What Does a Marine Mammalogist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Derek Abella. © The Balance 2019

More than 100 aquatic or marine mammal species rely on freshwater or saltwater to live, feed and reproduce. Some of these include seals, whales, dolphins, manatees, and otters. The people responsible for studying these animals, their behavior, and their habitats are called marine mammalogists.

Marine mammalogists are specialized marine biologists, who study marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. They may specialize in one specific group of animals: pinnipeds—seals, sea lions, and walrus; cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises; manatees; and other aquatic mammals—sea otters and polar bears. Some specialize even further, studying one aspect of a species, such as the behavioral interactions of seals.

Marine Mammalogist Duties & Responsibilities

A marine mammalogist's responsibilities may vary widely, depending on their area of concentration, such as research, education, rehabilitation, or training. Research is perhaps the most common and may include the following duties:

  • Designing and conducting research
  • Monitoring and tracking marine mammals to learn about their habitats, interactions, predator-prey relationships, reproduction, and migration
  • Writing grant proposals and papers, and publishing study findings in peer-reviewed journals
  • Collecting and analyzing data
  • Supervising research assistants

Marine mammalogists may perform research in a laboratory or in or near the mammals' environment such as in the water or from a boat. Their work may include taking samples of the water and earth, as well as photographs of the animals' habitat. Injured or dead animals may be examined by taking blood and tissue samples for further investigation to determine a cause.

Deep dives may be required to observe animals in their environment and to tag them to monitor their behavior and track their movement.

Marine mammalogists may also give lectures to present their findings to others in the industry, as well as provide conservation awareness.

Marine Mammalogist Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not separate the salaries of marine mammalogists from data it collects for the more general category of zoologists and wildlife biologists. In addition, the salary can vary, depending on the level of education, experience, and certifications:

  • Median Annual Salary: $63,420 ($30.49/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $102,830 ($49.44/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $40,290 ($19.37/hour)

In addition, Payscale provides salary information for marine biologists, which are closely related to marine mammalogists:

  • Median Annual Salary: $51,698 ($24.85/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $98,187 ($47.21/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $31,146 ($14.97/hour)

Source: Payscale, 2019

Education, Certification, & Training

Depending on your area of interest as a marine mammalogist, you may need the following degrees, experience, and licensing:

  • Education: An undergraduate degree is considered to be the minimum level of education required for entry-level work in the field of marine mammalogy, with a master's or Ph.D. being necessary for research work and other upper-level roles. Most marine mammalogists pursue a degree in marine biology, zoology, animal behavior, or a closely related area. There are a few collegiate programs that offer coursework specifically in marine mammalogy — specifically, the University of Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Research Program.
  • Coursework: Regardless of the degree an aspiring marine mammalogist pursues, a strong foundation of coursework is necessary in areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and statistical analysis. Laboratory skills first learned and developed during your education are also highly valued, as marine mammalogists frequently conduct scientific studies that require analysis.
  • Training: It is always important for a candidate to have extensive practical experience in the field, which can often be gained through college internships. Many marine animal internship options provide hands-on training and allow students to network with established professionals in their area of interest. The Marine Mammal Center as well as the Shoals Marine Laboratory offer internships to aspiring marine mammalogists.
  • Certification: Marine mammalogists may also consider pursuing scuba certification and developing strong swimming skills to conduct field research in direct contact with their animal subjects. Boating skills may also be utilized during a marine mammalogist’s career.

Marine Mammalogist Skills & Competencies

To succeed in this field, you should have the following skills:

  • Physical and mental stamina: The ability to handle situations that may be life-threatening, such as encountering an aggressive animal or working in water that is extremely cold or unexpectedly turbulent
  • Critical-thinking skills: The ability to solve problems that may negatively impact your research in the laboratory or out in the field
  • Verbal and written communication skills: The ability to write research reports, papers, and publishable studies, as well as lecture and discuss findings at speaking engagements
  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to work with other scientists, biologists, and industry members
  • Open water diving skills: The ability to safely and effectively perform research under water
  • Ability to speak a foreign language: The ability to speak at least another foreign language, which may be required if your work brings you to another region

Job Outlook

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is no set data on students who go on to become marine mammalogists. But in 1990, the National Science Board reported that 75% who completed undergraduate studies were employed.

The BLS reports that jobs for zoologists and wildlife biologists—which includes marine mammalogists and other marine scientists—will grow at a rate of approximately 8% over the decade from 2016 to 2026. This represents a slower rate of growth than the average for all professions.

Demand for more people in these fields is expected to grow to study the increasing interactions between humans and animals in their natural habitats. But growth will likely be limited because of the funding and budgetary restrictions set forth by various levels of government.

The field of marine mammalogy is particularly competitive to enter, as there are many more interested job seekers than positions available. Candidates with extensive practical experience and a high level of education will have the best job prospects in this popular field.

Work Environment

Marine mammalogists routinely work in the field, conducting studies in the ocean, marshes, and wetlands. They may rely on equipment such as scuba gear, boats, traps, nets, sonar devices, video equipment, robotic instruments, computers, and traditional laboratory analytical devices.

They are frequently exposed to changing temperatures and weather conditions while conducting research in the field. Many marine mammalogists spend a lot of time at sea, in labs or on computers. Other work can by physically taxing, with a lot of heavy lifting and cleanup.

Work Schedule

Marine mammalogists often work long hours, and may be required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Irregular hours are especially common when performing fieldwork.

How to Get the Job

APPLY

The Marine Mammal Center, the Society for Marine Mammology, and the Marine Conservation Institute offer career opportunities specifically for those seeking work in the field.

Also look for positions at local aquariums and zoological parks, governmental agencies—on the federal, state, and local levels, laboratories, museums, educational institutions, conservation groups, and military organizations.

JOIN A PROFESSIONAL GROUP

The Society for Marine Mammalogy is a professional membership group that hosts conferences, publishes a peer-reviewed journal, and facilitates networking through an online membership directory as well as a job search site.

The group currently has more than 2,000 members in more than 56 different countries. Its members range from students who are beginning their course of study to global experts in the field.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in marine mammology may also want to consider the following career paths, along with their median annual salary:

Source: Payscale, 2019