Skip to main content

Career of the Month

Marine Biologist Tori Cullins

Marine biologists study organisms that live in the sea, which range from microscopic plankton to Earth’s largest living creatures, blue whales. They may also specialize in related aspects, such as how human activities affect marine life, or the management of areas that are home to such life forms. They work in a range of sectors, including government agencies, private research laboratories, aquariums, zoos, museums, tourism businesses, and academia. Tori Cullins is the founder of Wild Side Specialty Tours, based in Waianae, Hawaii. Her company offers boat charters that focus on observing and learning about whales and dolphins, as well as helping her crew collect data for research projects.

Work Overview

We are out on the boat collecting data for numerous science projects every day. We all scan the water for signs of animals, and then document important details of each encounter, such as photographing individuals and noting the number of animals in the pod; the presence of any newborns; depth and location; shark bites; attached remoras; and entanglements. After charters, we process and transmit the data, which usually takes twice as long as the data gathering.

Being on the water is freedom—nobody knows or cares that you’re out there, and you have these incredible, intelligent animals around you, and a captive audience. But this job is not all glamour. There are long stretches where you can see nothing at all, or you get stuck out in horrible weather. And you have to clean the boat and fix things that break. Because I have my own small business, I also have to run the office—I’m the webmaster, the accountant, and so on.

Dealing with people is both my favorite and least favorite part of the job. Our guests, and people working for other water-based companies, can be awesome and inspiring, but occasionally, they can be horrible.

Career Highlights

The research we’ve participated in has made a difference. Our work helped lead to Hawaiian false killer whales being given protection as an endangered species. And we’ve seen humpback whale numbers rebound enough for them to be taken off the endangered species list.

Career Path

I am a biologist at heart, and have always been intrigued by animal behavior. I was lucky to grow up in a rural area and spent a lot of time in nature. When I was in high school, I wanted to become a veterinarian specializing in farm animals, but was turned off by the veterinary school application process. I did the expected thing instead—I got married and had a baby by the age of 21. I did take some junior college courses as well, and then completed a two-year certificate program that allowed me to become a registered animal health technician. However, with a rocky marriage, I wasn’t making enough to support myself and my child, so I went on to be a pharmaceutical drug rep for veterinary companies.

I then moved to Hawaii in my late 20s, as a single mom, with a second baby on the way. But there are almost no furry wild animals in Hawaii, and I soon missed the country life I had left behind. I went back to school, while waitressing. I took ocean-related electives and joined the marine program, because Hawaii’s wild animals live in the ocean. At the first meeting, a professor gave a presentation on humpback whales, and I was hooked. He invited anyone with a strong stomach who wanted to help him study whale populations from a four-seater airplane to call him on a certain date before the flight season began. I was the first one to call him that day, and got a seat. That was 30 years ago, and started me down the path to where I am today.

I finished up my liberal arts associate degree, and then transferred to the University of Hawaii to major in environmental science and marine biology. I would have liked to have majored in zoology, but at that time, the coursework didn’t cover megafauna, which is what interested me most. I liked environmental science because it looks at the whole ecosystem.

As a non-traditional student—a struggling “older” female with children—I sought out and was able to obtain a surprising number of scholarships and grants. Between those and waitressing, I didn’t rack up much debt until grad school. It took me four years to get through the two-year bachelor’s program while keeping my grades up enough to meet the scholarship and grant requirements.

While in grad school, I remarried, and my husband and I had a sailboat from which we continued gathering data on humpback whales and dolphins. At one point, it occurred to us that people would probably pay to join us on those trips, so we started a charter business. Before graduation, I was offered a well-paid technician job with the state, but I loved being out in the field, so I decided to blend science and entrepreneurship, and turn the charter business into full-time work.

Knowledge, Skills and Training Required

In college, major in biology or zoology; you can specialize in marine biology in grad school. The recommended math courses will give you at least a basic understanding of those subjects, which will enable you to successfully analyze data. You can also go online and teach yourself how to use R, the most popular statistics software package. Being comfortable with public speaking, and knowing how to entertain and inform people, will help you to effectively communicate results to your audience. Most of all, though, you need energy, drive, and initiative. When you work for yourself, expect to put in a lot of hours. Fortunately, loving your livelihood is motivating.

Advice for Students

Being open to studying lesser-known species will broaden your career opportunities. There are many fascinating species, and a lot of interesting questions to be asked about fish, squid and jellyfish, as well as aquatic plants and microscopic organisms. Read the existing scientific literature, in the form of published articles and books, to figure out which questions have already been asked and answered. Doing this will also help you learn how to ask questions. Read voraciously; don’t limit yourself to only reading about marine mammals. If you know findings from other fields, you’ll be able to put your work into a broader biological context, making it more meaningful. Also look for mentors who can guide you in new directions and help you think about bigger questions.

Marine biology is a competitive field, and people need to stand out or excel in some way. It’s essential to have a diverse set of extracurricular skills and practical work experience, which is usually done through volunteer work or an internship (most of which are also unpaid). Gaining a title such as “research associate” will help open doors. For instance, you can volunteer with a stranding network, or get a job on a whale-watching boat, even if it’s just as a deckhand. We always welcome self-motivated and committed volunteers. Those traits are not taught in schools, but in life.

onboard the ship

Bonus points

Cullins’s Education: Coursework in modern dance, photography, psychology, Riverside City College; registered animal health technician certificate, California State Polytechnic University Pomona; AA in liberal arts, Leeward Community College; BS in environmental science, and marine option program certificate, University of Hawaii at Manoa; graduate-level coursework in marine biology and ocean law, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

On the Web:

Related Careers: Marine resource manager, economist, sociologist, chemist, pollution expert

Careers Earth & Space Science High School

Asset 2