Biological Oceanographer


Biological oceanography is the study of life histories of marine organisms, their relationships to one another, how they interact with and adapt to their environment, and the processes that govern their distribution in the ocean. Work in this field is interdisciplinary, as the relationships studied can be complex and the physics, chemistry, and geology of the ocean have important effects on organisms. Therefore, studies in biological oceanography often involve aspects of physical oceanography, marine chemistry, and marine geology.

Biological oceanographers may study a wide variety of topics including marine microbiology, parasitology, marine toxicology, food chain dynamics, nutrient cycling, benthic population and community ecology, phytoplankton ecology and physiology, zooplankton ecology and physiology, coral reef ecology, marine invertebrate biology, fisheries science and management, marine invasive species ecology and marine mammal science. Research is conducted on space/time scales ranging from short-term interactions between individual organisms to long-term associations of widely dispersed populations and their environment.

Education Requirements

Estimated Salary

  • B.S. in biology, marine biology, oceanography, or related field
  • Graduate degree in marine biology or biological oceanography often needed for advancement.
    • PhD is necessary for most independent research and for college teaching jobs

For salary information, please visit the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Tasks and Duties

Biological oceanographers may have a variety of responsibilities depending on the specific nature of their job. These could include:

  • Studying the interactions of marine organisms with one another and with their physical and chemical environment
    • Depending on the position, biological oceanographers may spend considerable time in the field gathering data. Fieldwork can require travel to remote locations all over the world.
  • Researching entire marine communities and the dynamic ways in which they interconnect with each other and their environment
  • Developing and conducting experimental studies with animals in laboratory and/or field settings
    • Developing and test new research tools
    • Designing sampling programs
  • Statistical/mathematical analysis of data
  • Writing research papers, technical reports, and scholarly articles
  • Teaching undergraduate and graduate courses (if in academia)

Knowledge and Skills

Basic skills might include:

  • Field observation and sampling
    • Fieldwork can be physically demanding; field research settings can range from tropical habitats to locations in extreme environments such as the deep sea or polar areas
    • Some positions may require specialized laboratory skills (e.g. dissection, microscopy, gel electrophoresis, chromatography etc.)
  • Interpersonal Skills
    • Ability to cooperate and collaborate with others
      • The interdisciplinary nature of biological oceanography provides opportunities to work with physical, chemical and geological oceanographers, as well as other scientists and engineers
    • Coordination and supervision of research personnel
    • Ability to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students (university-level teaching positions)
  • Open water diving skills and the necessary certifications may be required for some positions
  • Ability to speak in a foreign language may also be helpful, especially if work is conducted in other countries

May need knowledge in:

  • Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Marine biology
  • Marine botany
  • Mathematics
  • Oceanography
  • Physics
  • Physiology
  • Statistics
  • Systematics

Basic skills may also include:

  • Research and analytical skills
    • Experimental design and application
    • Data organization, processing, and analytics
    • Willingness to work long hours in a laboratory or in the field
    • Shipboard experience may be useful
  • Written and oral communication skills
    • Preparation of technical reports and presentations
    • Authoring research articles
    • Drafting grant proposals
  • Computer skills
    • Use of computer applications
  • Interpersonal skills
    • Public interactions and public speaking (ability to explain things to diverse audiences)

Connections to Underwater Acoustics

To explore and define the roles of organisms in the marine environment, biological oceanographers may use a variety of research tools and techniques. These may include shipboard sampling, computer modeling, high-resolution video analysis, bio-optics, and/or acoustics. For example, archival marine acoustic recording units (ARUs) , such as the Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR), are used to monitor the ambient sound field of coral reefs and other tropical systems. Biological oceanographers may also use acoustics to study plankton. Plankton are relatively small organisms whose movements are dominated by currents, though many can swim. Sonar systems, similar to fish finding sonars , can be used to study plankton and fish abundance and distribution.

Marine fishes and mammals produce underwater sounds and scientists can listen for these sounds, using tools such as hydrophones, hydrophone arrays, and other passive acoustics sensors, and detect different marine animal species. acoustic gliders are a type of ocean glider that includes a hydrophone, can work continuously in all weather conditions for long time periods, possess a suite of high-resolution oceanographic sensors, and operate silently (because they do not have an engine or propeller). Researchers use acoustic gliders to study whale distribution, behavior, and habitat. Acoustic gliders have been used to study Sei whales , North Atlantic Right whales, and Beaked whales. They have also been used to track acoustically tagged fish. Estimating abundance (population size), animal density (number of animals per unit area), and the overall distribution of marine animals is critical to understanding marine ecology as well as making important and effective management and conservation decisions.

Example of someone in this career

Marc Lammers

Marc Lammers holding an Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR).

Marc Lammers is an Associate Researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the President of Oceanwide Science Institute, a Hawaii-based non-profit organization involved in marine research and conservation globally. He is also on the Graduate Faculty of the University of Hawaii’s Biology Department and the Marine Biology Graduate Program, where he teaches and advises graduate students. His research interests are varied, but are primarily focused on marine bioacoustics and cetacean behavior. Dr. Lammers earned his PhD from the Department of Zoology at UH studying the acoustic behavior of dolphins and worked as a post-doc with NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division in Honolulu where he led the development of the Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR). His work to date has yielded numerous scientific publications and he actively collaborates with researchers around the world. His interests in marine science are broad and range in scope from research to education and conservation. He has worked on projects focused on a variety of topics and marine organisms including corals, fish, turtles, dolphins and whales.

Related Careers

  • Biogeochemist
  • Chemical Oceanographer
  • Deep-sea Biologist
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Fisheries Scientist
  • Ichthyologist
  • Marine Biologist
  • Marine Ecologist
  • Marine Mammalogist
  • Microbiologist
  • Ocean Engineer
  • Physical Oceanographer
  • Plankton Biologist
  • Zoologist


Science and Sound
Sounds in the Sea > How do marine animals use sound?

Animals and Sound
Importance of Sound > Why is sound important to marine animals?
Use of Sound > How do marine animals use sound?

People and Sound
Investigate Marine Animals > How is sound used to estimate marine mammal abundance?
Investigate Marine Animals > How is sound used to estimate marine mammal distribution?
Investigate Marine Animals > How us sound used to study the distribution of marine fishes?
Investigate Marine Animals > How is sound used to measure plankton?

Technology Gallery
Basic Technology > Hydrophone/Receiver
Basic Technology > Hydrophone Arrays
Basic Technology > Archival Marine Acoustic Recording Units (ARUs)
Observing and Monitoring Marine Animals > Acoustic Gliders


Oceanography at Palomar College: Careers in Oceanography

NOAA: National Ocean Science, “An oceanographer studies the ocean

Sea Grant Marine Careers, Career Profile: Lisa Munger: Biological Oceanography

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics