Archive | October, 2011

How to become a Marine Biologist

26 Oct

I should really title this “how not to become a marine biologist” because…well because I’m going to be an asshole and burn your hopes and dreams.

A beautiful kelpfish, I put this up to distract you and you failed.  Miserably I might add.

Or maybe I should say more properly, how to get a job working with marine fish and other animals.  Yeah that’s the ticket.

So you are saying to yourself, “Dude, I want to be a marine biologist” huh? Or maybe you are wondering, how do I become a marine biologist? I started this post a long time ago because I get a lot of questions about it from college students and kids and dammit I’m getting tired of answering the same questions. As you may or may not know, I don’t have any patience.  It’s not that I’m some genius, it’s that I’m pretty damn close to being special ed and need a lot of cartoons with the road runner and wiley coyote to keep me entertained.   So here’s the dealio foo and this is my opinion and my opinion only so I don’t want to hear any of your complaining later. Look I’m not a genius (that’s pretty obvious, you don’t have to rub it in). I’m not the smartest marine biologist out there, I’m not the most talented, I’m no where near perfect, and no I don’t think I’m better or more talented than you. But I’ll tell you this, I’ve been in the field for over 20 years and counting, I know what’s up and my colleagues generally agree with me on the principals of becoming a marine biologist. I will forewarn you that the grammar and spelling isn’t up to par  because I’m not running it thru a spellchecker, I’m speaking this from the old heart.

Here’s your first shocker.  Marine biologists don’t all work with dolphins.

This will probably never be you. Deal with it.

People automatically assume this. They say, wow you are a marine biologist? You work with dolphins right? No foo, there are all kinds of marine biologists. Some teach, some do research, some take care of fish, some take care of food, some build tanks, and yes some work with dolphins. But very few do and you know what? They make shit. That’s right, the last I heard dolphin trainers make very little money. You know why? Dummy because it’s a cool ass job. Everyone wants to do it and the powers that be know this so they pay you crap. So if you want to be rich and you are a dolphin trainer you’d better marry a plastic surgeon dummy.

Therefore the easiest way to make me punch you and give you a bruise is ask me that question. Then I will punch you and give you a bruise and when it turns all nasty and purple I’ll put my finger in it and make ding dong noises. Think I’m kidding? Ask my friends foo.

Now then, let us get back to my dissertation. I am an aquarist which further mystifies people. They say “hey you are a marine biologist? You must work with dolphins” After the bruise heals up they’ll ask again, “just what do you do?” In which case I answer, I’m an aquarist. “Wow, that’s great I’m a Scorpio”. Guess what you get another bruise.  Don’t worry it will look nicely with your other one.

Okay an aquarist isn’t a astrological sign. It’s a name for a person who generally collects and/or takes care of the fish/invertebrates, part of the living collection at a aquarium. Our job isn’t very glamorous as you might think. Sure I get to do kick ass things like dive to collect sea horses or do bad ass dives in the oil rigs. Go fishing for different fish. Raise fish from eggs to adults.

Baby White Sea Bass that I raised.  Yes my job is cool 🙂

An Aquarist hard at work.  Yes my job is cool.

Go out to the natural habitats like mudflats, tidepools, etc to collect animals and plants.  Feed the living collection at the aquarium. Take out our work boat on the ocean on calm, sunny days.

Why yes that is a mako shark and yes it is shockingly close to our boat.  No I didn’t poop in my wetsuit, that’s umm  a chocolate stain.

And yes I do get paid for it. But that is only part of my job and it’s a rare part at that.

Here’s the not so glamorous part.  We also have to clean dead fish and prep them to feed to other fish. Necropsy dead animals to figure out what killed them, they may be stinky and filled with parasites mind you.  Some of them might be rotten with stuff coming out of them. We have to clean tanks every single day for a minimum of two hours.  Think about cleaning your bathroom day after day and you’ll get the idea.  When pumps break down we have to climb down pits and get all greasy and dirty taking them apart and we have to do that rain or shine. We have to clean out filters by putting our arms down in stinky goo and then getting fiberglass splinters in them. We have to siphon out fish poo thru tubes and sometimes that poo goes right in your mouth if you are lame. We paint things, build things, build our own tanks and stands, design live animal filtration systems. We have to take the boat out in the worst conditions you can imagine, huge waves or swells and we might actually be diving in those conditions.  And we might have to carry the dreaded pager that goes off in the middle of the night when the system malfunctions, nothing ruins your evening of pimping when you are snuggled up and that pager goes off at 2am and the team has to go back to the aquarium in the middle of the night.  No you don’t get paid for this. We also have to deal with people, some of which aren’t the brightest or the nicest.

Generally speaking aquarists make from about 20k a year to the upper 60’s. My friends who are in business or programming make about 75 to over a 100k a year. They have big houses and fast cars and lots of cash.  I am constantly in envy of them so I have to follow them around so I can steal their shit and sell it on craigslist.  Marine biology doesn’t pay that great. But if you are smart and save up your money you can have cool toys too, I’m a firm believer in toys, ask my friends.  I have more spearguns, cars, and useless gadgets than your average marine biologist.

The other deterrent to being a marine biologist is that marine biologist field is FLOODED. Don’t let anyone b.s. you, I can tell you a billion people I know who got marine bio degrees and ended up doing something else.  I hear guys at the aquarium spewing that b.s all day long, “follow your dreams, you just have to apply yourself and get good grades and then you can be a successful marine biologist.”  The last I heard most of my friends who followed their dreams and got marine bio degrees ended up doing all kinds of other things, none of which is marine biology related.   It is very very hard to get a fun marine bio job. So I am going to give you a big headstart on how to get a cool marine bio job. And when you get that job the least you can do is buy me lunch.  After the bruises heal of course :).

How to get a job as a marine biologist

Step 1. Don’t be a dick.

Sounds easy right? WRONG. You will be amazed at how many people lose out on a cool job offer because they were dicks. Don’t ever ever come off like you are smarter or better at something than someone else. You might think you are gods gift to marine biologists, but you know what? Who freaking cares? You might be but guess what buddy. By being and arrogant dick you just lost out on any possible connection with me or my peers. A common blunder is to try to correct a staff member to show how superior your intelligence is.  If you really were that intelligent you might have figured out a long time ago that it’s not cool to correct people you don’t know with your superior knowledge.  If you are that smart, how come you are interviewing for a job while we already have a job?

Here is a fact.  A lot of biologists are well… Umm. Well how can I put this. A lot of them are geeks.  This is a shocker, I know.  Try not to be too geeky. If you see people rolling their eyes at you or getting annoyed you are probably being a geek. Think before you speak, my brother used to say its better to be thought of as stupid than to speak and remove all doubt. Stop playing dungeons and dragons on Friday nights and throw away your yu-gi-oh cards and pretend you don’t know things about pickachu. Don’t interrupt conversations and cut people off.  You can be smart and not be a geek.  Ever notice freak and geek rhymes? That’s no coincidence.

Step 2. Go to college and major in biology. But do not major in marine biology. Why not you ask? Because if you get that degree and you don’t get a job you are no longer marketable. Say you want to work at a zoo or do field research on tortoises. You have no skills for that anymore, people will assume that all you know is about fish since you are a marine biologist. So here’s what you do. Get a degree in biology and specialize in marine biology. Your degree will be in biology, but you will have a ton of classes under your belt in marine biology so you can work anywhere. You’ve taken invert zoology, marine ecology, marine biology, oceanography, phycology, and ichthyology. You can now work in a ecology field and a marine biology field. In other words, you win twice brother and your degree does not pigeonhole you.  When you finally get that interview you tell them “I majored in biology but my emphasis was marine biology”.  Ding ding, winner winner chicken dinner!

Step 3. Start volunteering at an aquarium as early as possible. But don’t be a dick. And do a good job. One of the biggest failures of people who volunteer is they think automatically they will get a job when the opening arises. Remember I told you don’t be a dick. When that opening comes up if you have annoyed people, you screwed up because you would’ve had a better chance had they not known how you really are. Try your hardest, come early or at least on time, don’t fool around chit chatting all the time. WEAR A SMILE AND BE FRIENDLY TO EVERYONE, even that weird person who gives you the creeps. Go out of your way to help people out, but don’t be an ass kisser. They will recognize this if you are true and when the position comes you will be the first one recommended. Overall, don’t be lazy. If a staff member asks you to do something, do it and don’t complain.

You will start out part time and then if you are lucky, move to full time. You may have to switch locations or states, so be open. One of my best friends wanted to be an aquarist and a position opened up in another state. I told them to take it, even though it wasn’t what they wanted it was a stepping stone. One year later they gained more experience and another position opened up in a state they wanted to be in. Guess what, since they now had this experience, they ended up getting the position they dreamed of. You might have to move around, but you will end up in your happy place if you are smart.

Step 4. Learn how to build things.

A plexiglass tank I built for a student’s experiment.  It might even hold water someday.  Until then we put ants in there and bet on the ant races.

PVC piping, wood, fiberglass, glass, plastics, saws, drills, etc are a major part of our jobs. Depending on the size of the facility you might have a department to do stuff like that or you might do it yourself. You think the director wants to hear you whine about not being able to use a power drill or saw? No dummy, get some practice doing it in school or with your parents or by yourself. I took a special plastics class in college just to learn how to use plexiglass and other plastics, it was a big help on my road to becoming a marine biologist.

Step 5.  Get used to the water.

Freediving in crystal clear warm water while collecting fish.  Yes my job sucks.

Don’t be afraid of the ocean, if you are then your chances will be slim to none.  Also take scuba certification classes and do as many dives as you can. Be a great swimmer, and an even better diver. Get to know the local underwater flora and fauna. Dive in all kinds of conditions but be careful and try to dive with a buddy. I definitely don’t recommend this but I’ve dove many times in zero visibility in really rough swells weather by myself and I’ve almost died from it. It was very stupid but now I relay the stories to my friends so they can learn from it and not be stupid too, truth be told it made me a better diver.  Know your limitations, I am now a excellent diver and can dive in any conditions. When the time comes for you to interview spend time researching the place you want to work in. Have intelligent questions, the last question on the interview will be “is there something you want to add?”. Noting something that they did in the exhibits is always a great way to show you are interested, as is having great questions of your own. Look around the aquarium you want to work at and see what they specialize in. Read up and be ready.

That’s one big ass black sea bass.  Yes this has nothing to do with this blog but I thought it made me cool so I put it up.  Yes I know it didn’t work.

Step 6. Stay in the field that you want to be in, but you might have to start off in a different field. This doesn’t always work but it worked for me and a few of my friends. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So I started out part time in programs division. That meant I ran the slide shows and touchtank and worked with the general public. It was a fun job but there was no way I could work my way up. So I went to outreach where I eventually ran the division and taught students marine biology offsite. It was a great job, I made tons of teacher connections and the program went from about eight thousand kids a year to over thirty three thousand when I left. But truth be told I was getting burned out and I also was way underpaid for the responsibility I incurred. So I switched to the aquarist division. That was a super long shot. I had no formal aquarist training, but I knew a lot about plastics, fish and collection methods. I started volunteering once a week to learn the systems at the aquarium and show that I could hack the aquarist job. I studied my ass off and read three big books on aquarium systems and building them. And when the time came I did well on the interview. I got lucky and now I’m in a dream setting. I make the same salary as I did when I ran outreach but its way less stressful. I wear shorts every day (sometimes I even wear underwear), have nice lunches and sometimes I surf or dive during my lunch period. My job is cool.

Anyways starting out in a different division and then switching has worked for some of my former staff members. They couldn’t get into the aquarist field so they started out in education. They worked with us in outreach for a year and when the time came for a part time position in the aquarist division I recommended them for the position. And they got it. Once there was a guy that worked for me and he was a total dick. He was lazy, lied all the time about being late, and picked fights with my other instructors. An aquarist position came up and he wanted it and the director asked me about him. Guess who didn’t get the position? Not only that but guess who got fired later on? Remember, not being a dick is a big part of job security, I can’t stress this enough.

Okay you got all that? Let me first apologize to the parents and younger kids who might have stumbled across this on the internet.

Sure I might be a bit harsh. Sure I used some swear words. I’m telling you this the way it is. I tried to be as down to earth as possible and to add a bit of humor at the same time. If you are a parent and are all protective of your kids and think I’m doing the wrong thing, most likely you are babying your kids and you are being unrealistic. Your kids are probably going to be annoying and get beat up a lot or teased in school. I’m trying to do you a big favor and point them in the right direction I spent over an hour writing this to prepare them. You can chose to read this or not, I’m not forcing you to do so nor am I asking for your opinion on it. I’m not sugarcoating it so your dear child can be shielded to what the truth is.  Life is harsh, make your kid a fighter and don’t fight for them.  Make sure your kids are confident enough in their abilities to stand on their own two feet. Enroll them in martial arts classes (getting my ass kicked by high school guys when I was in grade school in the dojo made me tougher), or sports, or some type of club so they can take care of themselves. Love them but set them free.  You still aren’t satisfied? IDGAF (google it).

If you still don’t like what I’m saying, step off foo. I’m not going to waste my time arguing with you, when your kid gets his/her marine bio degree and cant find a job don’t say I didn’t warn you.  But don’t worry, I’m sure if they follow your advice and start pestering people they will work their way to the top.

Here’s what aquariums generally want for Aquarists:

someone with a four year degree in natural sciences, biology or marine biology preferred

experience with working with hand and power tools, pvc saltwater piping, plastics

scuba certified with a lot of logged dives

in excellent health, able to lift at least fifty pounds

creative problem solver, work alone or in a team environment

at least an x amount of hours either as paid staff or volunteer as an aquarist

knowledge of the aquariums flora/fauna

knowledge of fish and invert collection methods

knowledge of salt water chemistry and filter systems

knowledge of curing or spotting fish diseases

Here’s a list of aquariums in California, you will need to google them, if you want to volunteer talk to the volunteer coordinator.

Steinhart aquarium in san francisco

Aquarium of the bay, san francisco

monterey bay aquarium

avila beach aquarium

santa monica pier aquarium

the roundhouse at the manhattan beach pier

sea laboratory in redondo beach

california science center in los angeles

cabrillo marine aquarium in san pedro

long beach aquarium of the pacific

the ocean institute in dana point

birch aquarium in la jolla

legoland aquarium in carlsbad

sea world in san diego

There are probably more facilities but that’s all I can remember off the top of my head. Good luck and…DON’T BE A DICK.

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The calm before the storm

8 Oct

The Calm Before the Storm

All I could think of when I started my hike down was, “I’m getting too old for this shit”. The steep incline seemed to provoke every single pebble and sharp rock to start a fight with my already aching feet and the extra 23lbs of lead around my waist to counter the 7mm suit wasn’t helping my back. I wondered if I should go turn around while the going was still good…

I had checked this spot as soon as I got off work, a quick glance at the ocean as my truck went rumbling by was not promising, there was a small swell pounding the shore from the north. I hesitated briefly before checking another one of my favorite spots where pretty much I knew if condtions permitted I’d have a really good shot at a limit of lobster. This time I parked my vehicle and walked to the ocean,  I knew it was a no go, the swell was worse here and the water appeared to have surfable waves mixed in with the chocolate water. I sat there and debated what I should do for several minutes, with night rapidly approaching I headed back to the first spot and grudgingly got out and checked the conditions again.

It was definitely doable, there was some small swell poking thru but most of the time it was calm. I saw thick mats of kelp on the surface and figured it was peak low tide, not my favorite condition to dive. Still I had not been in the water for about a month now and that was killing me. I trudged back to my truck and started pulling gear out while I silently wished the other spot had calmer waters. Mentally I began to doublecheck my gear, the same way I do everytime and the same way that I did the night before. I start from my feet and visualize every part I need on the way to the top of my head. Now suited up, I started the long steep walk down the hill to the water.

By the time I made it to the shore it was already dark and I could see the water lapping the shore with an occasional crash of a bigger wave. It was still pretty small swell, the worst part was I could plainly see the sharp spikes of purple urchins littering the tidepools. Thank god I was wearing my thick soled scuba booties with my open heeled fins so it would be easier getting in and out of the surf.

I clicked on my light and started walking towards deep water while watching for bigger waves. As soon as it was safe I quickly put on both fins and down downwards. The cool water was a welcome relief from the sweat I had built up on the hike down. I pulled open my hood to flush some cold water in, the water temperature was probably close to 57 degrees, just about right for my old 7 mm suit I was wearing. When the timing was right I dropped down again and started kicking like mad to outrun the surf which might try to toss me back into the urchin bed. At first in the shallows visibility was outstanding, crystal clear water where I could see all the urchins and small algae, and crevices in the rocks where small animals hid for the night. Feather boa kelp wrapped itself around my legs and I kept pushing through. Then came a sand bed where I had seen big halibut before, but tonight visibility here was much worse as the shifting tide and swell had stirred the water up to about two feet of visibility. I was worrying that maybe the vis on the outside might suck too but I kept pushing on. Finally I worked my way to the outer reefs and was pleasantly surprised to see that the vis here was decent, about 15 feet or more. I started working my favorite spots and forgot about everything else. I was home again. I didn’t feel the cold, I didn’t think about work, I didn’t think about family or friends. I just enjoyed myself. I’d take a breath, drop down and start winding my way in and out of the reef and kelp, then head back up and start over again. The beam of my light fluttered around the various crevices and caves, it was more barren than in the summertime, bait was more scarce and I did see a few fish but nothing exciting. A big sculpin bullied his way thru the rocks and seaweed and I saw some small calicos sleepily drift through. An abalone pulled its body back under it’s shell. Here and there I’d spot a perch, some colorful nudibranch slugs and occasionally a orange lipped scallop would smile at me.

But dammit, for fifteen minutes I didn’t see a single lobster. I was thinking about what all the commercial guys say, that lobsters head for deeper water during storms and although that is true, I’ve usually done okay even in the shallows. I took another breath and kicked myself back down. I wound my way thru some kelp, dropped under ledges and…still nothing. No shorts, nothing. I was getting discouraged but under a ledge I finally saw a flash of orange striped legs and saw one fold it’s antennae back like an angry dog. I quickly reached out and nabbed a nice legal.

“Well at least I won’t go home skunked”, I thought. I kicked out to a deeper reef and as I was working the bottom thru the kelp I saw a flash of red in my light. At first I didn’t believe it, it was one of the biggest lobsters I’ve ever seen at this spot, well except for one I saw in a cave years ago that I couldn’t even get close to. Underwater it looked absolutely gigantic, like the fourteen pounder we have at work! I kept the light off to one side to not spook him. I’ve had problems trying to grab bigger lobsters with one hand, their carapaces are just too big. Grabbing the antennae often left me with just antennae unless I got it by the base, with a swirling swell I might bump him and spook it. I dropped the light and then quickly pinned him down with both hands, I was right, his carapace was way to big to grab the normal way.

In an instant he went apeshit, the tail was flapping, the antennae swinging back and forth and I especially wanted to make sure that I didn’t get my fingers between the crushing mouthpieces. I pinned him to my chest and he grabbed on, for a instant it was one of those things where you wondered who was catching who. Now I had a dilemma, if I tried to handle him with one hand he would kick away. If I handled him with both hands I’d have to let go the light and try to guide him into the bag by feel only. I chose the later and carefully pulled my Mori bag open and shoved him inside. Errr ummm at least I attempted to. Every single thorn, every single antennae and leg grabbed ahold of the bag and all I could do was get his tail in and leave his head part out. I figured I’d lose him for sure that way but eventually he got most of the way in and I figured if he got away he earned it! I silently wished I had my boat so I could throw him inside and keep hunting. But who cared, he was MINE! I’ve caught a few lobster over the years but never really had caught any over say 4 pounds. Since I was freediving from the shore in a relatively popular spot I felt expecially lucky.

I continued to check some spots, eventually I stumbled onto another legal and with some shoving was able to get him in the bag as well. Each time I expected that bag to tear open and have all my lobsters spill away but it held onto them tightly. It was a decent night although one time the swell swept thru and pulled me backwards thru two gigantic pinnacles, I thought I’d have my brains dashed out but it was more of a learning experience I guess and after the billions of bubbles passed by me I got my orientation and kicked back to the surface where I belonged. Tonight almost all of the other lobsters were hanging under ledges so I’d have to dive down inverted and make my grabs. Eventually I got one about three pounds and then another legal. By the time my count reached five I could not fit another lobster in the bag, on top of it everytime I got into the deeper water I was having problems kicking back up, the weight of the bag of bugs plus the non aerodynamic bulging shape was making it a bitch to dive altogether. I headed towards shore a happy camper.

When I got into the shallows I was alarmed to see bigger waves breaking over the reef, some large enough to surf on and all of them churning up white water. I guess the storm decided to come in a bit early. I tried to time it right and timed it all wrong, the bag of lobsters were pulling me onto the rocks and I was trying to stand up to get the hell out of the surf zone and heard a sickening sucking sound. I immediately did “the barnacle” and grabbed onto the largest boulder and sure enough felt the weight of the wave knock me off and toss me into the urchin bed. Good times! The force of the water knocked my mask off, but I quickly got the hell out of there.

The long walk back to the truck was even worse than the way down, but you could not knock the smile off my face. I guess you never know, had I canceled out I wouldn’t have had the time of my life tonight. I always say, it’s a neat thought that people are sitting home, safe in their beds, maybe enjoying a cup of hot soup and watching life while we are out there LIVING LIFE. Who in their right minds hikes down a steep hill and dives at night for a sea roach? We do!

And the lobster? Well it wasn’t that huge, it wasn’t even over ten pounds. However, the big one weighed in at 7 lbs on the digital scale, it is my biggest lobster to date and will make a fine meal for my friends and family.

As I examined my cuts and bruises I’d have to say, yeah I’m still getting too old for this shit…

Broiled Lobster Medallions in escargo butter with a side of garlic pasta…mmmmmm 🙂