by Apr 26, 2022 | First published in 2017Conservation

One of my favorite questions to ask people is if you could retrain or 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 want to be a marine biologist! If you fall into this category you’ve probably done some internet searching and pondered this option but realised that spending the next 3-4 years getting a Marine Biology degree just isn’t possible. And now you’re wondering… it ever too late to become a marine biologist? Am I crazy for dreaming of working in Marine Conservation?

*Note: I’m writing a book inspired by this blog post as it’s SO popular!* 

Thank you to all of you who have got in touch after reading this bog. It has inspired me to write a book! For people who are passionate about saving our oceans. Who might not necessarily have relevant qualifications. It’ll contain interviews from people working in all areas of marine conservation sharing their insights, stories and top tips to help you make it a reality too!

To hear when the book is available to order (later this year) sign up to my newsletter, and follow me on Facebook and Instagram!

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 pursue my own dreams in life.

The turning point in 2016 was going on my first big adventure, hiking the length of Israel. That 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 organising all-female adventures all over the world. I’ve even had a book published about my story called Three Stripes South!

In short – I started to live life on my terms. Finally with the confidence to do what I really wanted to do and to chase all my dreams.

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 and time commitments 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? And 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.

Check out this page to find out more about me and my journey to full-time conservationist and adventurer.

If you have any questions, please do use the comments box below. And for ongoing tips and inspiration, make sure you follow me on Facebook and Instagram. I’d appreciate it 🙂

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.

Being a marine biologist actually 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:

  1. Based in a lab analysing data collected on algae to better understand a disease that is damaging the area
  2. Working closely with governments and lawyers to implement policies that will lead to huge changes that will protect our oceans.
  3. 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

If the answer is 1 then this is the sort of work a marine biologist might do. Number 2 is someone working in environmental management and policy. But if number 3 sounds a bit closer to the dream then what you really should be pursuing is marine conservation.

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 inspiring 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.

GoEco marine conservation training Utila Dive Centre

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 that 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.

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 (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….

How to get into marine conservation

 #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.

#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 other suggestions of conservation skills based experiences also check out Operation Wallacea, Gili Eco Trust (they do a very cool biorock coral reef conservation course) and SOURCE.

Diving scholarship

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.

How to become a marine biologist

#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.

For example:

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.

Overseas volunteering

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.

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.

Whale shark swimming in Mafia Island

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.

Get a job in marine conservation

With 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

How about setting up a blog? A podcast? A video series? Or going into schools in your area to run workshops.

There’s great scope for a YouTuber like Sea&Me but from the perspective of a non-scientist marine conservationist.

(If you do go down the route of growing a personal brand – buy and read Crush It!….it provides a realistic blueprint for growing a following for yourself!)

Anything that excites you that can help spread the word about ocean conservation!

A word on setting something up as well. This could be a great way to educate and give back to the cause, while also giving you a chance to connect with the ocean. If you launched a YouTube series for example where you make short films about ocean conservation projects around the world, you would likely be able to visit them and participate for a few days for free in exchange for the exposure on your platform.

I’ve accessed many exciting ocean projects and experiences in exchange for blogging about them!

How to be a marine biologist without a degree

#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

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!

How to get a job in Marine Conservation

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 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 really 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 all around the world via the Love Her Wild community I founded.

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 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.

Remember that you can’t fix everything, so just find the space in conservation that is the right fit for 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!

If you found this post helpful please do follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. I give all my advice out for free on my website. If you want to say thanks, you can buy me a coffee!

*Any women reading this?* I founded a women’s adventure community called Love Her WIld. Check out our private Facebook page and see what adventures we have coming up.