What Does a Marine Mammalogist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A Day in the Life of a Marine Mammalogist

Derek Abella/The Balance

More than 100 aquatic or marine mammal species rely on freshwater or saltwater to live, feed, and reproduce. Some of these include seals, whales, dolphins, manatees, and otters. The people responsible for studying these animals, their behavior, and their habitats are called marine mammalogists.

Marine mammalogists are specialized marine biologists, who study marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. They may specialize in one specific group of animals such as pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus), cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), manatees, and other aquatic mammals (sea otters and polar bears). Some specialize even further, studying one aspect of a species, such as the behavioral interactions of seals.

Marine Mammalogist Duties & Responsibilities

A marine mammalogist's responsibilities may vary widely, depending on their area of concentration such as research, education, rehabilitation, or training. Research is perhaps the most common and may include the following duties:

  • Design and conduct research.
  • Monitor and track marine mammals to learn about their habitats, interactions, predator-prey relationships, reproduction, and migration.
  • Write grant proposals and papers, and publish study findings in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Collect and analyze data.
  • Supervise research assistants.

Marine mammalogists may perform research in a laboratory or in or near the mammals' environment such as in the water or from a boat. Their work may include taking samples of the water and earth, as well as photographs of animal habitats. Injured or dead animals may be examined by taking blood and tissue samples for further investigation to determine a cause. Deep dives may be required to observe animals in their environment and to tag them to monitor their behavior and track their movement.

Marine mammalogists may also give lectures to present their findings to others in the industry, as well as provide conservation awareness.

Marine Mammalogist Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not separate the salaries of marine mammalogists from data it collects for the more general category of zoologists and wildlife biologists. In addition, the salary can vary, depending on the level of education, experience, and certifications:

  • Median Annual Salary: $63,420 ($30.49/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $102,830 ($49.44/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $40,290 ($19.37/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

In addition, Payscale provides salary information for marine biologists, which are closely related to marine mammalogists:

  • Median Annual Salary: $51,698 ($24.85/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $98,187 ($47.21/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $31,146 ($14.97/hour)

Source: Payscale, 2019

Education, Certification, & Training

Depending on your area of interest as a marine mammalogist, you may need the following degrees, experience, and licensing:

  • Education: An undergraduate degree is considered to be the minimum level of education required for entry-level work in the field of marine mammalogy, with a master's or Ph.D. necessary for research work and other upper-level roles. Most marine mammalogists pursue a degree in marine biology, zoology, animal behavior, or a closely related area. There are a few collegiate programs that offer coursework specifically in marine mammalogy such as the University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program.
  • Coursework: Regardless of the degree an aspiring marine mammalogist pursues, a strong foundation of coursework is necessary in areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and statistical analysis. Laboratory skills are also highly valued, as marine mammalogists frequently conduct scientific studies that require analysis.
  • Training: It is important to have extensive practical experience in the field, which can often be gained through college internships. Many marine animal internship options provide hands-on training and networking opportunities with established professionals. The Marine Mammal Center, as well as the Shoals Marine Laboratory, offers internships to aspiring marine mammalogists.
  • Certification: Marine mammalogists may also pursue scuba certification and develop strong swimming skills to conduct field research in direct contact with animal subjects. Boating skills may also be utilized during a marine mammalogist’s career.

Marine Mammalogist Skills & Competencies

To succeed in this field, you should have the following skills:

  • Physical and mental stamina: The ability to handle situations that may be life-threatening, such as encountering an aggressive animal or working in water that is extremely cold or unexpectedly turbulent.
  • Critical-thinking skills: The ability to solve problems that may negatively impact research in the laboratory or out in the field.
  • Verbal and written communication skills: The ability to write research reports, papers, and publishable studies, as well as lecture and discuss findings at speaking engagements.
  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to work with other scientists, biologists, and industry members.
  • Open water diving skills: The ability to safely and effectively perform research underwater.
  • Foreign language skills: The ability to speak at least one foreign language, which may be required if your work brings you to another region.

Job Outlook

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is no set data on students who go on to become marine mammalogists. But in 1990, the National Science Board reported that 75% who completed undergraduate studies were employed.

The BLS reports that jobs for zoologists and wildlife biologists, which includes marine mammalogists and other marine scientists, will grow at a rate of approximately 8% over the decade from 2016 to 2026. This represents a slower rate of growth than the average for all professions.

Demand for more people in these fields is expected to grow to study the increasing interactions between humans and animals in their natural habitats. But growth will likely be limited because of the funding and budget restrictions set forth by various levels of government.

The field of marine mammalogy is particularly competitive to enter, as there are more job seekers than positions available. Candidates with extensive practical experience and a high level of education will have the best job prospects in this popular field.

Work Environment

Marine mammalogists routinely work in the field to conduct studies in oceans, marshes, and wetlands. They may rely on equipment such as scuba gear, boats, traps, nets, sonar devices, video equipment, robotic instruments, computers, and traditional laboratory analytical devices.

They are frequently exposed to changing temperatures and weather conditions while conducting research in the field. Many marine mammalogists spend a lot of time at sea, in labs, or on computers. Other work can be physically taxing, with a lot of heavy lifting and clean up.

Work Schedule

Marine mammalogists often work long hours and may be required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Irregular hours are especially common when performing fieldwork.

How to Get the Job


The Marine Mammal Center, the Society for Marine Mammology, and the Marine Conservation Institute offer career opportunities specifically for those seeking work in the field.

Look for positions at local aquariums and zoological parks, governmental agencies (on the federal, state, and local levels), laboratories, museums, educational institutions, conservation groups, and military organizations.


The Society for Marine Mammalogy is a professional membership group that hosts conferences, publishes a peer-reviewed journal, and facilitates networking through an online membership directory as well as a job search site. The group has over 2,000 members in more than 56 countries. Members range from students to global experts in the field.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in marine mammology may also want to consider the following career paths, along with their median annual salary:

Source: Payscale, 2019