The life and times of a Marine Biologist

 —  31/03/2010

It was Seaweek the other week, and I found in my inbox this Q&A session between a primary school student, and Jonathan Davis, a post-graduate student from Auckland University Leigh Marine Laboratory at the Goat Island Marine Reserve. This came out of some correspondence after a LEARNZ virtual field trip to the Goat Island (Leigh) Marine Reserve.

We thought that you guys might be into reading this, as it’s really interesting! Please leave any comments at the end of the post if you’ve got them, if you have any more questions, I’ll see if Jonathan can answer them for you 🙂

How did you become a marine biologist expert?

Ever since I was little I had a fascination with the ocean, its surroundings, and every little creature that lived inside of it. I grew up about an hour from the ocean in Texas but the water wasn’t very clear. Nevertheless, I used to go swim out in the water and look for anything and everything I could find. After looking at all the creatures I would go home, look them up, and find out as much information about these animals as I could. This trend continued as I got older and went to different places and did different things. In High School I would go to Florida and swim around clear water and see much more. I dove, snorkeled, fished, etc… and every time I did I found something new and learned something cool about it. I did research on the coast of Texas, in Australia, Florida, and now New Zealand. I have taken what I have found and seen and read as much about it as possible to become as much of an expert as I can. There is ALWAYS so much more to learn so I continue as a student to become an expert in what I love the most… Sharks and Rays.

Snorkeling at Goat Island (Lee) Marine Reserve Photo: T & J Enderby.

Snorkeling at Goat Island (Leigh) Marine Reserve Photo: T & J Enderby.

Do you like the animals you work around?

As any marine biologist the big popular animals are always the most fun to swim around and work with. However, all of the animals that I have found and worked around in the ocean have their own place and function. By attempting to understand these less popular animals and seeing how they fit in the big picture I have grown to love all of the animals I work around. For instance, I have an intertidal tank at my house full of all of the little creatures that live along the rocky coasts here in New Zealand: basket stars, cushion stars, shrimp, triple-fin fishes, hermit crabs, snails, slugs, anemones, sponges, and many others… Regardless of the way you look at these creatures the first time, if you study them enough you will learn they all have special features that make them important in the coastal ecosystem in New Zealand.

What’s your favourite animal?

I have shown you that I have grown an appreciation for all of the creatures in the ocean, but my true passion lies with elasmobranchs!!!! Or, SHARKS and RAYS! These creatures fascinate me like no other. They are extremely unique, they play one of the most vital roles in the ocean, and have been around longer than almost any fish in the ocean today. 

Do you like your job?

I love my job. I am still working as a student at the moment but considering I will be doing this exact same thing once I graduate this is technically my job. I want to continue on, do research, and teach at the university level helping other marine biologists reach their goals of breakthrough research and saving the marine ecosystem. Have you EVER met a marine biologist that didn’t love their job? I haven’t. I originally wanted to be a medical doctor… but who goes to the hospital to see the doctor because they WANT to? Everyone wants to go see a marine biologist. It’s just too much fun and every day is different!

Do you get paid well?

Of all the questions you are asking this is the only question that could be a downer. Marine Biologists do not get paid well in comparison to a lot of other jobs. You will definitely be able to support a family and have a stable job if you work hard and find topics that need researching. However, you will not be rich. This is not to say that you can’t become wealthy as a marine biologist. For instance, you could start your own tv show or discover a new species and get all kinds of grants and bonus money. Anything could happen 🙂

A group of Auckland students enjoying the Make a Difference (MAD) Marine programme. Goat Island with the Auckland University Laboratory in the background.

A group of Auckland students enjoying the Make a Difference (MAD) Marine programme. Goat Island with the Auckland University Laboratory in the background

When you were little did you want to be a marine biologist?

This is a great question. When I was little, as I stated before, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor and save people. However, as I got older I realized that I didn’t know many happy doctors. Most of them had a lot of money, sure, but they didn’t really like going to work because everyone was sick or complaining. In all of the years I have been going to the ocean I haven’t heard a fish, a shark, a dolphin, or any other animal complain!! Have you? I realized eventually when I was at Uni that I liked animals and the ocean way more than people. So, I became a marine biologist. Although I wasn’t sure about it until then I was certain that I had a love for the ocean and its animals growing up. 

Do you have many work mates?

There are quite a few workmates here in Leigh and even more in Auckland. However, the greatest thing about marine biologists is the networking. To successfully continue in the field of marine biology you must know what else is being studied and be able to get your hands on all kinds of research. The best way to do that is to meet people all around the country, read their work, and if you are able to… study with them! By doing this you are making a life-long connection that could help you out a great deal in your future research. So to answer your question simply, YES. There are tons of workmates. Perhaps not always nearby, but always there.

If you do have many work mates do you fight with them?

This is a humorous question. Just like any other job, you will inevitably have certain people you work with that you don’t get along with. However, like I told you earlier… most all marine biologists are doing it because they love it! So, with this in mind… most people are happy and helpful when they go to work or are doing research. So, for me I don’t have and haven’t met any workmates that I fight with. There have definitely been times when a workmate and I feel differently about a certain topic but never has it gotten out of hand and I haven’t had any fights. It’s pretty easy to avoid when everyone is happy. 🙂

Glass-bottom boat at Goat Island Photo: Terry Smith.

Glass-bottom boat at Goat Island Photo: Terry Smith.

When did you become a marine biologist?

When I was talking about being little and wanting to be a marine biologist I stated I always had a love for the ocean and its animals. So, in my heart I became a marine biologist the first time I jumped into the ocean, swam around, and saw the living things inside it. (Around 6 years old)

Why did you become a marine biologist?

My passion for the ocean was really strong since those early years and like I told you I realized I wanted to be happy and enjoy my job once I got to uni. However there was one instance when I was about 12 years old that made it clear in my heart and head. I was on vacation with my family in Destin, Florida and we had a condo room on the 12th floor overlooking the crystal clear ocean. I looked down from my balcony and saw a figure swimming around along the beach. It wasn’t huge but it was definitely not a little fish either. I grabbed my mask and snorkel and sprinted down the stairs!!! I didn’t hesitate a tiny bit. I jumped right into the water with my mask and snorkel and looked for the creature! I eventually got out about 15 meters from shore and there it was… staring right at me. A SHARK! My heart was beating 14109510491 kph. It swam right by me and instead of panicking and swimming away I followed it. I swam behind this shark for at least an hour. I watched its every more. I watched how it went up and down and when its fin came out of the water. I noticed the rows of teeth, the features of its skin, and the size of its eyes. This was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me. I knew right then and there that I had to know more. I wanted to be in the water with sharks as much as I could. I wanted to learn as much about these creatures as I could and do everything in my power to protect them. So, this is the real reason I became a marine biologist. This fateful encounter with a reef shark along a beach in Florida changed my perception, understanding, and overall passion for life and the ocean forever.

I hope that helps a little bit. If you have any other questions don’t hesitate to ask.


Jonathan Davis.

2 responses to The life and times of a Marine Biologist


    What an amazing Q&A session. I am inspired by Jonathan’s love of the ocean and the creatures that call it their home. His words will surely inspire others to also strive to save our global marine ecosystem. Thank you Jonathan!


    Great to hear about Jonathan’s career – and I will refer other young marine enthusiasts to it. The MAD Marine students in the photo are now in their second year and have been joined by another 35 MAD Mariners – they organised heaps of beach clean-ups and water testing over Seaweek – involed school and community groups of over 10,000!!
    MAD Marine will be on again in Auckland in 2012