Steven – Marine mammal ecology researcher

If you would like to work out at sea as well as spending some time in the laboratory, you enjoy analysing data, and would like to work with animals inthe wild then look no further – maybe this is the job for you!

 

What attracted you to this job?

The opportunity to do research that nobody has ever attempted before, and to help the marine renewable energy industry get it right (in terms of limiting environmental impacts) at an early stage and still allow them to develop and flourish. Being able to live on the west coast of Scotland with all its natural beauty is also a plus!

What does your typical day involve?

I don’t get to spend nearly as much time on the water as I’d like to(!) but every so often we do go out to deploy and retrieve hydrophones and other whale and dolphin detection equipment. I then spend a considerable amount of my time with my computer, analysing the data from those trips and writing up the results. There’s also teaching, helping students and providing advice to commercial companies who are active in the sector. There are lots of different projects I’m involved with and keeping them all going is an interesting challenge.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

Coming up with a novel solution to a particularly difficult problem. Studying marine mammals in the wild is difficult so in order to say something meaningful about their biology you have to make the best possible use of what information you do have. That might involve bringing in information from a whole host of different sources, like oceanographers or fishermen, and it’s great when you can see things starting to make sense. You get to collaborate with loads of different people that way.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

They’ve known for a long time that I’ve always wanted to have this kind of career, and they are happy for me now that I’ve achieved it. Many people have this idea that, as marine mammal researchers, we spend all our time swimming with dolphins (which is a bad idea anyway) but my friends and family know that this is an extremely rewarding and stimulating job I’m in. This job requires a lot of moving around and as a result, my family probably wishes I’d settle down somewhere permanently for a change!

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

Most of my working days are 9-5 except if we need to go to sea, in which case we might leave the harbour as early as 4:00 AM and not be back until after sunset. It all depends on what we’re trying to achieve, whether the animals we’re looking for are in the area and what the weather decides to throw at us.

How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. qualifications and career route)

I’m from the Netherlands originally where the secondary school system is somewhat different from that in the UK, but I had a strong background in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths when I went to the University of Groningen (also in the Netherlands). I ended up specialising in Marine Biology early on which got me a Master’s degree. I then spent a year or two working in various different marine research institutes (one of which landed me a posting in Mauritania [west Africa] which was extremely exciting!) and then got myself into a Ph.D. programme in Newfoundland, Canada, where I studied bycatch of marine mammals, seabirds and sharks in local fisheries. After receiving my doctorate I came to the UK where I worked in marine policy for 2 years (at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee), before being able to get back into actual research with my current job here in Scotland (after a 1-year detour in New Zealand working at the University of Otago).

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Don’t let anybody stop you from following your dream – chances are that you’ll be more enthusiastic and dedicated about something you really care about doing. That said, don’t get too focused on a particular job advert, but apply to a range of different things which all might lead you to where you want to be, and don’t get discouraged if that perfect job doesn’t turn up immediately. Many employers look favourably upon people who apply repeatedly to jobs on offer as it shows dedication. Any external experience you can get, especially if it’s hands-on experience such as boating skills or volunteering in ongoing research projects in the UK or abroad, will be very useful in securing a job in this line of work. That said, if your IT or technical skills are strong, there’s lots of interest in people with that kind of background as well (in terms of equipment design, population modelling, etc.).

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

Don’t get into this line of work if you want to get rich quickly; these days the starting salary is somewhere between £20,000 – £30,000. It rises with ~£1000 increments every year or so. Senior researchers, often at professorial level, who have been in the field for many years can of course earn considerably more.

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I really enjoy scuba diving and the sea on the Scottish west coast is the perfect place to relax. Hiking and birdwatching are also things I enjoy and fortunately both are easy to do around here.

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

Yes, absolutely. As a marine biologist, you often end up in strange situations that are not described in any rulebook. For example, while I was a PhD student we worked closely together with an organisation that helped fishermen remove entangled whales from their fishing nets, and I sometimes went along to help them. There was one case where we had almost removed all of the netting off this humpback whale, when the whale realised it was no longer anchored to the seabed and set off, with us in pursuit in order to get the rest of the netting off. Unfortunately one of the tools we used to cut the lines of the netting with missed the whale entirely and instead punctured a nice hole in our zodiac. With our boat now rapidly sinking, we were getting ready to jump overboard but thankfully got rescued in time by the fisherman we had been trying to help.