Dr. Peter Etnoyer is a marine ecologist who worked with NOAA and the Natural History Museum to collect and identify deep-sea corals in North American waters. Read the full text of Peter's interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
I am a Marine Biologist with NOAA’s Coastal Center for Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR).
Where do you work?
I have an office in Charleston, SC. My research is “in the field," usually out on a boat somewhere.
Do you travel often?
I travel a lot, both domestically and internationally. I go all over the USA for meetings and conferences. I have also been to Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines, Panama, Germany, and France.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
You need a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in one of the marine sciences, e.g. biology, ecology, oceanography, or marine systems science.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
$80,000 to $100,000 per year.
How many hours do you work per week?
40-60 hours per week.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
I look for “sweet spots” in the ocean, places where life is rich and abundant, and then I work with governments and nonprofit organizations to secure protection of those resources for future generations. I have experience with coral reefs, seamounts, and open-ocean or “pelagic” habitats. Most everything I do relates to the fact that in 1986, the United Nations granted nations exclusive rights to all territorial waters within 200 miles of their coasts. International law allows coastal nations to manage the resources they value, whether it be coral reefs, fisheries or energy resources.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
The most fascinating thing I have done lately is to drive a robot through 1,500 ft of water looking for deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico. That was incredible.
I must say, though, that the most intense moments I have had are encounters with big fish, turtles, sharks and mammals. These animals have thoughts and feelings, and you can sense that. Every time I go underwater, I feel like I am visiting an alien world.
What are the personal rewards of your work and how does your work benefit the public?
I help federal governments plan for the future of their marine resources. My personal reward is to start with a big unknown, bring new results to light, and share them with marine managers so that they can help their governments secure the resources for future generations. Most of science is about looking for the truth, and being able to quantify the truth so that we can make better decisions as a society. When I say "quantify the truth," I mean running analyses that provide statistics.
In the Pacific, we found deep-sea corals as deep as 3,000 m. That is important to know. There is life in the deep sea, so we need to respect that. I would like to be able to use this information to balance our human rights to survival, progress, clean water and recreation with other species' right to exist. Our society benefits from clean water and healthy marine life the same way our neighborhoods benefit from clean parks, forests and wildlife.
What else could someone with your background do?
I could teach or work at a public aquarium. I worked in construction before and after college, and then I worked on movies for 10 years after college. Then I returned to graduate school for marine science. If the oceans dried up, I suppose I could always go back to making videos or remodeling houses!
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I had an aquarium when I was a kid, and started scuba diving when I was a teenager.
I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was about 8 years old. I remember being torn between marine biology and oceanography, because biology studies the animals, and oceanography studies the ocean itself. It’s funny to me that I now work at the intersection of these two disciplines.
My initial fascination was with big sea creatures like whales, sharks, turtles and sea lions. Then I got into things like jellyfish, corals, barnacles and pelicans. I love them all. As I got older, I became more interested in patterns and processes that support these communities. You might say I learned to appreciate the oceanographic and environmental conditions that drive the patterns and processes. Now I use orbital satellites and deep-sea surveys to make new discoveries, and these mysteries keep me interested.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
I became a competitive swimmer when I was 6 yrs old, so my earliest role models were older swimmers and coaches. My father and my friends taught me kindness and coolness.
My mother and father taught me about opportunity and determination. My high school teachers told me I had a wide range of talent. My graduate school professors at Duke University helped me chase my dream in the Philippines, and also helped me come to terms with the poverty I encountered there.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I would have lived abroad or enrolled in a “semester at sea” or a “semester abroad” program. It is important to understand that different countries have different perspectives on things. Studies at sea and abroad are both opportunities students should start thinking about and preparing for as soon as they get to college. My sister Kirsten joined the Peace Corps and lived in Jamaica for two years between college and graduate school. That is another way to see the world.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Keeping my car running presented a pretty big challenge for a while there! Seriously, I had some daunting financial obstacles in graduate school, but my friends, my family and the federal government were a great source of support to whom I am forever indebted.
What are your hobbies?
I like scuba diving, kayaking and collecting comic books from all over the world. I've had a comic-book collection from since I was a kid, and it's still growing, with really innovative stuff from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Belgium.
Interests in Elementary School:
Swimming, comic books, dinosaurs, creative writing.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
Elementary school. My pet fish had 200 babies in the aquarium in my bedroom.
First Marine Science Class:
Marine aquaria at Seacamp in Big Pine Key, Florida, when I was 15.
1988 - B.A., English, Duke University, North Carolina
2000 - M.S., Coastal Environmental Management, Duke University
2009 - Ph.D., Coastal and Marine Systems Science, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
First Career-related Job:
Staff scientist, Marine Conservation Biology Institute
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
Age 15-21: Construction worker, summer employment only
Age 21-25: Waiter, part-time as an undergrad at Duke
Age 22-31: Cameraman, film and video producer and director
Age 31-34: Graduate School at Duke
Age 34-36: Staff scientist, Marine Conservation Biology Institute
Age 36-40: Consultant, Aquanautix
Age 40-43: Graduate Research Associate, Harte Research Institute
Age 44-present: Marine Biologist, NOAA CCEHBR
My master’s research was in the island nation of the Philippines, the epicenter of marine biodiversity. Back then, we found more species of corals and fish there than we did anywhere else in the world. But poverty has been rampant there for decades, and people are desperate. Dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and muro-ami fishing (which enslaves young men) net fish quickly and feed families, but they are driving the coral forests to extinction.
I worked with the World Wildlife Fund to establish a National Marine Protected Area system designed to protect 20% of the Philippines’ coral reef resources. I used satellites to map the reefs and the surface currents, then we sailed around the islands and reefs performing surveys to “ground truth” the information. When all was said and done, we made a map of target conservation areas, and this will be presented to the Philippine Government within the year.
After graduate school, I conducted deep-sea coral research for the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. government. I gathered satellite imagery and database records to map the distribution of deep-sea corals and seamounts. Then we “ground truth” that information, as always. We joined a NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration expedition to Alaska in 2002 and asked questions like “Is the seamount where the satellite said it was supposed to be?” and “How good is the deep-sea coral database? Do we find corals where none have been seen before?”
These days, I join NOAA on cruises that send submersibles and robots to the bottom of the sea. We document and collect deep-sea corals, and I bring them to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for species identification.
Related Ocean Explorer Content
Gulf of Mexico Deep Sea Habitats Exploration 2003
Coral Diversity Essay: Peter Etnoyer wrote this essay on the diversity of deep-sea corals during the Gulf of Mexico Expedition. It includes beautiful underwater and deep-sea photographs.
The Life Cycle of a Specimen, Sep. 26 Log #2: This essay is a concise overview of why deep-sea corals are collected and how they are used in research for both medical and conservation efforts.
Print and Web Resources
Harte Research Institute
The Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies is a recently endowed and developing research institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Its mission is to support and advance the long-term sustainable use and conservation of the Gulf of Mexico through a tri-national approach to understanding the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.
A science blog Web site where Peter has served as co-editor since 2005. Deep Sea News relays deep-sea ocean science to the public as it is occurs through the eyes of a scientist. The hope is to educate readers, convey passion for this unique environment, and perhaps get a few laughs along the way.
Marine Conservation Biology Institute
MCBI is a nonprofit, tax-exempt scientific and conservation advocacy organization. From its headquarters in Redmond, WA and Washington DC, it works to protect and restore marine life on the West Coast, around the United States, and beyond.