting article, with resources, put together by a dad who had helped his son self-study for a Marine Science A Level.
Other non-accredited courses
Marine Conservation for non-scientists…the ultimate guideThis post has only touched on some of the ways into marine conservation without needing a marine biology degree. For a more in-depth guide, make sure to grab a copy of my book Marine Conservation for non-scientists.The most valuable part of the book is without doubt the interviews and hearing from others in the field and how they got to doing their dream job without a science background. They share their journeys, what they learnt along the way and their advice to others. They really are very inspiring!!GRAB YOUR COPY NOW!
Getting a job in Marine ConservationHopefully, you are feeling a little more inspired knowing that there are ways to get into marine biology and conservation without needing to take 4 years out to study.My own journey into marine conservation started just a few of years ago when I did the GoEco course at Utila Dive Centre. This was a catalyst for me and gave me a lot of confidence to pursue this field. I have since set up a whale shark conservation project on Mafia Island. And also gone on to run conservation projects for women worldwide via the Love Her Wild community I founded (such as heading the Paddle Pickup expedition where I organised the first all-female team to kayak the width of the UK against plastic pollution).Most importantly on my journey was recognising the area of conservation that I am most suited to and passionate about. For me, it’s all about inspiring and enthusing others. This is where I can make a real difference! Getting people hands-on and excited about our oceans enough to make positive habit changes that will then go on to make a difference.For you it could be educating children, raising awareness through art, organising events and talks, fundraising for ocean conservation charities or being a public speaking activist. Lean into your skills!Remember that you can’t fix everything, so just find the space in conservation that is the right fit for you. And stop letting worries about ‘do I need a degree’, ‘do I know enough’ or ‘am I good enough’ stop you from pursuing this passion. You have an important role to play…….our oceans need you!
___________________________________If you know of any other great websites, courses or organisations that I have missed out from my list, please do let me know in the comments box below. Or just set your intentions and let me know what you hope to do next….I love hearing from other inspiring ocean conservationists!
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