Marine biology is the study of marine organisms, their behaviors and their interactions with the environment. Because there are so many topics one could study within the field, many researchers select a particular interest and specialize in it.
Specializations can be based on a particular species, organism, behavior, technique or ecosystem. For example, marine biologists may choose to study a single species of clams, or all clams that are native to a climate or region.
Some researchers get involved in a range of activities. Alex Almario, a laboratory and field operations technician profiled on this site, provides field support for scientists conducting estuarine research. He reports that his many duties include: "boat operation and maintenance; water quality data and sample collection; wetlands, mangrove, seagrass and coral research; scuba surface support and diving; fieldwork; and wet lab ecotoxicology support."
One area of specialization, the field of marine biotechnology, offers great opportunity for marine biologists. Marine biotechnology research presents a wide range of possibilities and applications. One focus area is the biomedical field, where scientists develop and test drugs, many of which come from marine organisms.
Molecular biology is a related area of specialization in this field. Researchers apply molecular approaches and techniques to many environments, from coastal ponds to the deep sea, and many different organisms, from microscopic bacteria, plants, and animals to marine mammals. For example, molecular biology can be used to identify the presence of a specific organism in a water sample through the use of molecular probes. This is very useful when the organism in question is microscopic or similar to other organisms.
Aquaculture, the farming of finfish, shellfish and seaweeds, is another field that has been aided by marine biotechnology and molecular techniques. Aquaculture is gaining importance in this country as consumer demand for fish and shellfish becomes greater than can be met by traditional commercial fishing. At the same time, technological advances have made aquaculture more economically feasible.
Other popular areas within the field of marine biology are environmental biology and toxicology. Both of these areas have direct applications and implications for our society. Examples of specialties in environmental biology and toxicology include water quality research and the study of contaminants or pollutants in the coastal or marine environment. Laws, regulations and cleanup measures designed to protect the environment will ensure that marine and environmental biologists and consultants continue to play an important role in our society.
Another field of research within marine or aquatic biology involves organisms that have been around for billions of years: protists. Protists are singled-celled organisms that include protozoa and microalgae. Their importance as a group lies in the fact that microscopic algae serve as food for animals in aquatic food webs, earning them the title "primary producers." And since primary producers are mostly microscopic species, the organisms that consume them are often single-celled, microscopic species as well. If something happens to somehow alter populations of primary producers, the entire food web could be affected.
Probably the topic most often asked about within marine biology is research involving marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and pinnipeds (sea lions, seals and walruses). The reality is that research jobs involving marine mammals are extremely hard to come by for a number of reasons, including the popularity of the field, the fact that working with marine mammals is highly regulated (most research is done using tissue samples of sick, stranded or dead animals and not on live, healthy animals), and because funding is very competitive.
Two popular fields of research involving marine mammals are bioacoustics and vocalization (the study of marine mammal sounds) and population dynamics (studying marine mammalian behaviors and responses to environmental conditions as they impact population). As for non-research employment options involving marine mammals, most positions would exist at aquaria, museums, and national and international conservation groups, though these are also highly competitive.