American marine biologist Dave Moulton is living the dream. Working in Tropical North Queensland’s Cape Tribulation, Dave’s days are spent taking people out to experience the Great Barrier Reef with local company Ocean Safari.
After doing marine biology research for six years back in Texas, Dave struck gold with a prized job working on the reef while backpacking around Australia after completing his Masters.
Here we chat to him about what life is really like as a marine biologist (hint: it’s not all about frolicking with dolphins and saving the whales).
What is it about the ocean that draws you in? Have you always been interested in the ocean?
When I was really young I was interested in snakes and lizards - I wanted to be a herpetologist. But after travelling with my family and doing things like snorkelling in the Caribbean and visiting coastal places in the Pacific Northwest area of America, I fell in love with the ocean.
So now you work on the Great Carrier Reef. Would you consider that the pinnacle when it comes to marine biology?
Any marine biologist would look towards the Great Barrier Reef as one of the most amazing marine ecosystems in the world. Definitely all my colleagues are jealous of the opportunity I’ve been given. Also, it’s a great opportunity to work here right now, with all the pressure the reef has undergone recently. It’s a good chance to be here and help with conservation, education and outreach.
What does a typical day at work look like for you these days?
Well in the morning I get all the snorkels and wet suits ready, greet guests and let them know what conditions to expect. Then we’re out on the boat for about three hours, so I’ll be out in the water guiding people, pointing out cool things like sea turtles, sharks or clownfish - everyone wants to find Nemo!
I also give an interpretative reef ecology talk on the boat so people can have an understanding of the ecosystem. Luckily, the reefs we visit with Ocean Safari haven’t had much bleaching so they are looking pretty healthy.
A lot of people would think you have a dream job as you’re not stuck behind a desk and get to connect with nature each day. Do you feel lucky to do this work?
I feel extremely fortunate. I do feel like this is a dream job. I love being out in the ocean, and it’s incredible to be working on the Great Barrier Reef. I’m thankful for every single boat ride. Some days we get rough conditions so it’s not quite a dream job.
If it’s rough and people get seasick or struggle to swim through high winds, it can be hard. But it’s really rewarding to help people who are way out of their comfort zone enjoy the reef. To see them go from being really nervous to lighting up when they see a turtle or parrotfish, it’s just so rewarding.
What are some of the coolest things you’ve seen in the ocean?
The coolest thing I’ve seen so far on the Great Barrier Reef is a Stokes’ sea snake that was almost two metres long. I got to follow it while it was hunting. Apparently it was only the second one seen by the Ocean Safari team, so that was exciting.
I really like seeing sharks and there are some really cool sharks in Australia. Leopard sharks, wobbegong sharks and tawny nurse sharks are all cool, moray eels are cool too. Elsewhere in the world, some of the octopus encounters I’ve had in the past have been really neat. I got to see them change colours and hunt at night!
Hmmm… working with sharks and sea snakes isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of fun. Have you ever felt in danger or out of your depth with the work you do?
Not really. When you’re out on a boat and the ocean is really rough, mechanical failure is a concern. I once went on a research cruise to collect larval tuna in the Gulf of Mexico and we broke down about 200 kilometres off shore and had to be towed in. That wasn’t such a great feeling.
What might some people not know about the life of a marine biologist?
There’s this notion that most marine biologists are interested in dolphins or whales, and spend most of their time working out in the field. Generally, working in the field is the most enjoyable part but most marine biologists working in research spend most of their time at a computer analysing data and writing.
Writing is actually a big part of it, because a key part of the job is getting your findings published. A lot of marine biologists might do a week of field work then spend a year working on the data. It can be demanding but most people that do it have a serious passion for it.
A lot of people also don’t realise that a lot of the research focuses on the base of the food chain. So when you think about whales or dolphins at the top, well there are a lot of scientists researching marine bacteria or phytoplankton. It’s really important work but those areas don’t get as much recognition.
Where do you want marine biology to take you in the future?
I’m a fish ecologist so I research fish behaviour and habitat use. I’ve got the ultimate goal of working towards more sustainable fisheries. I’m going for a PhD and with that I hope to continue to work on fishery research for the rest of my life.
I'd like to get involved with the management decisions behind commercial fishing. I really want to research Pacific salmon in North America because of how culturally important they are as a species. They are currently under threat and diminishing, yet salmon are a big part of the food web. I’m fascinated with salmon!
A marine biologist obsessed with fish, who would have thought?
I know. But I really am!
Let Dave take you into his underwater world with Ocean Safari.