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 York 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…

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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.

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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.

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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 entertaing fashion. With hilarious anecdotes taken from his own postgraduate days to his later research this book makes a complex subject (animal behaviour) easily accesible for the lay reader. If you love sharks then this book is certainly one for you.

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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.

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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.

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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 forgotton 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.

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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 subtely 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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….

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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.

Current research

My current research is focussed on developing molecular markers for deep water sharks and is being conducted at Edge Hill University with fellow early career researchers David Goodson, Thom Dallimore and Carl Barker. Deep water sharks are poorly understood relative to their shallow water counterparts but are often even more vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures. Deep water fishing fleets are increasing in size every year and it is well known that many deep water sharks aggregate in single sex or age cohort groups meaning a single trawl can have a very significant impact to localised populations. It is vital that we understand more about these deep water species in order to effectively manage conservation efforts. Key to this understanding is knowledge on population structure and connectivity. The vital first step on this road is the development of molecular markers to enable comparisons.

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The shark samples I am working on all come from the Rockall Trough, an area of deep water off the coast of Scotland, and were collected whilst on board the FRV Scotia during a Marine Scotland deep water survey. I am principally targeting the sharks Galeus melastomus and a selection of sharks from the genus Apristurus, including some additional samples very kindly supplied by Dr Ana Verissimo of CIBIO – University of Porto. I am also attempting to replicate the excellent work completed by Helyar et al (2011) who developed microsatellite markers in Centroselachus crepidater. Whilst initial thoughts were to jump straight to population examination through the use of Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms (AFLPs) we were encouraged to attempt to develop microsatellite markers by Dr Jim Provan (Queens University Belfast) whilst presenting a poster at the BES Ecological Genetics Group 59th Annual Conference. With his guidance that is exactly what myself, fellow Technician David Goodson and PhD students Carl Barker and Thom Dallimore are now attempting. Please follow me on Twitter for updates and other exciting Marine Vertebrate news.

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Helyar, S., Coscia, I., Sala-Bozano, M., & Mariani, S. (2011). New microsatellite loci for the longnose velvet dogfish Centroselachus crepidater (Squaliformes: Somniosidae) and other deep sea sharks. Conservation Genetics Resources, 3(1), 173-176.

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