Studying Marine Biology

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are collectively called cetaceans.  A whale biologist therefore is often referred to as a cetologist.

Here are a few frequently asked questions.  Try doing a search on in the internet for ‘whale research careers’ and ‘whale biologist jobs’ to give you some ideas of what you may need in the way of skills.

If you are considering volunteering with the Orca Research Trust, be sure to check out the information and availability in our Volunteers section (under ‘Help Us’) and read all that information before contacting us.

How do I become a whale biologist and study orca?

Sam Lipman one of the Orca Research Volunteers, with bottlenose dolphins

You can choose two main paths – the academic path – where you study at university or similar and then take a job as a cetologist or you can being by volunteering and working your way into the job as you go.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  The main thing to remember, no matter which method you choose is that you will be working long and hard hours for very little (if any) pay.  The job of a cetologist might look very glamorous on the surface, but the reality is that you need to be dedicated and committed to hard work and the animals.

The Orca Research Trust STRONGLY disagrees with careers associated with cetaceans in captivity.  Despite the clever marketing of the captivity industry we believe that there is no longer a role to be played by keeping these sentient beings in concrete tanks and we do not endorse people to seek work or volunteer positions with these facilities.

What kind of university / college courses should I take to be a cetologist?

If you choose to follow the academic path to become a cetologist you will need a wide range of knowledge.  Ideally this will start from when you are still in high school and progress through college and/or university. However, some adult students turn to being a cetologist after they have already completed another degree.  Regardless, it is good to have a strong focus in science courses, including biology, chemistry, ecology, fish biology, zoology, and conservation courses.  Having a strong computer science and mathematics background is important as well. Courses in statistics are critical to study in this field. It will take a minimum of four years to get your Bachelor of Science degree and 2 – 6 more years to get your Masters and/or further study for your Doctoral degree.

If your path leads you towards academic study it is still very important that you build up skills which you will need when you finally begin to do your own field and/or lab work.  See the section on ‘field based careers’ for more information.


What kind of practical courses should I to do a ‘field based’ career as a cetologist?

Wendy Turner, one of the Orca Research Trust regular volunteers, with a native tree just planted

It is important that you have skills that are of use to the volunteer organisations and cetacean researchers which may have positions available.  These include, but are not limited to software skills (there are many good tutorials online to show you how to use products such as photo-editing, website editing, reference citation databases, databases in general, statistical programs and processing audio files).  The importance of these computer skills cannot be over-emphasised enough.

Practical skills should include certification in boat handling (contact your local coastguard and yachting clubs – they often offer special course for students).  Learn how to change a tire on a car, how to drive a stick-shift vehicle, take a defensive driving course, do a first-aid course and any other course you can find which adds to your usefulness.  If you are not too concerned about going outside and doing ‘field work’ – perhaps consider doing a cooking course – you can offer to help out at the research base and feed those hungry researchers when they return from a long day out on the water.

Although volunteering positions are available in some locations with conservation groups and some cetacean biologists, be prepared that most now only take students who pay to be involved.  This payment is typically used to keep the projects running, help with costs of research centres and towards rescuing animals.  We do NOT endorse volunteering at aquariums or zoos, but if you have a wildlife rehabilitation centre which releases the animals back into the wild, this would be ideal.

To increase your chances of being accepted into one of these programs prepare a good CV (make sure you have done a spell check! And check for grammar and layout).  Include a recent photograph of yourself and don’t every lie about your skills or qualifications.  It is better to be honest and explain that you wish to increase your skills than turn up and be dismissed because you can’t complete a job.

The most important thing you can take with you to any job is a happy, cheerful and positive attitude.  Be prepared to do the mundane work that no-one else wants to do and you will be surprised how people will notice and how far you can go!  Good Luck out there!

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