So you want to become a whale scientist? 10 tips to aspiring marine mammalogists

The idea of working on whales and dolphins fascinates most people. And when I talk to people about what I do, I see their eyes twinkle with excitement. I usually spend the next few minutes answering crazy questions about whales or dolphins. And since I am crazy passionate about my research and cetaceans as a whole, I am always happy to tell people how beautiful and fulfilling working on these animals is. However, becoming a whale scientist comes with a ton of challenges. It is a very competitive field. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, passion, and patience. The path to becoming a whale scientist is crazy and full of obstacles. 

The science in itself is a challenge as these animals live in a different world. They only spend 10% of their time at the surface. Getting a shot of their fluke for photo identification or getting a skin biopsy can usually take up to 5 hours, on a boat, in crazy weather conditions. The science is frustrating because of the limited data available. It could drive you crazy more than once. 

become a whale scientist

Here are some of the qualities I think will help you if you want to become a whale scientist.

1 – Be passionate 

I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Every possible study conducted on whales is a challenge, and if you are not 100% passionate about what you do, you will fail. 

2 – Know where you want to go

There are different types of whale science. And although it is always possible to change fields, I would suggest painting in your mind a clear picture of what you want to work on. Do you want to study acoustics? Do you want to work on behavior? This is important because it will set a path for you and ensure you end up where you want to be. Plus, having a clear idea of what work you want to do will make you appear more convincing. Just saying you want to work on whales because they think whales are extraordinary will not get you far. However, if you do not have it all figured out, no worries, there is always a way to end up where you want to be.

3 – Be good at school 

Being a whale scientist requires a lot of skills in a lot of different domains. Obviously, you have to be good in your field. For example, if you want to study the habitat distribution of cetaceans: you need to be as good in ecology as in statistics. You also need excellent writing skills. If you end up in research, the research you do will have to be published if you want to make a name for yourself in the field and get more grants to do more research.

4 – Be social and show you team spirit

Working on whales requires working with a team. We do not know anyone who rows their boat to get their whale samples and publish their studies by themselves. So you will need to be kind, helpful, and good to your colleagues. Science is about working as a team to reveal the magic behind nature’s beauty. Having good relationships with colleagues and fellow scientists will allow you to get opportunities to work around the globe. We are the living examples that being social is the key to new opportunities with this website. This marine mammal world is small, and everybody knows each other. Be good to your peers.

5 – Be flexible

You will need to be able to adapt to many different situations, especially when working at sea. And you can ask every marine biologist out there: there is ALWAYS a last-minute problem with boats, always. So you need to adapt and take everything the right way. When Naomi and I were working in Italy, we had crazy schedules. Sometimes our field excursions would get canceled an hour before boarding. Sometimes, instead of having a free day, the weather would clear up, so we would have to rush, get all the material, and jump on board to get data. These situations happen more than you know, so you always have to remain positive, patient, and compliant. 

Sometimes, you spend countless hours preparing for a new project, thinking about it, doing your research, and getting ready. And then, out of the blue, somebody publishes a paper that covers exactly what you wanted to do. So you have to adapt and change your project. Sometimes, you try to publish something and then get awful comments from your peers and have to change major parts of your paper… Things happen; it is part of the game; try to deal with it with a calm mind. My dad always says, “it’s science!”.

6 – Be tough 

There are multiple ways research can be hard (both physically and mentally). You can spot a Cuvier’s beaked whale (a very elusive little whale), not be able to take the right photo to identify it before it goes down for an hour-long dive. Then you can spend an hour trying to locate the animal as it surfaces and never finds it. You lost one hour and gained one sunburn, yay!

You can have a month worth of experiments taking a quick turn for the … trash after the fridge goes down for whatever reason. You can also ask for funding and get a super salty rejection letter after putting your soul into the whole application. True stories…

7 – Be organised

Do not underestimate to power of good organizational skills. Experiments, data collection, data treatment/analysis, thesis/publication writing, literature reviewing, etc. These activities take time, and your time is limited, as we have not yet discovered a way to make 72 hours fit in a day (sadly … I wish!). And to avoid depression, you need to maintain a social life and a healthy lifestyle (with enough sleep). So OR-GA-NI-ZE your days. Try to be as productive as possible and keep enough free time to not overwhelm yourself with studying/working on your passion.

8 – Take some risks

No great opportunity will ever be offered to you if you don’t take risks and shine your light out there, in the real world. You could travel across oceans to take risks and work abroad. Some experiences may be amazing; some may be bad. But it will help you figure out what you want for your career and especially what you do not want at all! Every failure teaches you a lesson. Every failure will be a step toward success. 

9 – Network

Take every opportunity to talk to a researcher/employer. If they do not offer you an opportunity, they could provide you with a few names and/or contacts to help you in your journey. One of our top pieces of advice: try to attend conferences, this is where you meet the coolest people. Everyone inside the conference is here to meet fellow scientists/students, so let go of your inner introverted self, go out there and talk to people; you will not regret it. Also, subscribe to MARMAM, the one email list where every marine mammal opportunity gets posted.

10 – Don’t give up

This is the last piece of advice we can give you is the most important. Ditch the criticism, and follow your dreams. You can do it, and we believe in you! You can also check our 4 biggest misconceptions about being a whale scientist.

become a whale scientist
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Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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