Ioannis Savva - Marine Biologist hunting and studying the invasive lionfish
Marine Biologist Ioannis Savva scuba diving to hunt lionfish for scientific purposes. Photo courtesy of Ioannis Savva

We chat to Ioannis Savva, a marine biologist from Cyprus currently working as a Junior Marine Researcher/Biologist in the Marine and Environmental Research (MER) Lab. He is an avid scuba diver with a passion for the marine environment.

What is a marine biologist?

A marine biologist is basically a biologist who is specialized in the marine environment. Marine biology is therefore the field of science that studies the marine life/biodiversity and its interaction with the physical environment. There are a few ways of doing that.

Some marine biologists will scuba dive or freedive to collect data. While other marine biologists will work on scientific vessels and collect samples from the sea surface, water column, and even from the sea bottom without getting wet.

Ioannis Savva - Marine Biologist studying Lab Fish Morphometrics
In the lab studying fish morphometrics. Photo courtesy of Ioannis Savva

In some extreme occasions, some marine biologists could spend 100% of their time without interacting with the marine environment by simply studying a marine-related subject in the laboratory, or even applying mathematical models on data in order to explain biological patterns.

Nowadays, marine biologists do not just conduct research on marine organisms. They are also implicated with topics related to anthropogenic pressures exerted in the marine environment (e.g. marine litter), mitigation measures, environmental consulting, education, as well as carrying out restoration practices on degraded marine habitats.

Personally, I would like to believe that marine biology is not all about research and science. Presently, there is a great need to raise awareness, conserve marine life, and get involved in the policymaking process. Marine biologists can absolutely take part in these fields by utilizing their knowledge and expertise.

Further Reading: Interview with a Marine Science Teacher

How did you get into marine biology? What do you need to study to become a marine biologist?

I must admit that I am a Biology graduate from Cardiff University (Wales, United Kingdom), even though I always loved the idea of becoming a marine biologist from step one.

Long story short, my passion for marine biology arose with the thought of working with marine mammals (as most marine biologists initially want) as early as I remember. Due to job security reasons at the time, I felt it was necessary to study something broader. Thus, I got into a Biology degree first. This, however, did not stop me from chasing my dream career. During my bachelor’s years, instead of going back home for the summer holidays, I would always travel to Spain and volunteer in a non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducted research on marine mammals in the strait of Gibraltar for conservation purposes.

Following my bachelor’s degree, I decided to pause my studies and take a placement year in marine conservation in Greece. It was then where my entire perception towards marine biology shifted completely from just loving marine mammals to appreciating the entire marine ecosystem approach.

Ioannis Savva - Marine Biologist measuring seagrass coverage
Measuring Seagrass Coverage. Photo courtesy of Ioannis Savva

I began to explore the importance of marine habitats and discover the beauty of seaweeds and seagrasses as well as all the fascinating things they can do and offer to the entire planet. Yep, that’s right, to the entire planet! My placement year led me in applying to an International Joint Master’s degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, where I spent two years of my life in Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Mallorca. Those were the best two years in my 20s, as I became part of an outstanding group of international people who had the same passion as me, and at the same time, I was pursuing my goals to become a marine biologist.

Every person has a different motive for becoming a marine biologist, and they can simply accomplish this by undertaking a degree in marine biology (or biology and then specialize in a marine-related subject), which basically allows you to pick up all the necessary skills and tools you require in the real world of business. However, I feel that is not enough. I truly believe that you certainly need a great deal of passion for the marine environment and persistence in order to sustain your career as one, which is a common trait among those who pursue it.

Working in science and in the marine environment is challenging and a daunting task, therefore you need to keep that spark alive.

What are you currently working on?

In MER Lab we do all sorts of different things. Our most renowned project is RELIONMED, which aims to combat the lionfish invasion in the Mediterranean Sea and control their already established populations in Cyprus.

It is a multidisciplinary project as it includes various fields of action such as researching the biology and ecology of the lionfish, conducting social surveys, raising awareness, education, implicating citizen science, applying conservation practices and testing their effectiveness, assessing marketing strategies, as well as dissemination in media. 

Additionally, we participate in a biodiversity monitoring programme on Artificial Reefs within the Marine Protected Areas of Cyprus. We are also involved in two new enormous projects; one related to elasmobranchs and their interaction with fishing activities and the other to marine habitat mapping along the coastline of Cyprus, with particular emphasis on the Mediterranean endemic seagrass Posidonia oceanica.

Ioannis Savva - Marine Biologist Photoquadrats
Using photoquadrats to sample a specific area underwater. Photo courtesy of Ioannis Savva

As far as concerning our major projects, we further expanded our work in offshore environments. We take part in environmental baseline and monitoring surveys within the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone as part of the natural gas exploration activities that are currently ongoing in the region. Our role there is to examine the biodiversity from the water column and deep-sea bottom before and after an exploration drilling.

In reference to the offshore operations, I also recently got certified as a Marine Mammal Observer and a Protected Species Observer, which basically allows you to mitigate the impacts of noise pollution on marine mammals and protected species from the activities of offshore industry. I can’t wait to put this in practice! Continue reading

Read Part 2 of Ioannis Savva’s Interview

Emma was initially terrified of the deep ocean but dived right into scuba diving years ago and hasn't looked back since! After completing her PADI DiveMaster certification and with a Bachelor of Communications (Media) background in film-making, Emma started her scuba career as an Underwater Videographer before becoming a full-time PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. She taught and certified hundreds of PADI scuba divers as Open Water Divers, Rescue Divers, Deep Specialty Divers, Dive Masters and more, and then managed several Dive Centres. Her favourite fish (which is also tattooed on her arm) is the Barracuda!