Conservation Aquaculture and the ‘Cucumber fish’

Our British rivers and estuaries once teemed with life but much was lost due to pollution and flow restrictions in the 20th century. Thanks to European Union legislation, and the work of many incredible institutions to implement it, these habitats are now vastly improved across much of the British Isles. However, some of the incredible species that once dwelled within our rivers and estuaries were lost and will not naturally recolonise without human intervention.

One such species is the European Smelt, Osmerus eperlanus. The European Smelt is an incredible species of fish that is now sadly extinct from many of our river systems. Often called the ‘Cucumber Smelt’ the fish smells incredibly strongly of cucumber and you can often tell when rivers are inhabited by European Smelt by the smell of cucumber emanating from them. This, rather cute looking, fish is relatively small at only about 20-30cm long when fully grown. It is a somewhat pretty fish, with large fins, bright silver scales a often stripes of darker colour running laterally along its dorsal surface. Like Salmon, the European Smelt spends most of its life at sea and only comes into rivers to breed, where it does so on shallow sand banks often many miles upstream. However, quite unlike Salmon the European Smelt does not travel great distances at sea but instead tends to stay local to its native river, often staying close to the river estuary and no more than a few miles along the coast. This is unfortunately the undoing of European Smelt because as various factors, such as pollution (they are very sensitive to water quality), have caused them to become locally extinct from river systems their limited range of travel makes it quite unlikely that a given river should be recolonised by nearby populations should the water quality improve.

The European Smelt, Osmerus eperlanus .

This means that it is required that we must step in and re-introduce them from river systems where they have been lost. As female smelt produce around 40,000 eggs in a single spawning event (typically in the cold months of February to March) it might seem simple to take some of these, fertilize them and simply place them in to the rivers where they are missing. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that as young Smelt are incredibly vulnerable and ideally, they need to be juveniles or sub-adults if they are to stand a chance of forming a viable population.

Recognising this, the European Union funded the SEAFARE project; a part of which was to tackle exactly this problem – how do you grow European Smelt successfully and in sufficient numbers to make a successful re-introduction program viable? I was employed to take on this research at Bangor University in 2011. So, after designing and building a specialist research aquarium that included various experimental tank setups and all the necessary filtration as well as facilities to grow all the necessary live-food for hungry young Smelt, myself and my colleagues set off to Galloway, Scotland, to collect some Smelt eggs on a cold and wintry day. To obtain Smelt eggs our collaborators at the Galloway Fisheries Trust had caught us some Smelt that had come up the river Cree to spawn. In their hatchery we strip-spawned (which involves gentle massage of the abdomen) male and female Smelt to obtain the necessary eggs and sperm. Smelt eggs are incredibly sticky, which enables them to stick to stones in the river and not be washed downstream by the current, and this presents a problem to us in our experiments so we had to wash them in a slight acid bath to remove their ‘stickiness’. When we returned them to Bangor, we made use of them in various experiments to figure out what the best temperature and salinity was for growing them. We established, for the first time ever, just how embryonic Smelt develop and how fast they grow as juveniles. We ascertained such things as when they transition to various food types and the suitability for different tanks. Would you expect, for example, that juvenile smelt fare best when in blacked out tanks? Clear glass tanks make Smelt fearful and they fight currents in keeping to the corners resulting in lost energy reserves; our answer was to use black plastic wrap to cover all of the tanks and thus make them nice and shady for our nervous baby Smelt.

Dr Nick Jones and I using an acid bath to remove the adhesive surface of our recently fertilized Smelt eggs on a cold February morning in Scotland, 2011

The result of these experiments (and many months of intensive work!) is the recent publication below that details just how to grow Smelt in captivity for conservation purposes. My colleagues, Dr Nick Jones, Dr Ian McCarthy, Dr David Berlinsky and I hope that institutions can use our protocol to begin to reintroduce this amazing fish to places where it has been lost and our rivers can once again smell like cucumber!

Read the publication by clicking on this link below:

Determining the optimum temperature and salinity for larval culture, and describing a culture protocol for the conservation aquaculture for European smelt Osmerus eperlanus (L.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the people I worked with on this project but in particular the Principle Scientist and my line manager Dr Ian McCarthy. This was my first employment after graduating from my Master’s degree and it was a fantastic start to my research career.


Citizen science & humpback whales

People often assume that science is filled with those ‘Eureka!’ moments. That serendipity is the mother of all scientific discovery. Well, after over ten years of being a marine biologist I can safely say that this is simply not the case, at least not in my experience. There have certainly been some chance discoveries and surprise moments in my career so far, but every single one of these has come after a protracted period of, often tedious, targeted study and painstaking research. It would be very easy to make the ‘eureka’ assumption of the latest piece of research that I have been involved in – the first ever match of a UK humpback whale to Arctic feeding grounds.

Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, have been found around the UK for as long as humans have walked its shores. Archaeological traces of humpback whale remains have been found in Neolithic sites in the Orkneys and in Bronze Age settlements of the Outer Hebrides1. We should perceive the humpback whale to be as much a part of British wildlife as our magnificent red deer, our secretive badger or even the breath-taking basking shark. Yet somehow it remains firmly in the ‘occasional foreign visitor’ category for most people. Perhaps this is because, throughout much of our recent history, its population has suffered from intense commercial whaling pressure2.

It is maybe because of this induced rarity that the increased sightings of humpback whales over the past two decades has been greeted with such fanfare, often making it in to regional and national media3. In Scotland, humpback whales have been appearing increasingly often, and consistently over the past three years, in the Firth of Forth.  In 2017, thanks to growing awareness of the richness of marine mammal biodiversity in the region, the Forth Marine Mammals (FMM) group was formed. FMM is a community project based around the Firth of Forth that reports live sightings of marine mammals to its members via social media, allowing people to increase their own chance of a sighting and also to share images of encounters.

Since 2017 humpback whales have been appearing in the Firth of Forth between January and March each year. This consistent timing of their appearance soon got local people pondering, “could these whales be the same individuals each year?”, “Where do these whales go when they aren’t in the Firth of Forth?”. Thankfully, owing to the markings found on the underside of a humpback whales fluke, or tail, individuals can be identified in a process known as ‘photo-ID’4 and this can begin to provide an answer to these questions.

The volunteers of FMM quickly became citizen scientists and began trying to match all the incredible photographs of their whales both between years and to whales that had been sighted elsewhere. Facebook, Instagram and Google Image searches were all fair game in their search for potential fluke matches. One incredibly industrious volunteer, Lyndsay McNeil, discovered that one whale, named ‘Sonny’, had visited the Firth of Forth in both 2017 and 2018. This was amazingly important, as it showed that these whales were visiting the Firth of Forth intentionally and that there must be some purpose to their visit. Then, thanks to many hours of work, Lyndsay made another match, this time of a whale sighted in the Firth of Forth in 2018 and in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic in 2017. This was the first time ever that an individual whale had sighted in both UK waters and its Arctic feeding grounds. The whale was named ‘VYking’ after its distinct Y-shaped marking on its tail.

fluke match
Humpback whale ‘VYking’ as sighted in the Firth of Forth, Scotland (a) and Svalbard, Norway (b). (Image credits: Sandy Morrison/Forth Marine Mammal Project – A, Iain Rudkin/Iain Rudkin Photography – B)

This was a significant discovery and provided an important piece of the jigsaw that is the lives of these incredible marine mammals. Being part of the FMM, myself and my two co-authors, Emily Cunningham and Katie O’Neil, realized the significance of this hard-won discovery and were keen to not only investigate further but to make sure this information was recorded in the scientific literature. We started by confirming the matches with independent viewers, all of whom were experts in cetacean photo-ID. We then sent the best images of all whales individually identified to a wide selection of international photo-ID catalogues to see if any other matches could be made – none came up. Our research into the literature threw up more questions than answers, as is usually the case. Why have the whales only started appearing just recently? Why do the whales come to the Firth of Forth? Where do they head afterwards?

In this post-commercial whaling era, we are seeing many humpback whaling populations recover around the globe5. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the data to know for sure if this is the case for the population we find in UK waters, that of the North-East Atlantic. In fact, we don’t even know if this is a single population as no population genetic studies at an appropriate scale have ever been carried out. I have reason to believe that if such a study were commissioned then it might in fact reveal at least two populations. But if the local population is recovering then that is one possible explanation for their appearance in the Firth of Forth, they could be re-colonizing old habitats or exploring new ones as their population grows. Equally we could be seeing a range shift due to changing environmental conditions, possibly as a result of climate change. For now, and until further data is collected, we simply do not know.

Whale map
Location of independent humpback whale ‘VYking’ sightings (red circles)

Our current level of understanding is also lacking in why the Firth of Forth is so special. It is possible that the improvement in our river systems, as a result of EU directives, has increased the availability of prey fish in the Firth of Forth due to improved water quality, thus making it viable as a feeding area for humpback whales. Again, without further research this is currently guesswork.

Humpback whales are renowned for their extremely long-distance migrations between high latitude feeding areas and low latitude breeding areas6. It is also known that in other parts of the world some juvenile humpback whales either make stop-offs along their migration at ‘service stations’ to rest and feed7 or make only partial migrations to mid-latitude locations8. It is highly probable that the Firth of Forth serves either or both of these purposes. Although the maturational status of the whales observed here is unknown, they do not appear to be fully grown adults and the identification of a nearby stranded individual as a juvenile male adds weight to this idea. Until either new photo-ID matches show up or a satellite tagging study is undertaken we may not know the answer.

We muse about these questions, and others, in our recent publication in Marine Biodiversity Records. This study couldn’t have taken place without all the hard work and dedication of the Forth Marine Mammals group and we want to thank each one of them for their contributions. A personal thank you also goes to my co-authors, for their hundreds of hours of input and for battling through three rounds of peer-review. This is a great example of citizen science and we hope to continue to support them in their discoveries of the secrets of the lives of these humpback whales in the years to come. One thing is for sure, there still remains plenty to be discovered.

The full paper can be found here.


1Buckley, M., Fraser, S., Herman, J., Melton, N.D., Mulville, J. and Pálsdóttir, A.H., 2014. Species identification of archaeological marine mammals using collagen fingerprinting. Journal of Archaeological Science41, pp.631-641.

2Tønnessen, J.N. and Johnsen, A.O., 1982. The history of modern whaling. University of California Press.

3Rare sighting of humpback whale off coast of Cornwall. BBC News. 03/08/2019.

4Wells RS. Identification methods. In: Würsig B, Thewissen JGM, Kovacs KM, editors. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. Academic press; 2017. p. 503–9.

5Katona, S.K. and Beard, J.A., 1990. Population size, migrations and feeding aggregations of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 12), pp.295-306.

6Stevick, P.T., Neves, M.C., Johansen, F., Engel, M.H., Allen, J., Marcondes, M.C. and Carlson, C., 2010. A quarter of a world away: female humpback whale moves 10 000 km between breeding areas. Biology letters7(2), pp.299-302.

7Bortolotto, G.A., Kolesnikovas, C.K.M., Freire, A.S. and Simões-Lopes, P.C., 2016. Young humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae feeding in Santa Catarina coastal waters, Southern Brazil, and a ship strike report. Marine Biodiversity Records9(1), p.29.

8Swingle, W.M., Barco, S.G., Pitchford, T.D., Mclellan, W.A. and Pabst, D.A., 1993. Appearance of juvenile humpback whales feeding in the nearshore waters of Virginia. Marine Mammal Science9(3), pp.309-315.

Ligers, Zorses and Bottlenose Dolphins

Most people do not realise that there are numerous species of Bottlenose Dolphins; the exact number is a subject of strong debate and depending on the background of whom you ask will strongly influence the number they give. For example, a conservationist, a geneticist and a taxonomist are unlikely to agree on such matters. However, there are at least three species formally recognised by everybody, each with their own behavioural and physical characteristics. Of the three recognised species Tursiops truncatus, known as the Common Bottlenose Dolphin, is the species that most people are familiar with. This is owing to it’s near global distribution (it is found in every sea except those in the polar regions), its prevalence in popular culture – be it films or TV and of course its popularity in aquariums during the latter half of the 20th century. The second of the three species, Tursiops aduncus, is more often referred to as the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin and as its name suggests is found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans only. Whereas T. truncatus is found in both coastal and offshore environments T. aduncus is principally only found in coastal waters. The third species, Tursiops australis, known as the Burrunan Dolphin is found only in coastal waters of parts of Australia.

One of the most controversial topics in in the field of biology is the subject of what defines a species. Certainly in most high schools, pupils are taught that animals belong to the same species if they can reproduce and form fertile offspring. This is undoubtedly complete fallacy and a recent topic of research that I have been involved in significantly proves this. This research, led by Dr. Tess Gridley of the University of Cape Town, has just been published and I provided the genetics elements included in the paper. The research focuses on the production of fertile hybrids by two species of Bottlenose Dolphin when kept together in captivity. Hybrids are the offspring of two different species – famous examples include the Liger (the offspring of a Lion and Tiger) and Zorse (yes you guessed it, the offspring of a Zebra and a Horse).

Hybrid animals are remarkably common. Here we see a Liger (Lion and Tiger hybrid) on the left and a Zorse (Zebra and Horse hybrid) on the right.

First of all, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, this research is based on dolphins kept in captivity. Let me be absolutely clear that I am in no way an advocate for keeping any species of cetacean in captivity. When the individual dolphins on which this research focusses were taken into captivity it was the 1970s, at which time our understanding of cetacean biology, in particular their emotional intelligence, was significantly inferior to our understanding today. Like all areas of knowledge, our understanding progresses through time and moral humans adapt their behaviour and actions to take account of this improved understanding. Flipping this on its head, we should be reticent to judge people who made decisions in the past with which we would normally condemn when judging by todays understanding, morality and societal will. Times and understanding were different then and as long as we are willing to, pragmatically and sensibly, adapt our actions today to take account of our improved understanding then we should look forward and not back. No, we should not be taking new cetaceans into captivity but those that currently are kept in aquaria, like those in this study, provide an opportunity to expand our knowledge of cetaceans such that we can continue to improve our decision making in the future; thus, having greater benefit for the conservation of wild cetaceans.

Our research focussed on two dolphins and their offspring. The first, a male Tursiops truncatus by the name of Gambit, and the second a female Tursiops aduncus by the name of Frodo. As well as physical characteristics (Frodo has speckling on her underside, a feature common in older Tursiops aduncus), we confirmed their species identity genetically. This is done using DNA extracted from blood taken from routine veterinary check-ups. The principal finding of this study revealed that hybrid and backcross offspring were fertile – proven by a second generation in both cases.

Backcross fertile
One of the apparently fertile backcross offspring featured in this research.
The underside of Frodo, showing her belly speckling that is a common feature in mature Tursiops aduncus individuals.

This finding is important for two reasons. Firstly, it adds further weight to current scientific thoughts on evolution as a process. We like to think that evolution is a linear process and that once a new species is formed it is permanent until such time that it may go extinct due to some natural disaster or change in environment. We know, however, that this is not the case at all. There are a number of emerging examples that show species emerged in the past, likely as a result of physical separation, but then disappeared again when the physical barrier was removed because they simply merged and interbred with their parent species. A great example of this comes in the form of the Common Raven. We also know that reticulation, or the interbreeding of species during speciation is common and demonstrating the production of fertile hybrid offspring in this study provides a mechanism for this to happen.

Perhaps more importantly, however, this study demonstrates the potential resilience of Bottlenose Dolphins to adapt to changing environments. By producing fertile offspring, the success of gene flow events between different species of Bottlenose Dolphin may allow them to adapt to a more coastal or more pelagic way of life more readily should the need arise. We should take encouragement in this new understanding; although life in our oceans is currently under a great many threats it is likely that, thanks to the plasticity of evolution, the famous smile of a Bottlenose Dolphin will continue to greet us for many generations to come.



This research is published in PLoS ONE, Sepember 2018. You can download a copy of the paper here.

Full paper citation:

Gridley, T., Elwen, S.H., Harris, G., Moore, D.M., Hoelzel, A.R. and Lampen, F., 2018. Hybridization in bottlenose dolphins—A case study of Tursiops aduncus× T. truncatus hybrids and successful backcross hybridization events. PloS one, 13(9), p.e0201722.

Top 20 Marine Biology books you should read now!

You could fill libraries with books that focus solely on our oceans and the life within them – indeed I have visited such libraries. But whether you are studying marine biology or just have a keen interest, which books should you read that are both pleasurable and informative? Below, I’ve tried to pick out some of my favourite books (in no particular order) that I have read over the years to get you started.

Links to all books on Amazon can be found below the images. This is not an exhaustive list so if you think I have missed any great marine biology reads then please comment at the bottom of the page. Happy reading!

1. The Unnatural History of the Sea – Prof. Calum Roberts

Beautifully written by Professor Calum Roberts of Exeter University, this book eloquently examines the errors of our fishing past and hints at a scary future that lies ahead if we don’t change our ways. A truly inspiring read but one that is a little chilling…

The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing

2. Do fish feel pain? – Prof. Victoria Braithwaite

A slightly unusual book in this list but one which I have included because of its incredible scientific clarity. Prof. Braithwaite takes us through her own research on pain reception in fish by clearly describing her own experimental work. In doing so she not only sets out a clear standard by which all other science should measure itself but tackles a contentious issue that has serious moral implications. Do fish feel pain? Read this and judge for yourself.

Do Fish Feel Pain?

3. Mapping the Deep – Robert Kunzig

This book was my first set reading when I started my Marine Biology undergraduate degree and what a perfect choice by my lecturers. So well written that I read it in a single sitting. Within this book Robert Kunzig explores what we think we know about our oceans and then takes us on a rollercoaster journey through the history of ocean exploration. A great text to set the scene for a career in marine science.

Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science

4. The secret life of sharks – Dr. Peter Klimley

Part memoir and part reference this book explores shark behaviour through the eyes of Dr Peter Klimley in a truly fascinating but highly entertaining fashion. With hilarious anecdotes taken from his own postgraduate days to his later research, this book makes a complex subject (animal behaviour) easily accessible for the lay reader. If you love sharks then this book is certainly one for you.

Secret Life of Sharks

5. The end of the line – Charles Clover

Another examination of our fishing industry and its future. Not quite as eloquent as ‘The Unnatural History of the Sea’ and a little more doomsday but a good read nevertheless.

The End Of The Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat

6. Spirals in Time – Dr. Helen Scales

For anyone that has marvelled at their myriad of forms on a seashore or admired their beauty as an item of jewellery. Spirals in time examines the history of human interaction with seashells as well as the fascinating creatures that make them. A wonderfully written book that is sure to be enjoyed.

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells

7. Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World – Prof. Dorrik Stow

Another oddity in this list but one that I hope you will agree is deservedly here. Within its pages Prof. Stow lays bare the transitions and events that shaped a now all but forgotten ocean – Tethys. This ocean had a profound impact on the world we inhabit today as well as much of the life we see in the oceans. A fascinating reminder that the marine realm we study and enjoy is forever changing.

Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World

8. Sex in the Sea – Dr. Marah Hardt

Beyond its tongue in cheek title this book delves deep into the surprising reproductive habits of marine creatures. By subtly weaving in deeper lessons on overfishing, climate change and pollution this entertaining read is a great force for good in the marine biologists library. Enjoy and try not to blush!

Sex in the Sea

9. The Empty Ocean – Richard Ellis

This haunting read will likely leave you feeling ashamed of our past and fearful for the future. Richard Ellis examines our exploitation of the oceans one charismatic animal at a time. Beautifully written and illustrated with the author’s own drawings this book is a wake up call for those of us who thought our impact on the seas was minimal.

Empty Ocean

10. Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world – Mark Kurlansky

Another fishing book in the list but this time examining only a single species – Cod. Cod is a riveting read and considerably eye-opening. From battles at sea to political muscle flexing this fish has had quite an impact on our civilization. Prepare for your Friday night ‘fish and chips’ to never be quite the same again.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

11. Neptune’s Ark – David Rains Wallace

In a wonderful narrative that both entertains and informs Neptune’s Ark charts out the evolution of charismatic marine species along the West coast of North America. Intertwined with stories of the humans who discovered or studied them, this book feels a bit like an adventure in itself.

Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas

12. Voyage of the turtle: In pursuit of the Earth’s last dinosaur – Prof. Carl Safina

Prof. Safina is known for his excellent writing and this book doesn’t disappoint. By introducing the scientists who study the Leatherback Turtle in the Pacific we learn about this magnificent but elusive animal in a fascinating and entertaining manner.

Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur

13. Reflections on a Summer Sea – Prof. Trevor Norton

Charting a lifetime of work studying the marine life of Ireland’s sea loughs, this book is full of hilarious anecdotes and fascinating creatures. An account of true passion for a subject that is sure to ring bells in any marine biologist. This is a truly wonderful book and is highly recommended.

Reflections On A Summer Sea

14. A Fascination for Fish – David C. Powell

Who has not visited an aquarium and wondered just how they put together such magnificent displays? In this memoir, looking back over a lifetime of work including as curator of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, David Powell entertains us with stories of fish on planes, handling White Sharks and much else.

A Fascination for Fish: Adventures of an Underwater Pioneer

15. Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World – Todd McLeish

This very well researched book that almost feels like travel writing as we follow the author around the Arctic meeting different people whom interact with Narwhals. With subtle warnings of the dangers of a rapidly changing world this book is both fascinating and meaningful.

Narwhal book cover
Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World

16. The Billfish Story – Prof. Stan Ulanski

In a truly well rounded approach, Prof. Ulanski introduces us to the amazing world of billfishes with delightful insight. A tale told from many perspectives, the book is convincing in its argument that billfish have a unique significance in human culture.

The Billfish Story: Swordfish, Sailfish, Marlin, and Other Gladiators of the Sea

17. A Life Underwater – Dr. Charlie Veron

Another memoir but this time by one of the worlds most accomplished coral reef scientists. This one makes the list for its important messages on academia and the need for scientists to have intellectual freedom. Full of entertaining anecdotes and incredible information that could only come from a lifetime of study.

A Life Underwater

18. The Seabird’s Cry – Adam Nicolson

People often forget that many birds fall under the remit of a Marine Biologist but this book reminds you with vigour. In examination of seabirds from across the globe the author highlights their growing plight and their staggering fall in numbers. Beautifully written and full of warning for our future.

The Seabird’s Cry

19. Flotsametrics and the floating world – Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer & Eric Scigliano

Oceanography affects every aspect of marine biology but is so often loathed by marine biology undergraduate students so I’ve included Flotsametrics in this list. This book entertainingly explains our understanding of oceanography in an easy to understand manner through Dr Ebbesmeyer’s study of rubber ducks and other floating debris.

Flotsametrics and the Floating World

20. Feral – George Monbiot

Not technically a marine biology book but I’ve included this on the list for a very good reason. I’ve never read such a good description of the concept of ‘shifting baselines’ as Feral and I think it holds important messages for those of us working in marine conservation – should we be working to preserve the oceans in their current state or should we be aiming for something just a bit bolder?

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life

As I said at the beginning, this is not an exhaustive list and there are many other great books out there, including some classics and others by authors already on the list, that I have purposefully left out. However, if you think there is a key read missing from this list then please do get in touch and let me know.

Now to find a cup of tea, a nice quiet spot to sit and my next book….

10 things all marine biology freshers should know*

*i.e. things I wish I had known when I started my BSc.

By Emily G Cunningham (@EG_Cunningham)

With Freshers’ Week a fading memory and those exciting first lectures, practicals and field trips afoot; we thought we’d pull together 10 hot tips that we wish we’d known when we started our marine biology degrees (back in the noughties).

Emily Cunningham
Me during my Freshers’ Week at Bangor Uni, 2008 (!)

Over the course of your degree, you will hear how competitive marine biology is as a career about a million times. I won’t sugarcoat it, it is. Out of our year groups (we graduated in 2010 and 2012 respectively), less than 5% of our peers are now working (paid) in the marine sector. So, we thought we’d share a few things we’ve learnt along the way to help you make the most of your time at uni and walk into a job/PhD on the other side.

In your first lecture, look around. Count how many people are doing your course. In 3 years time, you will be competing not only against them, but against the thousands of other graduates clutching their BSc Marine Biology. To succeed, you need more than just your degree.

The good news is, you’ll have a lot of free time over the next 3 years. Compared to A Levels, first year is a doddle. Some of this free time will be taken up with important tasks like napping, learning how to use a washing machine and trying all the different flavours of Supernoodles. But, you’ll still have time in spades. Here’s how to use it well and ultimately live those dreams.

  1. Get involved
    If you want to become a scientist (i.e. pursue a PhD and work in research), get involved with the research going on at your university. PhD students, Postdocs and even research staff always have tasks that they need willing help with. One word of advice, if you commit to something, make sure you turn up – if there’s one surefire way to blacklist yourself, it’s saying you’ll help with sampling and then cancelling last minute or not turning up at all. Valid excuses include: real illness (hangovers don’t count), real unavoidable appointments (dentist – yes, rugby social – no) or death.
  2. Volunteer
    You’ll hear this a lot. Volunteering gives you real-world experience, as well as adding credibility to your CV and getting your name known for the right reasons. It also shows you have real passion for what you study – and in the conservation sector in particular, that can go a long way. Remember, volunteering often opens the door to a job – so if there’s an organisation you want to work for after graduation, look into volunteering for them whilst you have your student loan behind you. (Volunteering is much more difficult when you have bills to pay and no income.) Word of warning, turning up twice/late/sporadically and then applying for a job/asking for a reference probably won’t end well.
    A note on paying to volunteer. There are many organisations, most in exciting, exotic places, that will charge you a small fortune to “volunteer” or join “research expeditions”. Be wary – these are undoubtedly amazing experiences, but they won’t add much weight to your CV.
  3. Get a job
    Not only will you have more money for beer but it adds experience to your CV. I know waitressing doesn’t seem like a vital pre-requisite for a career in marine biology, but it gives you lots of “soft” skills (teamwork, working under pressure, etc) that make you more employable. Also, that extra money will come in handy for…
  4. Learn to drive
    Not dive, drive. The vast majority of jobs in the environment sector require a driving licence. I avoided the driving seat until I was 22 and a job I wanted required a licence; so I pulled my finger out and ended up passing my driving test 4 days after the interview (okay, a bit of bluffing may have occurred). Fitting my theory test and driving test around my job was a pain and I wished I’d done it at uni when time/student loan was plentiful.
  5. Learn to dive
    Disclaimer: you don’t have to be able to dive to be a marine biologist. Lots of marine professionals never dive. But, if you are able to learn to dive, do! Diving allows you to experience your new world of study for yourself. Yes, you can read books, dissect fish and chuck quadrats at rocky shores, but diving let’s you immerse yourself in marine biology. Literally. Most universities have a Sub-Aqua Club (SAC); if yours doesn’t, your local town will. This is the cheapest and most thorough way to learn to dive – though brace yourself, UK seas are a tad nippy come wintertime.
  6. Get out on boats
    If you’re a townie like me, getting your sea legs can be quite the experience. My first time out on a research vessel, I discovered I got seasick. Badly. I also learned that lots of marine biologists get seasick – it won’t end your career, you just have to learn how to deal with it. Here’s how I avoid chundering on my colleagues/samples:
    – Take travel sickness tablets 2 hours beforehand.
    – Eat a good breakfast beforehand but avoid coffee
    – Take ginger snaps (or crystallised ginger) and graze on them
    – If you start to feel sick, look at the horizon and step out into the breeze
    Getting out on boats also helps you to understand boat processes – casting off, harbour rules, ropes and fenders, etc. The more you’re out, the more you pick up – though if your career aspirations include boat sampling, a boat handling course would be a good investment, e.g. RYA Powerboat Level 2.

    Surveying dolphins
    Me in my voluntary role as North Wales Regional Coordinator for Sea Watch Foundation, running boat surveys for bottlenose dolphins.
  7. Spend as much time as possible in/on/under the sea Go rockpooling, go crabbing, watch how the birdlife changes with the seasons, go porpoise spotting, go snorkelling. It all adds to your understanding of how the sea really works – and you never know what you might spot or discover.
    Spending a sunny afternoon rockpooling is one of my favourite things to do – and a great way to observe marine life.
  8. Don’t underestimate the importance of oceanography, ocean chemistry and all that other “boring stuff”.
    I started my degree with the sole desire to learn about marine mammals. And when my first few lectures were more about ocean circulation than whales, I wondered what I had got myself in for. Stick with it – you need to understand the system as a whole in order to properly understand your species. Daniel’s PhD looks at dolphins – but he uses oceanographic data to understand the frontal systems that affect the dolphins. It’s a necessary part of the puzzle (promise).
  9. Use social media
    By this I don’t mean spend all day on Facebook at the expense of your assignment. Social media is a fantastic networking tool – many scientists use it to promote papers (and themselves), most conservation NGOs use it to promote their work and it’s a great way to keep up to date with marine news (new MPAs around the world, new species discovered, etc). It’s also a great way to get yourself known – create a Twitter account and link it to your blog (yes, start a blog). We both use Twitter professionally and have found it a great way to connect with other scientists – we just wish we’d known about it earlier! NB: Employers often check social media, so be careful what you post/share/retweet. (Give us a follow, we are @EG_Cunningham and @DanielMMoore_ )

    Social Media
    Daniel’s work being promoted by @Sharks4Kids
  10. Don’t spread yourself too thin!
    All that being said, there’s only 24 hours in a day and you’ll (hopefully) only do your first year once. Be strategic in what you sign up for and if you don’t like it, then walk away and try something else. University is as much about finding out what you like and what you want to do as it is about studying textbooks and learning new skills. My career aspirations changed about a million times during my BSc; and they were only honed by trying a load of things, most of which turned out to not be right for me. Most importantly, university is probably the most fun you’ll ever have – so make sure you keep some time free for all of the random craziness that awaits (foam parties, staying up for sunrises, ski trips, summer balls and pretty much everything and anything in between).

How do I know all this?

I’m Emily, a marine biology graduate working in marine conservation. I have been consistently employed since I graduated (4 days after my graduation, to be precise) 7 years ago and have experienced some incredible things: biopsy sampling bottlenose dolphins in Sicily, monitoring nesting sea turtles on Ascension Island, meeting with Ministers to advocate for more MPAs, being interviewed on BBC Breakfast about UK marine life, writing for national magazines, talking about dolphins to over a million people on national radio and collecting genetic samples from fish markets (and supermarket fish counters!). I didn’t have any connections in the marine world when I started my degree. I just worked hard, volunteered a lot and got involved with pretty much everything going. That’s all there is to it.


I make up half of Marine Biology Life alongside Daniel, my partner and a PhD student researching genetics of marine predators.

We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We share our adventures, escapades and mishaps – as well as lots of photos of marine life, marine news and good opportunities. If you have any questions or would like some advice from a pair who have been there and had the hangover, drop us a comment.

Best of luck with your marine biology degree. ENJOY!!!!!

Emily x

Biopsy sampling dolphins in Sicily

When something finally happens that you have been thinking and dreaming about for a very long time there is often a sense of surrealism, like it’s not really happening and only a more lurid and tangible extension of those dreams which you have been having for so long. This is certainly true for where I find myself currently – in the tranquil Sicilian town of Torretta Granitola and hosted by scientists at IAMC-CNR having brokered a collaboration between this institution and Durham University. Since the very earliest days of my PhD research it was clear that there was a gaping hole in the geographic spread of the samples of Tursiops truncatus, or Bottlenose Dolphin, to which I had access. This might have been overlooked were it not for that hole to be sat squarely over a region that was of fundamental interest to my research question – how do environmental boundaries influence population structure of marine vertebrates. The Siculo-Tunisian channel, on which Torretta Granitola stands on the northern edge, is just such a boundary and the principle one around which my PhD was formed. To the East lies the warm, salty and deep water of the East Mediterranean Basin, to the West: the generally shallower Western Mediterranean Basin with its cooler waters influenced by the Atlantic. Research conducted by Dr Ada Natoli showed that there was a distinct genetic difference between Bottlenose Dolphins found in the Western Mediterranean Basin and those from the Eastern Mediterranean Basin and that the Siculo-Tunisian channel was the geographic region in the middle of these two groups. Could it be that the different environmental conditions found in the two basins has led to the discovered genetic differentiation?

To understand this more clearly, I need tissue samples from dolphins found in this region. With these we can conduct genetic analysis to see if the population split between the EMB and WMB is abrupt, i.e. the dolphins found here fall easily into one group or the other, or if in fact the dolphins here represent a more transitional grouping with geneflow in either direction or potentially even both. To do this requires biopsy sampling which can be done in a number of ways; rifle, scrubber, crossbow or even with a pole. After much research, reading and speaking to other scientists I decided to go with the use of a crossbow for a number of reasons. My principle reason was that many fellow scientists suggested that using a crossbow provided a higher sample return rate (particularly compared to a pole or scrubber) and this was important to me as I didn’t want to subject the animals to any more interaction was absolutely necessary. For me it would be quite tragic to cause any stress to wild animals, no matter how little, and yet come away with no samples to support the science that will eventually help to protect the animals themselves. Secondly, it is far easier to transport the crossbow and associated biopsy equipment across international borders than other methods such as a biopsy rifle. Thirdly the crossbow is an order of magnitude less expensive than a rifle.

So how does the crossbow work? The crossbow itself is a standard sports crossbow with a 150lb draw weight. This is the standard power used for biopsy sampling marine mammals. It must be strong enough to penetrate the skin of the animal and for the molded polyethylene flotation to cause the bolt to bounce back from the animal but not powerful enough for the bolt to injure the animal beyond required. The bolt itself is a specially designed item from a company based in Denmark called Ceta-Dart. It is an aluminium-carbon fiber shaft with three vanes and a molded polyethylene flotation. On the front is a threaded bar onto which you attach the cutting tip. The tips are 25mm deep, with an internal diameter of 7mm, and contain three backward facing barbs that hold onto the sample once taken. The bolt will float in the water after striking the animal and can be easily retrieved with a landing net. I’ll talk about the processing of samples in a future post.

With animal safety and welfare being of highest priority for me it was essential that I was accompanied by an experienced cetacean biopsy sampler. For this we flew in Tilen Genov, an extremely experienced biopsy sampler from Slovenia. Tilen is the President of the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society – Morigenos and I urge you to check out the amazing scientific research that this organisation does. Tilen provided us an opportunity to shadow him during the first week of the expedition as well as providing lectures and practical training on biopsy sampling.

One of the main issues to consider when conducting biopsy sampling is to be very aware of potential dangers to calves. Our basic rule is to never target mothers with calves or groups that contain calves. The main reason for this is due to the surfacing pattern of bottlenose dolphin calves, they typically come to the surface on the flank of the accompanying adult – putting their head firmly in the firing line. The last thing we would want to do is harm a calf so it is best to simply avoid the possibility altogether. In addition we never want to sample an individual animal more than once, not only as such samples would be superfluous but also to limit stress to an individual, so we run concurrent Photo-ID allowing us to keep track of who has already been sampled and identify potential target animals.

Next time I’ll tell you a little more about how we have been getting on…

Sailing the length of the Atlantic Ocean

We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

The sky grew lighter. The wind, although warm, sent a shiver of chill right through me. Or was it the excitement? As my hands clutched the rusty metal hand rails I steadied myself as the ship rolled over to port in its steady and rhythmic movement. It was 6.45am and I had risen early to catch the sunrise as we ploughed through the waves on our course through the Atlantic, currently several hundred miles off Sierra Leone. The few clouds in the sky caught fire as the sun crawled upwards beyond the horizon. I have seen sunrises at sea before but nothing like the offerings of the tropical Atlantic. From the pastel chalks of predawn to the bold colour palette of a surrealist painter found in the few seconds before sunrise, sunrises here had it all. And the best bit? I still had another two weeks’ worth of sunrises to go.

I have recently returned from a long voyage at sea. I boarded the Akademik Tryoshnikov, a Russian icebreaker, in Bremerhaven Germany and stepped off in Cape Town South Africa. My reason for doing so was to take part in a Maritime University taking place during Leg zero of the Swiss Polar Institutes Antarctic Circumpolar Expedition (ACE). This University course, under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society, taught oceanography and ocean sampling techniques to 49 students from 14 different nationalities and to say it was the trip of a lifetime was an understatement.


The course was excellent, covering a huge and varied curriculum from CTD deployment to atmospheric circulation, from Antarctic winds to ocean gliders. It was run and taught, most amazingly, by three conveners whom all did a fabulous job. Equally as intellectually stimulating as the course however was the interactions with my fellow students. Coming from diverse academic backgrounds and from all over the world I learnt so much from our discussion over meals, our lively scheduled debates or the daily student lectures. What’s more than this I also gained 49 friends.

It is hard to describe the experiences of such an incredible journey so I’m going to enlist the help of my new friends to help me. Please check out some of their great blog articles from below:

A voyage at sea – ACE Maritime University

We’ve all been there. Packing to go away, often on holiday, and realising that the list of things you need already far exceeds your precious luggage allowance, let alone the capacity of the bags themselves. Normally this stressful experience is diffused by a cup of tea and the descending logic that your destination is (usually) a warm climate and if pushed you could survive with just a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, some flip flops and your bank card. However, when your destination is not a fixed geographical point but a journey, by an unusual mode of transport and with some interesting activities along the way even a cup of tea seems to do little to help. Still, it is a good excuse to drink plenty of tea.

Next week I will be departing for Germany to join the research vessel Akademik Treshnikov for a journey down to South Africa. I will be making this journey as part of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) created by the Swiss Polar Institute with the support of Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Whilst the Akademik Treshnikov will go on to make an exciting three leg journey around Antarctica, I will only be joining the ship as far as South Africa. My reason for doing so is to be a part of the ACE Maritime University which is organized under the auspices of the Russian Geographic Society in order to broaden the scope of ACE and inspire a new generation of scientists.

The ACE Maritime University will host 50 postgraduate students from 10 different countries. Whilst onboard we will be following a fairly intensive schedule of lectures, workshops and practical training in many aspects of oceanography. With access to state of the art equipment and scientists who are leaders in their field I’m sure that the Maritime University will not only be an experience of a lifetime but incredibly educational and inspiring too. One aspect of the trip that I’m particularly looking forward to is meeting all the other people onboard. I believe that having such a diverse group of people can only be a good thing; I’m sure I will learn so much about the world and make some friends for life. A second aspect I am especially looking forward to, albeit slightly nervously, is the Equator crossing ceremony. This is something I have always wanted to experience and I’m sure it will be good fun. Most of all though I am looking forward to learning. With such a diverse and broad range of subjects planned to be covered in the Maritime University programme I’m sure it will be brilliant.

So how is my packing actually going? So to explain this let me first outline that I have only two bags – a 25 litre daysack and a 90 litre expedition duffel bag (oh and only a standard 23kg baggage allowance for my flights). Being part of the ACE Maritime University will involve travelling from the depths of European winter (read: I will need plenty of warm clothing) to the height of South African summer (read: I will need warm weather clothing). Our activities will be considerably varied too; from a reception hosted by the Swiss Ambassador in Germany (read: smart outfit required) to deckwork whilst at sea (read: wet weather gear and safety equipment needed) it suffices to say that if anybody has Mary Poppin’s handbag or Doctor Who’s Tardis going spare I would be most grateful. Please follow my twitter feed to stay up to date with my experience of the ACE Maritime University.

The Akademik Treshnikov, a Russian icebreaker that will host us for the ACE Maritime University and our journey down to South Africa.
The Akademik Treshnikov, a Russian icebreaker that will host us for the ACE Maritime University and our journey down to South Africa.

All marine biologists SCUBA dive right? Er….no actually…

A common reply when I tell people that I am a marine biologist is “Ohh I’d love to do that but I can’t SCUBA dive”. Let me firstly correct one huge myth; you do not need to be able to SCUBA dive in order to be a marine biologist. I can immediately think of many colleagues whom collectively study the full breadth of marine taxa yet not one of them have a SCUBA certification. The common public perception of marine biologists is one of a neoprene clad, tanned individual donning SCUBA equipment before rolling backwards off a boat into pristine blue waters. For 99% of marine biologists this is very, very far from the truth. That is not to say that 99% of marine biology isn’t glamorous or cool or exciting. I certainly think it is. Major marine biology discoveries are made all the time in laboratories and museum archives around the world. When this happens these marine biologists are often the first people in the history of humankind to comprehend this new information – now who can say that isn’t cool?

SCUBA diving is not essential for a career in marine biology. I have met marine biologists who can't even swim!
SCUBA diving is not essential for a career in marine biology. I have met marine biologists who can’t even swim!

However, I have been very lucky in my career so far in that I have been able to work in a variety of environments from remote beaches to ocean going research vessels and of course SCUBA surveys in some pretty nice locations. If you are set on a career in marine biology AND you want SCUBA to be part of your working life there are numerous ways you can set yourself on the path to this. I should mention however that this is not an exhaustive list and there are many more ways to integrate getting into the water with your career.

  • Choose a degree programme that has optional dive training.

Plymouth University in the UK offers the opportunity for its students on marine courses to complete the HSE SCUBA qualification over an intensive 4 week course.

  • Gain your qualifications recreationally.

This is the route I chose, having first learned to dive as a teenager. To follow this route you have many, many options. The main choice is which qualification agency to get qualified with. In reality it doesn’t matter as they all provide excellent training and there is an international recognition for all qualifications and an understanding  of grade equivalency through the excellent system of CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques) star grading. The PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) scheme is often more common worldwide and attaining the Divemaster certification usually opens the doors to conducting scientific diving. In the UK the BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) provides an excellent training scheme with the added benefit of being club based which means there is often a pool of kit for beginners to use, there are regular dives to help you build up experience and courses are often cheaper too! Within BSAC, attaining the Dive Leader or Advanced Diver qualifications are the usual minimum for access to scientific diving opportunities.

  • Learn to dive whilst building survey experience abroad

Some organisations such as Frontier, Coral Cay Conservation or Blue Ventures can provide opportunities to not only gain your SCUBA qualifications but also contribute towards ongoing conservation and scientific work as well as have an amazing life experience in awesome locations – all at the same time. Be aware though that this can be a very expensive route into scientific diving.

  • Qualified already? Contribute to science now!

The excellent Seasearch scheme within the UK allows recreational divers the opportunity to contribute to our scientific body of knowledge every time they dive by simply recording the habitats and species they come across. Training is provided, all you need to do is go and dive (and report your results afterwards of course!).

For many, learning to dive is often what starts them on to a career in marine biology and it is sometimes what sustains many others. Every time you drop below the waves into this amazing alien world you can’t help be amazed, inspired and motivated. Remember though that for many marine biologists, and for many reasons, choose not to dive but still have incredibly successful and exciting careers studying our oceans. If this ends up being you then don’t forget that you are in good company.

I first developed my SCUBA skills in the cold quarries of the UK. Tough but an excellent training ground.
I first developed my SCUBA skills in the cold quarries of the UK. Tough but an excellent training ground.

Shark vs Man is No Contest: How You Can Help Sharks Now – An Ecophiles article

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to an online Ecophiles article about contributing to shark conservation for Shark Awareness Day ( 14th July!). This was an exciting and engaging piece put together by Melissa Hobson of Ecophiles.

“According to shark and marine conservation charity Bite Back, sharks have been around since before dinosaur-times. There are around 390 species of sharks in the world with 31 different types of shark living in British waters.

Most sharks have five rows of teeth and can have up to 3,000 teeth! Not surprising they’re the ocean’s top predator. Yet, unlike the shark’s portrayal in the film The Shallows where Blake Lively is surfing on a secluded beach and finds herself on the feeding ground of a great white shark, shark attacks on humans are incredibly rare.

In fact, sharks themselves are more at risk from another deadly predator: humans. So what can be done to help protect them from becoming further endangered?”

To read the full article please follow the link by clicking the image below.