Many people ask this question and the short answer is…. There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ for most marine biologists

 Marine biology is a broad field of study and marine biologists and their daily tasks and jobs vary vastly depending on what they are studying, the type of study or research they are investigating and their specific skill set and location. For example, a marine biologist investigating white shark behavior or fish population estimates will have a very different job to a marine biologist studying growth rates of plankton in a laboratory. However, I guess there are two main broad categories a marine biologist’s job can be split into, these are field work and lab/desk time, it’s important to know that both these parts of the job are just as important as each other as a scientist.

The field work part is what most people think of when they talk about marine biologists. Time in the field varies greatly depending on the data being collected and the research in hand, but generally field time accounts for a relatively small part of the job (20-30 %).

Cape RADD research team out collecting macro invertebrate data

Field work is the time when scientists get out in the field of study to collect their data. This can be done a number of ways, whether it’s collecting samples of animals, or remanence of animal’s (faeces, fur, skin, blood and other bodily traces…), photos or videos of species or habitats, or observational surveys. It can be a lot of hard work, long hours and challenging conditions. Often field work requires physical stamina and working strange hours or all hours to get the data you need in the limited time. This can be effected by lots of determining factors like weather, permits, physical injury and equipment failures, so it’s not all swimming with dolphins..

Field work can be dangerous and relies on the skills and experience of the field biologist to successfully accomplish the research objectives at hand. SCUBA diving sampling techniques, camera deployments and working on boats all comes with its sense of adventure, hard work and risks.

Field days can be in far flung, remote areas of amazing natural beauty, and there is often travel involved in field work, equally it’s important to note field work can also be in places you would never want to go to unless you had to be there for research purposes…like water treatment plants, sewage outfall zones or commercial  harbors.. So beware.

The rest of the time (70-80 %) is spent back in the laboratory working on samples and at a computer analyzing and writing up the research for publications and communications and drinking coffee of course. This is usually more regular hours (depending on how busy the lab is). This is where the number crunching, statistical analysis, and writing up the publications happens.

Cape RADD biologist Mike B doing some background reading planning the design of a new project

There is so much more to being a marine biologist than meets the eye, when they’re not in the field collecting samples or in the lab analyzing the data, a lot of time is spent writing proposals for grants, reading publications around the subject, designing and writing research projects and protocols, designing and making equipment, inputting data, teaching and communicating the research they are working on. All of these jobs are very important to making the research worthwhile and successful.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for an incredibly varied job which is as equally challenging as it is rewarding, Marine biology has it all, but answering the question ‘What does a marine biologist do?’ isn’t easy.


Mike Barron

Mike is a marine biologist/scientist/conservationist and a PADI master scuba diver instructor. He has travelled the world diving and experiencing many ecosystems and their inhabitants. His main interests lie in the field of inter-specific animal behaviour and he has worked on shark deterrents using Killer whale stimuli.

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