Being a marine biologist sounds like a dream job for divers, but what’s the day-to-day reality? Dr Simon Pierce describes what it’s really like as a full-time occupation.
Dr Simon Pierce – photo © Steve de Neef
Dream Job: Marine Biologist – Dive Happy Episode 31 Show Notes
- Nature Tripper magazine
- Dive Happy podcast: Dr Andrea Marshall on her pioneering manta ray research
- Dive Happy podcast: Simon on the thresher sharks of Malapascua
- Marine Megafauna Foundation
- LAMAVE – Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines
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Dream Job: Marine Biologist – Dive Happy Episode 31 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchel and on this episode I’m joined by Dr. Simon Pierce, Marine biologist, cofounder of Marine Megafauna Foundation and publisher of Nature Tripper Magazine.
[0:00:22.3] SP: Simon, welcome back.
[0:00:23.3] CM: Yeah, thanks for having me back.
[0:00:25.7] SP: You’re very welcome mate.
[0:00:27.1] CM: We’re going to do something a bit different this time around. Many people think of being a marine biologist as a dream job. Always in the water, frolicking with dolphins, exploring the ocean, making exciting discoveries. Simon, is this really true? I’m not being flippant, but what does a marine biologist actually do?
[0:00:46.7] SP: Yes, it’s all true, just make sure the dolphins want to frolic with you back. Yeah, it’s one of those things that it’s probably like being a travel writer or something. People like the idea of it sometimes but they may not always love the reality of it. Although I’ve got to say, I do love the reality of it. It’s pretty fun.
[0:01:10.6] CM: Sure. Is that the real key to being a marine biologist? It is obviously yes, you’re in the water quite a lot, but the essence of it is that you are actually first and foremost a scientist.
[0:01:21.6] SP: Exactly, yeah. That’s what I think people’s interpretation of it is that you’re kind of like saving the ocean, you’re underwater the whole time and things were as – unfortunately, it’s not always like that and it’s very variable depending on what you’re actually studying. The key thing, as you’ve said, is that you are a scientist first and foremost. That is the job, so you’re going to spend a lot more time in front of the computer running statistical models and writing grant applications and reports and things, most likely, compared to the amount of time you spend in the field.
[0:01:55.6] CM: Right, there’s an interesting thing there that you will be desk-based for a lot of time and you are analyzing data. If we take a step back there, I mean, let’s just talk about the general science in any scientific role, kind of, what’s the meta thing behind it? I mean, what are you trying to do, what are you trying to prove?
[0:02:14.4] SP: Well, generally it’s like, you’ve sort of set a question, then devise a plan of study, and the data you can gather, and experiments you can run to be able to answer that question. That’s all good, but if it’s to be actual science then you’ve got to get it out into the world as well. That’s where it’s like sitting down, analyzing the data, writing it up into a report, dealing with scientific journals and other scientists that will review your work, and getting it published, and then it can also be this step after that of making sure that it’s actually communicated more broadly as well.
The stuff in the field is the fun bit for most people, or the most fun bit I should say, but yeah, it’s definitely only a component of the job.
[0:02:51.4] CM: Right, I mean, roughly – I mean, obviously very roughly – what percentage of time would you say would be spent in the field, is it like 20, 30% or –
[0:02:58.6] SP: This year’s probably a bad example. Normally, I’m actually pretty lucky in that I’m often supervising students and things these days. Often, they have the ones that are doing the hard work and I’m popping off into the field to sort of check that things are going okay and helping develop their capacity and things.
I’d still say it’s probably about – I’d say, probably 30 or 40% of my time is spent in the field, and I’d say that’s high for most people. That’s just kind of a virtue of the job I’ve kind of created for myself. For the most part, it will be lower than that for a lot of people, but it depends a lot on the kind of work you’re doing as well.
[0:03:36.7] CM: Right, let’s try and take a practical example. When you were doing all the work with the whale sharks, which was in Mozambique, right?
[0:03:44.9] SP: Yeah, I’ve worked with them worldwide but that’s where I started for sure.
[0:03:48.4] CM: And then obviously, you co-founded the Marine Megafauna Foundation, which was focused on the work you were doing with Dr. Mouser about the manta rays?
[0:03:57.1] SP: Indeed.
[0:03:58.3] CM: In terms of I mean, many divers have heard about the MantaMatcher Organization and so forth, how were you actually approaching gathering that kind of data? I mean, what kind of plan were you writing up for yourself and then how will you sort of going into the water to execute it?
[0:04:12.1] SP: It was actually pretty similar to MantaMatcher to how Andrea started because we literally started together kind of thing over there. The thing is, it’s like I have had a fairly unusual career, I would say, as a marine biologist. It’s not necessarily representative of the normal way through.
It was while I was still actually doing my PHD over in Australia and, over the year, I was doing more conventional sort of PHD work and I put that on hold to go over to Mozambique and start up the whale shark program and help Andrea with her manta ray work. Over there, we were kind of trying to just figure out what we could do really. So I was working with the local tourism industry and going out on the boats pretty much daily, and then I was helping guide and provide interpretation to the guests and sometimes actually like sort of run the boat myself. In return for that, I was able to also be able to get out for free, and spend the time in the water, and take photos of the whale sharks to photo identify them.
That was a good way to start up the program and see what could be done with it pretty cheaply. Yeah, over there, I started for the first – especially the first couple of years, it was going over there for a few months at a time, spend as much time on the water as I could, getting photos of whale sharks, and then I would come back and spend the afternoon sort of writing out what sharks I’ve seen, figuring out who they were. We actually have a whaleshark.org which is the global whale shark photo identification library.
I was able to use that to kind of match them and see who those sharks were and if I’d seen them before. That’s kind of how it all started, and then it often – quite common in sciences, like there was that couple of years really of data gathering before we could actually start thinking about how to publish it and stuff like that. Just to give that kind of body of information that’s viable for actually putting out and having it kind of exit the sciences.
[0:06:06.6] CM: Yeah, I mean, that’s really interesting. Right there you’re saying like there is couple of years work straight away before you could get something together that would even be deemed as credible. I’m a completely lay person so you’re just going to have to asking lots of silly questions, but to my mind, that is also quite a leap of faith on your part. We know we’re going to have to commit at least a couple of years to gather sufficient data for anyone to take it seriously but there’s no guarantee that the end of the two years, it will be taken seriously. Would that be fair?
[0:06:38.4] SP: Yeah, definitely, it’s also that thing like, I wasn’t going over for a job. I was trying to create my own job. No one’s paying you, you just have to kind of figure out how to make it yourself. Unfortunately, marine biology is one of these fields that’s so kind of rewards privilege, I’d say, and that people that are able to take that leap of faith because of like your own sort of finances or because of their family or whatever and that, it’s a lot easier for people to be able to do that.
It’s just kind of when you’re starting a project like that, a lot of it is just pushing through, and proving that you can get the results before people will kind of give you grant to get the results. So it’s very much a kind of chicken or egg situation in that, if you sort of say it’s like, well, “I’d like some money to go and photograph whale sharks please.” Well, I bet you would!
It’s kind of proving you can do it. I was just trying to figure out how I can do that as cheaply as possible which was why working with the tourism industry was the only way that that was really viable. We didn’t have our own boat, we couldn’t have afforded to run it anyway. I mean, they wanted to create a really good experience for the guests. So having someone out that could provide kind of enhanced interpretation and things, and wanted to chat about whale sharks all day, like I do, was kind of an asset for and it enabled the whole project for me.
[0:07:59.2] CM: Right, I always find this remarkable because it’s essentially like a cottage industry for science. Like you said, it’s you, and Dr. Marshal, and a couple of other people, beavering away, convinced that this is going to pan out into something, but just having to follow along to its conclusion. Then it seems to me because obviously, this was about 10, 15 years ago, right? That you sort of began doing this.
[0:08:21.5] SP: Yeah, this has kicked off, I started working in Mozambique in 2005 so a long time now.
[0:08:27.9] CM: Right, it’s kind of subsequently snowballed into well, I mean, you know this much better than me, the way that societies have sort of begun their protection of whale sharks and so on and manta rays, largely due to the research that you guys were doing that started in Mozambique.
[0:08:43.8] SP: Yeah, I mean, there was some really good research going on in places like Mangalu Reef and the Seychelles, as I was, or before I started. I was really lucky in that, like I started about slightly before say a lot of – a few other people tstarted working in other parts of the world and a good example is that is the Philippines. I was probably a couple of years into the project LAMAVE, Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute of the Philippines, got in touch with me and said, “We’re starting to see if you whale sharks around, can you give us any advice on how to incorporate those into the research programs that we’ve got?” I was really lucky in that I was kind of in the right place at the right time, before other people started working on them.
I was in a position to be able to give lots of good advice about what doesn’t work in terms of marine biological research to people that were kind of trying to start their own projects. That kind of gave me the opportunity to forge friendships first, and then like active collaborations and other parts of the world as well, which is then has allowed us to find a lot what more whale sharks doing on a more global scale which then enables things, sort of facilitates like the global conservation efforts and stuff.
It’s been really – it wasn’t really a planned thing but it’s kind of organically developed in that way. Sort of helped along but yeah, it was serendipity as much as anything. More than anything probably.
[0:10:04.8] CM: Right, that’s also great isn’t it? That’s also another one of those leap of faith things, is like you simply don’t know what’s going to happen to be put it out there and you see who else connect with it.
[0:10:14.4] SP: Yeah, definitely.
[0:10:15.5] CM: Yeah, it strikes me that marine biology as a field then, it’s obviously quite precarious in terms of financing and that, you know, a lot of time it’s going to be effectively – you’re going to need a part time job to finance yourself, and you’re going to have to pursue whatever research you’re doing for the love of doing it, rather than hoping for a fiscal reward.
[0:10:36.6] SP: Yeah, I think that’s accurate, like a lot of the positions I’ve got now, are still volunteer positions. I just do them because I think that are really important, and like there is no money to do them, unfortunately. That’s the reality. For me now, like, our funding has been kind of moved to probably primarily really coming back to working with the tourism industry. I’m working, we’ve got a long running project in Tanzania and we usually do about a month a year in the field, and a week of that time, I host a group of people that are interested in whale sharks like they want to go snorkeling with the sharks and often they’re divers and stuff as well.
They can kind of come along with us and get – well, just learn a lot more about the species that they want to see, and know that they are contributing to the research and conservation of the animal as well. We’ve had to be a bit kind of entrepreneurial I guess at that how we’ve approached the funding side of things because also, a lot of the work that I do is in the developing world and there it’s like the – I mean, the governments for instance, they’re not in a position usually to give out funds, they’re getting foreign aid themselves. So if you want to get it done, you’ve got to just figure out how to do it. Sometimes yeah, that involves getting another job that actually funds us.
One of my former PHD students, she’s like I think definitely a full-time scientist, but she’s running like a car rental company and they’ve got an Aribnb property and things like that to enable that lifestyle. As I say, that’s not the normal way that marine biologist operate. I mean, there is a much more conventional kind of career path, working in industry or for academia or something that has has got pay scales and all that kind of thing.
Because I was particularly interested in conservation, it was really the conservation impact that motivated me and continues to motivate me, rather than necessarily the science per se. It’s not about learning new stuff, it’s about learning stuff that helps the animals that I’m working on. When that’s the motivation, you just kind of got to figure out how to make it work really.
[0:12:42.3] CM: That’s a really interesting distinction and one I’ve not really thought of before, the difference between conservation to help the animals versus, how do you say that, necessarily pioneering new discoveries in the field?
[0:12:54.6] SP: They go hand in hand sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with animals that – where not much is known. I mean, like Andrea’s done amazing things for manta ray conservation. She’s also discovered things like there’s two, maybe three species of manta ray and stuff. I mean, sometimes that comes along with doing that kind of really pioneering field work as well.
[0:13:16.1] CM: Yes, I didn’t mean to belittle –
[0:13:19.6] SP: No, not really.
[0:13:21.0] CM: I kind of meant more that discovery if you like it’s the byproduct of doing the conservation work, rather than the other way around which is –
[0:13:29.3] SP: Yeah, for sure. Well, so often, we’re trying to answer these really fundamental questions, just so we can enact a useful conservation strategy. I mean, for, I guess in Mozambique for instance, we didn’t even know why the sharks were there. Until you can understand the drivers of the shark’s presence, and it’s pretty hard to figure out if the population might be going up or down, because of human presence or just because of environmental change or something quite that. Is it broad scale thing that you can ‘t really influence yourself? Or is it like a local thing, is there a fishery up the coast? So there is all these things you’re just trying to make up as you go along really. The scientific training is quite helpful I think for looking at things with kind of a skeptical eye and trying to approach things in feeling logical manner. But a lot of the time it is a starting point rather than a framework kind of thing.
[0:14:19.7] CM: Right, yes, because I guess science is always stumbling from one wrong hypothesis to another one. You mentioned in passing – so, to be a marine biologist and, typically if you want to pursue particular avenues like manta ray research, whale shark research, you know if you are – I guess if someone is particularly fascinated with a particular thing then you’re going to have to be quite entrepreneurial, quite a self-starter to just figure out how to bolt all of that together, because frankly no one is going to really hand it to you on a plate, would that be fair enough?
[0:14:53.1] SP: Pretty much yeah. I mean now that I guess as I entered the whale shark game pretty early, so now there are more probably opportunities to do things like student projects and things, where you can be part of kind of a broader science lab that’s working on similar questions and that. So they might have projects in mind and kind of organize the funding and then they will recruit a student that has the skills.
In that case, it’s like it’s having the interest, but also one thing that people can do is develop their own toolkit of skills that are going to be useful for the kind of questions they would like to answer in science or conversation. It is like people often ask me, do I have to study sharks as an undergrad or as a post grad to be able to work on sharks later? And my answer is normally like, absolutely not, because say if you are a really good geneticist, you can apply your genetics knowledge to sharks.
It is just if you’ve got those skills, you can choose which questions you want to try and answer with them. Whereas if you’re just fascinated by a particular animal then, yes, sometimes it is a matter of trying to start something yourself to be able to get that done.
[0:16:02.7] CM: Yeah that is really interesting. So you mentioned in passing earlier about, there is obviously more formal ways to become a marine biologist. I’d assume that is the standard academia. You know you finish school, got science qualifications, go and to do an undergrad degree, and then from there, go and do probably post-grad research, would that be usual?
[0:16:23.6] SP: Yeah, I think that’s still probably the most used and the best track. It is partly what you do if people get to PHD level like if they really want to be a scientist and then nothing has put them off that mission by that stage. Sometimes, you’ll be working in a project that has being set for you and sometimes you’d have the opportunity to start your own project. That is much harder and I do not recommend it, but that is how you learn to start a project.
So it’s often what comes after the PHD for people as well, whether they want to look around for a job. Most people like, after that many years of studying, I mean you haven’t got much of a choice. You need to get some – you need to get paid for the skills you have spent a better part of the decade developing.
I was just lucky with my situation that, because we had the support of the tourism industry and we are given free accommodation at a lodge over in Mozambique, I was able to live very cheaply over there while I tried to figure out if I could make it work full-time. So those are the kind of – starting your own project is the harder, not recommend course of action, but it is the one that allows you to actually create your own job as well. So you got your own niche in the world which is nice sometimes too.
[0:17:39.1] CM: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of science skills and science learning, for myself, like I was hopeless with sciences in school and stuff like that. So obviously now, because I love diving and that’s just given me a fascination with marine life, is there sort of a way into marine biology for people that have not gone the academic route or don’t have formal qualifications? I mean, is there a way to that? Maybe they obviously can’t become marine biologist because they don’t have the scientific rigor but perhaps they can still contribute in other ways.
[0:18:09.0] SP: If people are dead set to wanting to be a marine biologist, as in be a scientist that studies marine animals, ocean life, then I would recommend, first of all, maybe getting some experience with like a research organization that takes interns or volunteers or something. Just so you can actually go and see what it’s like, and check that that is what you want to do. I think the broader thing there is that a lot of people would like to do something to help the ocean, or to spend more time in the ocean and I just – 100% you don’t need to be a marine biologist to make that happen.
There are so many other opportunities for – like, marine biology is probably not the best background for someone wanting to get conservation for instance. I mean someone that had more experience with law or behavior change, or just was like a really good people person. I mean those are the sort of skills that I think that will be extremely useful in conservation or like marketing, you know?
Conversation is all about people. So if you’ve got those kind of skills you can often apply them to the marine realm. Like, if someone is like a teacher for instance then I mean there is so much scope for marine education and things. So I would encourage people to look at where their strengths lie and maybe how they could use that to help the ocean, or be involved in the marine stuff, rather than going back to university, or going to university and doing a marine biology degree.
Often that is not going to be – it is not going to take you to the place where you would actually be the most useful, and probably the most satisfied with the work that you are doing.
[0:19:48.2] CM: Right, I think those are really important points. I also think that there is quite a few opportunities, as we are talking about before we started the recording, about places or organizations you can join that are legit, that are great places to become involved if you like the scientific framework, and contribute, and decide if it is something you actually enjoy doing. You mentioned it earlier, LAMAVE in the Philippines. I mean that would seem to be a great place to start if you can get over there.
[0:20:15.5] SP: Yeah, absolutely. Once thing are – once travel is possible again, and that is one of my real go-to recommendations, because I know them really well. Really good people and they do really good work. That is sometimes a bit controversial, the idea of volunteering because people think, okay, if you have gone to university and that you need to get paid to exercise your professional skills. I completely sympathize with that argument but it is like the reality is, it is kind of like doing an apprenticeship.
So you are learning then what it is actually like out in the real world, if you want to work in organization like that. I know Lamave is a research institute that does excellent work. They’re not just using this sort of volunteers to cover their basic costs of actually having volunteers, but they need those people to be able to leverage the impacts in the Philippines. I mean the Philippines is such a critical region for marine conservation, being such as having the marine biodiversity and things. Yeah, I do think they do great work. So that is definitely one that I recommend to people.
[0:21:16.7] CM: Okay that’s great. The other thing that – we obviously talked about having to chase around after grants and so forth and there isn’t frankly that much money around, it is surprising and disappointing there isn’t some kind of Bill Gates figure that has deposited a large amount of money out of their own share personal interest to help fund a lot of these stuff.
[0:21:36.0] SP: Yeah, well I mean there is a lot of competition for the funds that are out there as well. So I mean it has been, like Leonardo DiCaprio has put quite a lot of money into marine conservation. There is a couple of Saudi Arabian Sheiks that are funding a lot of conservation work and things. So I mean it is not to say that there isn’t out there but like it is just then having the ability to actually go for those funds and things and learn –
Like, they’ve got their strategic priorities for the areas that they think are the most important marine conservation issues or marine biologies in the world. It depends where the work that you think is important fits in with those guidelines at that point in time, because I mean it does change. I mean things like marine plastics has been really hot for a few years now, like climate changes – as new issues emerge and then recognize it can become quite – I don’t want to necessarily use the term fashionable but there can be a different focus going forward as people start to recognize different issues.
So if you are working on what becomes quite a hot topic, then that can be quite useful as well. For me, or for us, a lot of the work has just been slugging it out in the developing world, doing things like fisheries monitoring and things like that. We’ve had some awesome support from different individuals and organizations but it is not necessarily the sexiest thing to be funding.
[0:23:01.6] CM: Yeah, so I guess it is also with those things is that you are – going back to what we said earlier – is that you as the scientist have to decide, “Well, we are going to do this project and we are going to do it either on nothing, and if we get funding that’s nice, but we are not going to wait around for the funding to actually start what we need to do.” It is kind of the ship is sailing anyway kind of thing.
[0:23:21.4] SP: Yeah, the masochist approach of probably doing it.
[0:23:24.7] CM: So flipping that around as we start to wrap up here, if money was no object what is the big blue sky project that you personally would love to see happen, or head up? Something that is really ambitious that you think would be really far reaching.
[0:23:42.2] SP: Well one of the things that we have been – well okay, two things. First of all, of course, I am quite focused on whale shark research. The big question for me at this stage is how many whale sharks are still getting caught in China? Because it is very difficult to get information on that. So that would be my big whale shark conservation project probably, is to figure out how many whale sharks are being caught, and then work to get the local enforcement agencies kind of basically stopping that fishery.
More broadly, as an organization, one of the projects we’ve been working with to kind of unify some of the work that we are doing as well between whale sharks and mantas and other species and stuff, is we’re working with some really iconic marine protected areas. Places like Komodo, and the Galapagos, and Tubbataha, and Bazaruto in Mozambique and things. Something we are quite focused in now is trying to just expand the benefits of those.
Sometimes with conservation work, you are just banging your against the wall and not getting too far unfortunately. But sometimes with these, say, marine national parks or world heritage areas, that are already recognized by the government as being good projects that are often involved in sustainable tourism and that, we are really focused on trying to expand the benefits of those out. Especially when you’re working with kind of migratory species.
Say for the Galapagos, I mean people are often going diving there because there is schools of hammerheads and there is the gigantic whale sharks coming through and stuff, but they don’t stay in the Galapagos. So then it is expanding the benefits of having that protection of the Galapagos and making sure they’re protected of the reefs of these migratory pathway, or as they roam more broadly out of there as well.
So we call it expanding the halo. So that is one of the things we are looking to develop and fund over the next few years.
[0:25:29.8] CM: Okay, awesome. So Simon, if, finally, people listening to this haven’t been put off, they still want to become a marine biologist, do you have any final words of advice of help with how they should go about it?
[0:25:43.1] SP: Yeah do it. If you’re not put off by that, if you feel like you’re completely unsuitable for anything else, and that is your calling in life, then do it. I mean it really has been a dream job for me and it continues to be. I pretty much like all the aspects of that. I don’t know what it’s like while I am doing it, in terms of writing up the reports and stuff, but, I get incredible job satisfaction. I love the fieldwork and no, you’re like ultimately you know you are making a difference for something you care about.
So do it and find a way. It is a pretty awesome community as well. So often if you are trying to start something, if you reach out to people that have been there and done that, they will often be totally willing to help you as well.
[0:26:26.2] CM: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, okay we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much, Simon. That was absolutely brilliant.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:26:32.9] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the shownotes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you and finally if you enjoyed the podcast, please tell other divers about it. Please rate the podcast on iTunes, it really helps boost the show’s visibility. If you’re not sure how to rate a podcast in iTunes, please go to divehappy.com/podcast for details on how to do that.
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