Marine biologists study the plants and animals that live in the world's oceans. They look at the way these creatures and organisms interact with the environment and with each other. They also measure the effects of human activities and environmental changes. It is a diverse field of research because the range of sea life is so vast - from whales to tiny plankton and algae.
With increasing knowledge of how these plants and animals live today, predictions can be made about how marine ecosystems will cope with changes such as global warming, pollution, pressure from fisheries and even damage caused by tourism in sensitive areas. Some marine biologists work closely with geologists to examine fossil marine organisms, which can give important clues about climate conditions in the past.
Marine biology advances our understanding of ecosystems that in some cases are still largely unexplored. In recent years, for example, biologists have discovered creatures that live in deep water heated to hundreds of degrees centigrade, without the need for oxygen.
However, much marine biology has a practical purpose. The work may involve assessing the impact of:
- Fishing patterns
- The disposal of hazardous waste at sea
- Oil installations and other industry
- Coastal defences
- Environmental changes, such as global warming
Biologists might predict future fish stocks, to inform decisions about imposing fishing controls to protect certain species. They could also study the impact on sea life of low-level radiation from a nuclear plant.
A marine biologist's tasks are likely to include a combination of:
- Carrying out research and experiments at sea
- Analysing and interpreting data
- Writing reports on the findings
A lot of the research may be carried out alone. However, biologists also work closely with scientists from other disciplines, such as ecologists, geneticists or biochemists.
Their work may involve providing specialist advice to organisations of various kinds, from government and water authorities to industry and environmental pressure groups.
Marine biologists divide their time between desk, laboratory and field study. They usually work normal office hours, but specific projects may require additional hours.
Longer hours are especially likely on field trips at sea, where research must be fitted in around the weather. Field trips may involve being away for long periods, often in uncomfortable conditions.
Short-term contracts are common in marine biology.
Newly-qualified marine biologists may earn around £17,000 to £20,000 a year.
Around 13,000 people in the UK work as marine biologists. The main employers include marine laboratories, universities, government and environmental agencies, conservation groups, fisheries and fish farms, oil companies and other industries.
Posts in marine biology research are scarce, so competition can be fierce. Arranging some relevant work or voluntary experience will help to demonstrate commitment to universities or employers.
A possible alternative route is to seek a job providing technical support to scientists. After some years' experience, it may be possible to become directly involved in research.
Vacancies may be advertised in the local and national press, in specialist sector publications, and on the websites of universities.
Entrants for research posts need a relevant degree and usually a postgraduate qualification.
Some entrants take a degree in marine biology or oceanography, although it is not essential to study these subjects, which are offered by a number of universities across the UK. It is possible to do a degree in any of the biological sciences (for example, molecular biology could enhance career prospects), and then go on to specialise in marine biology with a Masters or PhD. In either case, gaining a first or upper second class degree is important for prospects of obtaining a postgraduate place later.
Entry to a degree course is usually with two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications. Biology is essential at A level/H grade; maths and another science subject are extremely useful. Technological subjects or foreign languages may also help. Candidates should check universities' individual requirements.
For a technical support role, it is useful to have A levels/H grades in biology, maths or geography and another science subject.
Degree courses in marine biology usually involve a combination of lectures, laboratory sessions and fieldwork. Several universities have marine laboratories that students visit.
On some courses, students spend a year gaining hands-on experience of marine work with a company or laboratory.
Once qualified, it is important to keep up to date with new developments and learn further skills. The Marine Biological Association runs advanced courses on specific areas of marine science.
Some biologists train in scuba diving, enabling them to study sea life at first hand. However, the increasing use of remotely-operated diving vehicles has made this less important.
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
A marine biologist needs to:
After gaining experience in the field, some marine biologists set up their own consultancies, or work freelance.
There may be opportunities to work abroad.
The Centre for Environment, Fisheries
and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS),
CEFAS Lowestoft Laboratory,
Pakefield Road, Lowestoft,
Suffolk NR33 OHT
Tel: 01502 562244
Challenger Society for Marine Science,
c/o National Oceanography Centre, Southampton,
Waterfront Campus, European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
Tel: 02380 596097
Fisheries Research Services, Marine Laboratory,
PO Box 101, 375 Victoria Road,
Aberdeen AB11 9DB
Tel: 01224 876544
The Marine Biological Association
of the United Kingdom (MBA),
The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth PL1 2PB
Tel: 01752 633207
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton,
National Oceanography Centre,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
Tel: 023 8059 6666
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC),
Polaris House, North Star Avenue,
Swindon SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411500
The Scottish Association for Marine Science,
Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, Oban,
Argyll PA37 1QA
Tel: 01631 559000
Society for Underwater Technology (SUT),
80 Coleman Street, London EC2R 5BJ
Tel: 020 7382 2601
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.