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Whale Biologist

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about becoming a whale biologist or researcher. The answers come from marine mammal scientists, both in-house and outside the Aquarium. If you have a question about this career that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Whale Biologist

Questions & Answers

What kind of university or college courses should I take if I am considering a career as a Whale Biologist?

Whale or cetacean biology involves becoming familiar with a vast field of knowledge as you go through high school, college and/or university. To begin, it is a good idea to take all the science courses available in high school and in your first years at university. These courses include biology, chemistry, ecology, fish biology, zoology, and conservation courses. Having a strong computer science and mathematics background is important as well. Courses in statistics are critical to study in this field. It will take a minimum of four years to get your Bachelor of Science degree and two - six more years to get your Masters or Doctoral degree.

During your university years, it will be very helpful to gain experience working in both the lab and in the field. Summer and weekend jobs in biology will be very beneficial for you to help to create a strong resume when pursuing a job after graduation. You should consider volunteering in a branch of the provincial Ministry of the Environment; at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans; or with a veterinarian, aquarium or zoo, wildlife resource centre, wildlife rehabilitation centre, or a natural history group in your local area. You may also get valuable experience by volunteering for a researcher studying cetaceans.

Are there any universities in Western Canada that offer special programs in marine biology?

Several Western Canadian universities have strong marine biology programs: Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, and the University of Victoria. In Eastern Canada, Acadia University, Dalhousie University, Memorial University, McGill University, Mount Allison University, St. Francis Xavier University, the University of Guelph, and the University of New Brunswick are recommended.

It is advisable to check with your local university calendar as other Canadian universities do offer marine biology programs. More strategies for pursuing a career in marine mammal science can be found here or at OceanLink.

How do I gain experience in the field?

If you are interested in volunteering or having a paid research assistant position, you should write to an individual whale researcher (including graduate students). Their needs vary greatly. Although they are often involved in field work with whales and dolphins, many hours are spent analyzing data in the office or lab, and their field work is time consuming and difficult due to the inaccessibility of the animal species they are studying. The work is frequently arduous and tedious, so you should consider this aspect when thinking about your career options.


Do I need any special licenses or certification to become a whale biologist?

It is recommended that you acquire scuba certification, a valid driver's license, a boat operator’s license, and obtain as much boat handling experience as possible.

Interview With A Marine Mammal Scientist: Lance Barrett-Lennard, Ph.D.

How did you get started in the field?

After university I took some time out from academia to work as a lighthouse keeper. I became interested in the killer whales that we were seeing and began volunteering with Michael Bigg and John Ford, using fixed hydrophones and photo-identification. After this experience I decided to go to graduate school and take a more serious look at my research interests.

What is your educational background?

I obtained a B.Sc. from the University of Guelph and a M.Sc. from UBC on killer whale echolocation of resident and transient whales. This led into a Ph.D. where the research focus was on the genetic analysis and mating patterns of resident and transient killer whales.

What is the best part of your job?

The field work is my favorite, though I also enjoy my time spent in the lab. The research is like a detective story and I am uncovering pieces of a mystery.

What are your latest projects?

Currently, we are studying the mating patterns in transient whales and the mystery of offshore killer whales. Another project involves a three-year study off of the Aleutian Islands to identify killer whales in Western Alaska that have not been recorded. We are using photo-identification, acoustic analysis and genetic testing to identify and categorize the whales.

How can the public be involved in your research?

Our department has some exciting projects like the Killer Whale Adoption Program and the Sightings Network. The adoption program allows the public to adopt a wild killer whale and all contributions go directly to the research and conservation of killer whales in the wild. The Sightings Network has been set up to allow the public to report sightings of dolphins, whales and porpoises. This information helps researchers to get data on these animals’ distribution and abundance, which will help support conservation efforts.

What are the starting and average salaries for this career?

Salaries vary greatly among marine mammal scientists, with government and industry jobs having the highest pay. Graduate degrees and years of experience will increase salary levels, but salaries generally remain low considering the amount of experience and education needed and the high competition for positions.

What do you hope to accomplish through your job?

In the office, I am responsible for administrative tasks such as preparing meetings, seeking funding for research, supervising graduate students’ theses, and advising research and restoration programs involving killer whales. I also deliver public lectures on whale biology and conservation throughout North America, write articles for magazines and journals, and contribute to the development of exhibits at the Vancouver Aquarium. Out in the field, I spend my time out on a boat, looking for whales, recording whale sounds, taking photographs of whales for photo-identification purposes and obtaining skin samples for genetic analysis.

Like most biologists, I hope my research will help to promote conservation of marine life. Obtaining the genetic information of killer whales, for instance, is essential in developing effective conservation strategies. As we learn more about their behaviours and populations, we can better understand their needs.


  1. Marine Mammal Research Staff, Vancouver Aquarium.
  2. The Society for Marine Mammalogy 

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.


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