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What’s It Like to be a Marine Biologist

June 8 is marked as World Oceans Day, so for today, I wanted to write something about the marine habitat and biodiversity of our country. The best way to do this was to feature my friend Athena and her work as a marine biologist here in the Philippines.

One of my good friends in high school is a marine biologist.

I remember how budding we were in our gray and white uniform. Our high school is located in the middle of a forest at Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

As of this writing, I find it serendipitous that our friendship grew in the Subic Bay area. It is a gentle body of water surrounding the mountains, hills, coasts, and towns of the province of Zambales.

And here we are in the future, talking about her work as a marine biologist.

Water ebbs and flows, waves come and go; the sea has always been a source of inspiration for many people. Admittedly, I am afraid of what lies in the deep. My mind would convince me that a long large tentacle would grab my right foot. It would pull me down to the crystal blue abyss below.

I am scared but curious too.

My inquisitiveness about marine life pushed me to write about my friend whose heart lies in the Philippine seas.

The friend I am writing about is one Ma. Athena Dilan or “Tena” as I fondly call her.

Athena as a station master in an "amazing race" activity at the Pawikan Conservation Center

Athena is the one on the leftmost side. She once served as a station master to help college students realize the importance of ocean health to the improvement of human life. They did the activity through an “amazing race” activity at the Pawikan Conservation Center.

A brief background on our friendship

Years ago, Athena and I would gush about music and JPOP boy groups we liked. We would even share books with one another, together with some of our friends and classmates.

Moreover, I recall quiet afternoons with her and our other friends and classmates during breaks at school. We also trained and wrote together for press conferences. She is also our batch valedictorian.

Heading off to UP

I admired Athena’s study ethics and passion in science, and her desire to contribute to society. In 2009, she chose BS Biology as her undergraduate degree in the University of the Philippines – Diliman.

I saw her once in UP. There we were, two young girls from the province who still had the world before them for the taking. I met her again in 2010 when I had a small get-together for my 18th birthday with my closest friends.

Interestingly, that was in Barretto, a small town by the coast just a bit farther north from Olongapo City.

Water plays a part again. Water sustains and serves as a witness to all that has happened on our planet.

June 8 is marked as World Oceans Day.

For today, I wanted to write something about the marine habitat and biodiversity of our country. The best way to do this was to feature Athena and her work as a marine biologist.

What university life was like for a marine biologist

At present, Athena is conducting research at the UP Marine Institute.

It is where she also took her Master’s Degree in Marine Science with a specialization in Marine Biology.

Her research interests include quantitative genetics and developing analytical tools to help manage populations of marine organisms in the country using morphological characters.

Presenting research

Presenting research on detecting sardine species and populations at the National Symposium in Marine Science conducted bi-yearly

In her spare time, she involves herself in her other interests like teaching Math and playing the ukulele and violin.

Athena wanted to be a doctor before, so she selected a BS Biology degree.

However, she loved research ever since.

On her last semester in her undergrad, she took up an elective that required fieldwork at sea, and she claims that it was love at first sight.

Fieldwork to measure physical properties—salinity, temperature, and depth of Talim Bay waters

Fieldwork to measure physical properties—salinity, temperature, and depth of Talim Bay waters

“I was sure to take graduate studies for research, but I was torn between Environmental Science and Marine Science. During the time I wanted to enroll, the Institute for Environmental Science was not accepting applicants, so I went to Marine Science. I think it was meant to be!” she shared.

Finding like-minded peers

A lot of us probably found university life tedious.

With Athena though, she never felt stressed, because she intensely delighted in what she was doing. She looked up to her professors and fellow students because of their compassion towards the people and the environment.

“Single-use plastics are a big no-no and all are practicing and campaigning for sustainability. It made me feel at home,” she said.

First General Assembly of UP Marine Science Society

First General Assembly of UP Marine Science Society. It is an organization composed of graduate students and research associates. They aim for increased environmental awareness of Filipino people and pursuing scientific excellence among its members.

What a marine biologist does

I was curious about the work of a marine biologist here. I asked Athena straightforwardly: what does a marine biologist do exactly?

Young Filipino scientists invited for the launch of a mobile science learning facility

Young Filipino scientists invited for a launch of a mobile science learning facility for senior high school students during National Science and Technology Week

“It’s really broad but generally, we study marine life, how they interact with each other, and how they interact with the environment. We usually choose a specific field of study to specialize in and collaborate with other scientists or agencies for management and conservation of marine resources and environment,” she answered.

Interaction with each other

Small fish may feed on vegetation, shrimp, insects, or plankton.

Dolphins eat the small fish.

Sea urchins, sea anemones, sea turtles visit coral reefs…

If anything happens to the coral reefs, these other species are affected.

They interact with each other in the vast space they are in, the same way that we do above water. It is beautiful to note again the connectedness of one another both on land and at sea.

We are truly precious to one another.

I asked Athena this question: what goes on in your mind as you gaze at the sea at dusk?

At first, she said that she was more of a sunrise person because she likes new beginnings.

However, the continuation of her answer made me think that she understood sunsets poignantly too: “The setting of the sun probably reminds me that time and things can disappear. Like all beautiful gifts of nature, we have to learn to cherish and protect what we have now.”

How a typical day goes by for a marine biologist

At first, I thought that marine biologists spend most of their time at sea or near the coast.

Athena clarified it for me: “It varies. Sometimes, we are on fieldwork, attending talks, or running administrative work. But for most of the time, we are drinking coffee!”

Letting non-marine biology students look at the plants and animals floating in sea water that were invisible to the naked eye

Letting non-marine biology students look at the plants and animals floating in sea water that were invisible to the naked eye

“If I’m not analyzing samples at the laboratory, I usually make computer codes for my research and writing manuscripts and reports. We usually work alone and are so immersed during these times, so we mandatorily find time to socialize during lunch or afternoon snacks.”

In the Genetic Research and Information dry lab

In her natural habitat, Genetic Research and Information dry lab, where computational and morphological analyses are performed

On SCUBA diving

One of our past online conversations tackled SCUBA diving.

I asked her if it was mandatory for marine biologists to know how to SCUBA dive.

She said it wasn’t required.

Snorkeling at shallow reefs

Snorkeling at shallow reefs to encounter life underwater

“Not all fields require such skill. Some of us work on organisms on the sea surface, on the research vessel, the shore, or with fisherfolk. But it’s hard not to love the depths of the sea so most of us want to learn diving for leisure or for future opportunities,” she expounded.

I can only imagine what kind of world lies beneath the sea surface.

“It’s really amazing! It’s like a new world, it’s very exciting. Before, I was nervous because, unlike the terrestrial counterpart, we know very little about life underwater, but the colors and calmness under the sea mesmerized me,” shared Athena.

What fieldwork is like for a marine biologist

According to Athena, fieldwork is 20% of their job, while 80% consists of being in the lab, analyzing the samples they got from the field and writing manuscripts.

They do fieldwork to gather biological samples and data.

They would spend hours preparing their equipment, because it would be time-consuming and difficult to go back from the sea if ever they forget something on land!

Besides, they usually leave very early in the morning.

Field sampling

Field sampling to measure chemical and sediment concentration for evaluation of water quality

“We try our best to finish our fieldwork fast to not waste time and resources, so we really move swiftly and work efficiently as a team,” said Athena.

Their usual routine includes making sure to record the GPS coordinates, measuring physico-chemical properties, gathering water and/or sand samples from different sites, and collecting the species they are interested in to be brought back into the lab.

Dissecting fish samples in the lab

Dissecting fish samples in the laboratory to extract otolith or “ear stones”

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, their routine changed.

“Because of the pandemic, we have limited access to our laboratories. We can only go at most twice a week. No more socializing with labmates and casual nods with friends on hallways. It’s also not easy to do fieldwork because of restrictions and the need to quarantine after.”

At present, Athena and her colleagues focus on writing for research publications.

Her relationship with her work

One could never deny how much she loves her job, in spite of the challenges that the pandemic brought.

You can’t fake a smile when you’re doing something you love, especially if it’s contributing to painting a bigger picture.

“I think I love everything about it [my job]. Working on your own time, going to different places, being able to experience a lot of things, meeting experts here and abroad and always learning something new… In my opinion, the only downside is the need to work long hours but the results are rewarding.”

I asked Athena if there were any particular projects she enjoyed doing. She liked projects that help manage marine resources.

More importantly, she cannot forget programs that involved young learners such as high school and college students.

Introducing to high school students what biologists do with a microscope

Introducing to high school students what biologists do with a microscope

“We teach them an awareness of taking care of the environment and the basics of the sea and sea life. It’s best when they start young.”

Young—that was us some 11 years ago.

And now, she’s the one talking before the younger generation.

A marine biologist’s reflections on conservation efforts

Here’s what a marine biologist has to say about the challenges in marine conservation in the Philippines.

“I believe it’s managing the effects of stressors of marine environment—both natural and anthropogenic. The same threats are still affecting our seas: overfishing, habitat degradation, plastic pollution, eutrophication, and climate change. These issues require a lot of effort and planning.”

Equipment check before going underwater

Equipment check to prepare for underwater expedition

There is much work to do, and it requires all hands on deck. I asked Athena what she can recommend to people who would like to know more about our country’s marine biodiversity.

“I want to advise people to take time to read articles published by our marine scientists. If you are more visual, I recommend the “Snorkeler’s Guide to Marine Life of the Philippines” by Lee Goldman. There are also a lot of documentaries available online such as “Philippine Seas” by Atom Araullo,” shared Athena. “Make use of all the available resources. There are a lot of webinars open to the public and a lot of articles and videos online.”

On the other hand, my friend has advice for students who want to take up marine biology someday.

“I would advise that you decide what field you want to focus on and from there, know and study under the professor who is an expert on that field. And in anything we want to pursue, we must always be determined.”

The ripple effect

Just as we are unaware of what lies in outer space, we are still strangers to the alien world of our seas and oceans. There are species yet to be discovered that live on the ocean floor, but we barely even know a lot about the marine animals we’re already familiar with!

If Athena were a marine animal, she said that she would be a dolphin.

“They always look so happy and are very playful and friendly. They also use their intelligence to help others and form bonds with one another.”

While there is much to know and explore, we have a lot to work on too on the problems that Athena shared—problems that can create a ripple effect on marine ecosystems.

One pebble can cause a ripple in a calm pond.

We see news about dead dolphins and whales being washed ashore, and we cry because of sea turtles with straws inside.

Although it may seem like we’re facing Goliath, our hopes can be realized and our goals can be accomplished with the effort of one David, one pebble, one action.

How to help protect our waters

Athena knows firsthand what’s going on, and she remains hopeful with our individual efforts. If we partner them with systemic changes that cover both people and planet, then we can still dial down the negative effects happening right now in our seas.

“No matter how small you think your efforts could be, they will never be in vain. Your small steps will always have a huge impact, and you won’t realize your power to inspire others. Or if you don’t know where to start, there are a lot of organizations that need you. And if you have the opportunity, talk with local fisherfolk—you will learn a lot from them,” advised Athena.

A campaign was held for a coastal community

A coastal community gathered for a campaign to raise awareness on sustainable fishing practices and management

One pebble can mean any of the following that we can do…

  • Signing up for a committee in an organization whose main advocacy revolves around the sea, contacting government leaders to engage in a dialogue with them, sending letters to senators to create laws that care for both people and the environment, filing and signing petitions to help the environment, and asking businesses to make their packaging and logistics more eco-friendly
  • Creating art that spreads awareness about the environment, watching documentaries and reading books on relevant topics, launching campaigns that focus on the thoughts of divers or swimmers about what the sea means to them, and promoting eco-tourism
  • Switching to locally and sustainably produced products, saying no to single-use plastics, reusing what you already have, lessening the wastes your household produces, and making your own compost pit
  • Talking with fisherfolk who know the ins and outs of the seas, and inviting a scientist to share her biggest why in choosing marine biology when she was young

… And suddenly that one pebble causing a ripple is suddenly torrential rain that cascades across the calm pond.

[Read: Why We Should Build More Community Gardens]

Connected by water

True change starts when we actively engage ourselves in the causes we care about, most especially with the people who are directly affected or who are knowledgeable. I learned so much from Athena.

I began to reflect on the possible consequences of our actions which led me to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. What may be good for ourselves may be detrimental to someone else. What may seem like a convenience may be fatal to a hungry sea turtle.

And then there’s the interconnection of everything in this universe and in this country: what happens to one starfish happens to all of us. We mustn’t wait for something bad to happen to our marine life and habitat before we act. Our seven thousand islands are all connected by water, and our future is connected to the choices we make today.

May we take into consideration what our guest marine biologist Athena has to say and be inspired by it whatever field we are in:

“I want to share a quote I’m fond of by Montesquieu: “If I knew something beneficial to myself, but harmful to my family, I would drive it out of my mind. If I knew something advantageous to my family but injurious to my country, I would try to forget it. If I knew something profitable to my country, but detrimental to the human race, I would consider it a crime.” Let us always think about our actions and how they affect others and our seas. In fact, living sustainably not only saves the environment but also saves us money in the long run. So please—always make wise choices.”

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