One of my favourite questions to ask people is if you could retrain 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 – to be a marine biologist. Probably you’ve done some internet searches and pondered how to become a marine biologist. And now you’re wondering…..is it ever too late to become a marine biologist?
How to become a marine biologist
While I’m on my quest to chase everything I always wanted in my life, it seemed only right that I somehow pursue that old niggling dream I had to be a marine biologist.
Being a marine biologist actually involves the study of marine organisms, their behaviours and interactions with the environment. It’s pretty science-based. Although I do love a bit of data entry and analysis, what I’m really interested in is being in the ocean and protecting its inhabitants which all comes down to one thing….marine conservation. So, rather than working out how to become a marine biologist, I started looking into how to get into 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 that this wasn’t the case. 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 and knowledge can take you just as far as a degree can.
So, really, 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, but will also give you a good knowledge base that can be applied to future opportunities. There are lots of free marine biology courses available so all you need is a bit of time and dedication.
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.
#2 Get reading and get interested
A lot of books that focus on marine biology are academic or super duper expensive. Some of the best books I’ve read 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. When you then start to work in the water or raising awareness you have a bit of background knowledge.
Here are a few suggestions:
#3 Spark your enthusiasm with some documentaries
When it comes to documentaries, there is nothing quite like the Blue Planet. Once you’ve gone through the box set, there are some really great films that will keep you informed with some of the biggest issues that our oceans are facing.
- Call of Life
- A Sea Change
- Mission Blue
- Plastic Oceans
- Finding Nemo…ok, so not technically a documentary, but it’s impossible to watch this film and not fall in love with the underwater world!
#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 teaching them conservation techniques, or becoming involved with a dive centre where you can carry out surveys or Lionfish containment for a set amount of time. 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.
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.
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
#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:
- Oxford Learning College: Marine Biology Diploma
- Academy for Distance Learning: Marine Studies Diploma
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
- Newcastle University: Marine Science and Technology 6 month course (online and lab-based)
- Dolphin Reef: Dolphin biology and dolphin-assisted therapy (10-day hands-on course in Israel)
- Whalefish: Marine Research techniques and conservation (3-day course in Scotland)
I can also really recommend having a read of this blog by James Borell about getting a job in conservation…he’s got some great advice!
If you know of any other great websites, courses or organisations that I have missed out from my list, please do let me know. I’d also love to hear from any other keen marine conservationists!
How to be a marine biologist
Hopefully, 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 restudy. My own journey into marine conservation started just a couple of years ago when I did the GoEco course. I have since set up a whale shark conservation project on Mafia Island. And also gone on to run conservation projects for women all around the world via the Love Her Wild community I set up.
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Got any questions or words of inspiration for others? Please do post in the comments box below!