Upbeat Careers: How to become a Marine Biologist in India?

Do you think Ocean is your therapy? Do you have a love for the Sea? Read the interview of Marine Biologist Ms. Zoya Tyabji on how to become a Marine Biologist in India and her conservation efforts to save our seas and our souls.

Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Describe what your job is, what it is about and how long you’ve been at it, etc.)?

Hi! I am from Mumbai. I completed my schooling from Baroda and Dubai, Bachelor’s from St. Xaviers college in Mumbai and Masters from Garware college in Pune. For the past three years, I am working as a Marine Biologist.

Soon after my Masters, I was lucky to have received a post as an Education officer at the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) (http://www.anetindia.org/) an NGO based in South Andamans. While working in the islands, I was fortunate to be part of a long-term project of monitoring sea kraits, and coral reef resilience.

For the past two years, through a grant from the Rufford Foundation and the Conservation Leadership programme, I have been assessing the conservation status of elasmobranchs in the Andaman Islands. (http://www.anetindia.org/marine.html, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zoya_Tyabji)

Why did you want to become a Marine Biologist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do and how did you find your way into this line of work?

Growing up, I was lucky to have spent my summers on the coasts of Konkan in Maharashtra at a place called Kihim. Here, my extended family would have their get together and it soon became a place where we looked forward to this meet up and formed bonds – with each other and the environment.

Our times were spent making sand castles, beach combing, exploring the inter-tidal areas and swimming. This fueled my passion for the sea and over the years, the bond simply got stronger. I realized that the ocean is my therapy; it inspires, relaxes and humbly gives back the love I have for it.

Unfortunately, over the years I have also seen it erode due to industrialization and growth of tourism. Where there was once moonlight and stars to guide us, now there are mansions with bright lights driving the fireflies away and dulling the starry skies. When once there were games on long stretches of sandy shores, now there is sand mining; when once we spent our time finding eels, fish, crabs, snakes and other marine organisms in tide pools and on the beach, now we find carcasses of turtles, dolphins, oil and plastic polluting the beach.

The vulnerability and the paradoxical demeanor of the sea brings up an emotional commitment to dedicate my life through education and deep research to defending it.

On the way, I was lucky to study at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai where  professor,Dr.Smitha Krishnan, now a friend, inspired and guided me to study marine biology. She encouraged most of us to pursue the path less taken and we soon realized that its fruits are priceless. I learnt to grab every opportunity, make the most of it and give it my best, and soon one after another, things fell into place.

Tell us about how a normal workday of yours would look like?

No two days are the same in my field of work and that is what makes it most exciting! When in field, it’s always rise and shine early in the morning. I am either sampling dead sharks and rays at the fish-landing sites or counting invertebrates and corals by gliding over a beautiful psychedelic world of coral reefs.

Sampling sharks as well as coral reefs have their pros and cons. While sampling for sharks,we have to deal with a strong nauseating smell of dead sharks, whereas at times I get to listen to interesting fishing stories and folktales of fishermen. While sampling for coral reefs, we have to lift tanks, heavy sampling equipment and SCUBA gear from the shore to the boat.

Once on the boat,sometimes the sea is flat as mirror and during SCUBA, we have a one-on-one encounter with marine life that are as curious as us; whereas at times the sea gets very choppy with the boat rolling, and once underwater, we have to fight the current and time, as we have limited air, to finish our data collection.

Sometimes we get done in 3 hours, or sometimes in 10 hours. The thrill of never knowing what we are going to find is addictive.It is even more exciting when the data we have taken pains to collect, shapes up to a result and new finding. The sampling is followed by data entry, analysis and more paper work.

However, when in field at ANET, we follow a rigid schedule in the evenings where all researchers, interns, volunteers and staff members get together and play volleyball till it gets too dark to see. Following that, a round of table tennis follows on our make-shift dinner table.

What’s the best way to prepare to become a Marine Biologist? What courses should you do and what kinds of experiences and skills should you seek?

I highly recommend volunteering with various wildlife researchers during or after your Bachelors. Every researcher works differently, so it is good to get exposure by working on various projects, in turn learning about taxa, socio-ecological aspects underpinning each areaand getting hands-on experience of working in the field.

One can volunteer for the subject he/sheare interested in by emailing the respective researcher, or attending conferences such as Student Conference for Conservation Science (https://www.sccs-bng.org) in order to get exposed to different work carried out in the field of wildlife and marine biology.

Alternatively, one can subscribe to the YETI group (http://meetyeti.in/) and get to know about different opportunities that are available in the field.Additionally, there are many courses offered in the field of wildlife biology or marine biology in India and abroad.

What kinds of employment opportunities are there for Marine Biologists? Who are your employers — universities, private companies, government?

There are opportunities in both private and government sectors. One can also work in an University. The opportunities are plenty depending on what the focus of your work is.

Where can one see themselves after 10 years in the job?

Well! This is a philosophical question. Considering the current rate of destruction there is a lot of uncertainty that is looming in the air. In addition, I don’t consider my job as a ‘job’, I think I am living my dream or a passion and doing fieldwork has now become a lifestyle.But on a serious note, one could aim to complete their PhD.

Once you have a doctorate in the field, then there is a world of opportunities that open up as you become an expert in the field.You can then either have your own lab, work with a team, or could be an employee of a government, NGO or private organisation.

One of my colleagues has a fun post called INSPIRE faculty fellow. He works on coral reef resilience but mostly he inspires people.Or you could branch out and pursue a field as a wildlife photographer, science writer or a journalist. The world is yours to define.

What is the best part of your job?

Most things! I get to dive in pristine locations (inside marine national parks in the Andaman Islands) where only a few are allowed, working on something I love! To be in turquoise blue waters is enough and add to that sightings of marine life, it could not be better! Most people get excited by megafauna – dolphins, turtles, manta rays. We are lucky to have had encounters with all the mentioned megafauna,but it is also the small things that we experience that are as fascinating!

Sightings of unique mind-boggling invertebrates, psychedelic reefs with a designer’s inspiration of patterns and colours, music of the sea, the feeling of weightlessness and absolute freedom in it, the list goes on.

And then again, that we hope to make a difference! It could be something small to large from finding new results or educating locals and children, or making management plans. All of this makes our job worthy and fruitful! We are all working towards a better and more sustainable future.

We add to that whenever we collect any useful data or deliver a talk or write an article in the hope that we have conveyed a message or changed minds to be one step closer towards saving or conserving the species or ecosystem we love.

What is the worst part of your job?

Definitely waking up early in the mornings to sample sometimes more than a tonne of dead sharks and rays! It is a depressing job and you have to keep reminding yourself that it is a small price to pay to achieve something larger. Nevertheless, the findings are interesting enough to keep at it.

Also living in a secondary forest (where we are based at ANET) is no easy feat as you are prone to a lot of infections and diseases, which aggravates further working in the sea.

Recently a shoe bite that was hardly a scar, became infected due to the high humidity during the monsoons, resulting in my foot swelling to thrice its size with pus oozing out; I thought it was going to explode! It wasn’t a pretty sight to say the least.

What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

When in field in the Andaman Islands, network (internet and phone coverage) is very erratic, therefore it is difficult to keep in touch with events occurring on the mainland.

Luckily after working here for a span of three years, my family and friends have now accepted this situation and are incredibly supportive of my work. However, they do worry greatly about safety. Once I have finished my field work, I return home to catch up on everything I miss and convince them I am safe. It therefore works out well. Besides, my family and friends have a good local tour guide when they visit the islands!

What would you say to all those aspiring to enter the profession?

The profession is only suitable for you if you have the passion and commitment to see it through, otherwise you may not survive. But this experience is worth the price!