NOAA researcher Tom Laidig
Tom Laidig inside a cramped research submarine.
(Via Tom Laidig)
Working in Santa Cruz

How I Got My Job: NOAA fish researcher Tom Laidig on spending 31 days at sea for work

Tom Laidig’s job as a fish researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration takes him out in some of the deepest parts of the ocean to study the ecosystem hundreds — even thousands — of feet underwater. Laidig’s current research involves environmental DNA, where scientists take a water sample and run the DNA to see what is present in the ecosystem at different points along the coast and how it changes, in part to understand the effects of climate change on marine life.

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Tom Laidig, 62, has been a fish researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for more than 30 years.

Growing up around the Bay Area, Laidig was drawn to deep-sea research because he considered it an under-studied area. He started out in his career by attending UC Santa Barbara and obtaining his bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology. Laidig went on to study at San Francisco State University and receive his master’s in marine biology. After graduation, Laidig struggled to find a job, but with the help of his thesis professor he landed at an NOAA laboratory in Tiburon. When the lab moved to Santa Cruz, so did Laidig.

Laidig started out as a technician, doing microscope work and looking at stomach samples of fish. He then moved up to be a researcher, allowing him to conduct his own projects. Laidig researches both shallow water and the deep sea, sometimes scuba diving and counting baby fish or going out to sea on research expeditions.

Laidig finds interacting with fish and species to be one of the most rewarding parts of his job. Though some people struggle with the idea of being in a confined space underwater for an extended period of time, Laidig is enthralled with how close he can get to the fish. He’s also been on different research projects on boats, even at one point spending 31 days out at sea.

He notes the evolution of research from when he first started out in his career. “Researching in my field, the cameras and the electronic devices that go down are extremely advanced,” Laidig said.

For example, oil companies have developed tools to assess their impact on the environment that have also been useful in Laidig’s marine research. They include remotely operated vehicles, such as an unoccupied underwater robot that is connected to a ship by a series of cables. That said, Laidig doesn’t see a future where oil companies and ocean researchers work together: “They’re a private entity and they wouldn’t want to share [information] with the government.”

Through his research, Laidig is tracking the impact of climate change on species such as sea sponges and coral. While coral might look unaffected to the naked eye, their skeletons are degrading because of ocean acidification, a reduction in the pH of the ocean because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Laidig is currently researching environmental DNA (eDNA), a process in which scientists take a water sample and run the DNA to see what is present in the ecosystem at different points along the coast and how it changes. This water sample offers insight on the species in the area and their distribution.

When Laidig isn’t researching, he is hiking, fishing and enjoying the outdoors. Though his love of deep sea doesn’t extend into his recreational activities, he likes to fish in lakes and streams.


  • UC Santa Barbara, bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology
  • San Francisco State University, master’s degree in marine biology
NOAA researcher Tom Laidig
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What does the typical day look like for you on the job?

Tom Laidig: There’s two typical days; one is going and collecting the data out at sea. I work in the deeper ocean, so things under about 300 feet down to about half a mile. The only way we can really do that is to put cameras on the bottom. Some of that involves a remotely operated vehicle [ROV], which is basically an underwater drone with a camera, but it’s attached to the ship so you can watch the live feed as you fly around. We do what’s called quantitative transects, so for 15 minutes we will go in a certain direction and we’ll record that all on video. We also use an autonomous underwater vehicle [AUV]. Then we come back to the lab, and one of my jobs is to analyze those videos. I watch the videos that we collected and count all the fish. Lately we’ve also been doing all the deep-sea corals and the deep-sea sponges because those are habitat for the fishes. Then when that part [is] done, I spend the rest of my time analyzing the data and writing up the results.

Lookout: What do you love about your job?

Laidig: I think I love just finding out about the fish. I love fish — seeing them in their actual environment and what they’re doing and trying to figure out what’s going on with them. So why are populations going up or down? Why are these fish reacting to the differences in environment or temperature or any of that kind of thing? Trying to just figure [them] out because fish are cool.

Lookout: What has been your favorite species to work with?

Laidig: There’s a lot of different ones. For shallow [water], I love blue rockfish. Anybody who goes diving or things like that would probably see them. [The] deeper ones, cowcod is one because it’s a kind of a more scarce species.

Lookout: What’s the difference between deep-sea research and shallow-sea research?

Laidig: Basically the difference is about scuba diving. After about a hundred feet most recreational scuba divers stop. They can go deeper, but in general that’s where they stop. Anything deeper than that, depending on who you talk to, it’s more deep sea because you can’t readily get down to those depths without using some kind of mechanical device.

Lookout: What’s the process of identifying a new species?

Laidig: Well, first you have to collect it, typically, and then you send it to an expert and that expert looks at it. Depending on the type of species it is, then they count certain things. Like for sponges, they count something called a spicule — that’s what makes up sponges. [Sponges are] made up of a bunch of little tiny, tiny little sharp needles basically inside their body. The number and type that they have determine a species. So you can’t look at them to know if it’s different. That’s what makes it difficult from the video aspect. A lot of times we have to just put them in a group and say, “Oh, this is this type” because we can’t say specifically that’s this one because you have to put it under a microscope.

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Lookout: What do you find are the biggest challenges about your job?

Laidig: For us biologists, it’s getting time to go out to sea. Whether it’s getting a vessel to get on or it’s getting the money to get a ROV or something like that to go out. It’s really that whole trying to figure out how to go collect data.

Lookout: How do you get the funding for these different tools for collecting research data?

Laidig: We have our own ships, so you put in a request and you try to get it that way. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. Then you actually try to go through the grants funding externally. That’s the same kind of thing, it’s hit or miss if you got a good project. We’ve been lucky in the past eight or years or so — we’ve had a group called EXPRESS, which has been a collaboration between a lot of different groups on the West Coast. We have the National Marine Fisheries Service, the [national marine] sanctuaries, the National Ocean Service, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, plus some other universities. We try to share time on ships. So if somebody [is] going out and they have time that they could spare on there, then somebody can go and join them and do part of their research. It helps leverage our time and our money and people’s expertise.

NOAA researcher Tom Laidig
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How has research evolved?

Laidig: Researching in my field, the cameras and the electronic devices that go down are extremely advanced. We didn’t have AUVs before [and] the ROVs didn’t go super deep. I mean, thanks to the oil industry, there’s a lot of innovation in that, because they have to go down and check pipelines and do that. You get ... I don’t want to say collaboration, but that tech comes from things like that and the Navy. You know, when they’re looking for sunken submarines, they get deep, deep ROVs and they figure out how to make it work. Then private companies then develop these, and that’s the ones we contract.

Lookout: What is it like being in a submarine?

Laidig: It’s basically like if you went out to Bonny Doon and saw a propane tank in the back of somebody’s yard, that is the size of the submarine. It’s 8, 9 feet long on the inside and the width is 3½ feet [or] something like that and it’s a circle. So it’s 3½ feet tall. The hard part is really getting in and out. You’ve got to kind of squeeze [to] get in and I would lay down [and] and the sub pilot [the other person], they [sit] on a stool that [is] in between my legs. Then they would straddle you with your feet and that’s kind of how it is. It’s one person this way, one person that way.

To me it wasn’t really confined because I’m not huge. I’m only like 5-foot-9½ and I’ve seen some [people] over 6 feet tall try to get in there, and it’s really tough to bend and try to get in. I think I’m more excited to look out the window the whole time and see all the different creatures. It’s a lot of fun to just look out and see all these things as they’re actually living. The nice thing about my job is we’re not trolling nets, so we’re not hurting the fish at all.

Lookout: Has there been a particular study that has stood out to you?

Laidig: I think the last two big cruises I went on. We did coastwide cruises from Washington and Oregon down to Southern California, looking at the fish, the deep-sea corals and the sponge assemblages, the ecosystem at different points along the coast and looking how it changes. You see these points of change along the coast, so we have to manage them in a way that incorporates those changes. Things up in Oregon have different environmental conditions than things in Southern California.

NOAA researcher Tom Laidig
(Via Tom Laidig)

Lookout: How has climate change affected the species you study?

Laidig: Mostly in the deep-sea part that I work on, we haven’t noticed that as much. There’s some changes that have occurred that people have found in the calcium structure of some of the corals. But visually, when looking at them, we haven’t seen that. We have some monitoring sites that we’d like to go back over time to see specifically the corals and sponges, because I think they’ll be affected the most. The fish will be affected, but they might just change their distribution, go north or south, depending on temperature or deeper or shallower [waters].

Since [the corals and sponges are] attached, they can’t really go anyplace. So they would be the ones we look at first to see if there’s some issues. Looking at a coral down south, the ocean acidification was starting to degrade the skeleton and then the fish changed their distribution. We’ve already seen fishers shifting northward in their distribution for some of the southern species and even the northern ones.

Lookout: What is something that people misunderstand about your job?

Laidig: I guess people think of marine biologists as [people] who go out every day into the ocean, as opposed to [sitting] in front of a computer most of the time working up the data. I mean, there are people who do 150 days a year out at sea. It all depends on the project you’re on, but most of us don’t. There’s some who never go out to sea — they do statistical models and things, so they just sit in front of their computer. Sometimes we try here at the lab to invite them on to get other people out there, but sometimes it’s just too full on a cruise. That is another one: I tell people I go on cruises and they think I’m going out on some pleasure cruise, when it’s a research cruise where you’re stuck on a boat.

Lookout: What is it like living on a boat for an extended period of time?

Laidig: Our typical boats that we use here are about 300 feet long, and there’s probably 25 to 30 people living on the boat counting the crew and the scientists. Maybe even more than that. The scientists are about 10 to 15 and then you probably have at least 15 crew members that are running the ship. When we go, we try to work 24-hour operations, so that’s why there’s 10 to 15 scientists. Some are up in the day, some are up at night, [and] it seems like I always draw the night straw. So I work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

When you’re on, we drop the ROV or the AUV to the sea floor. We do that until our time is up. We pull it up, move the boat, move the station to the next stop, then the next device goes in. They serve you breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s some downtime when the boat’s got to travel between sites. Typically [it goes] around 12 knots, so if you have 40 miles to go, it’s going to take you four hours. In that downtime, we have WiFi on the ship so you can check your email. [Since] it’s a 24-hour ship we usually go on, everybody tries to be quiet because people are sleeping at all times of the day. It’s kind of like living with 40 people in an apartment complex.

Lookout: How can someone get involved in this career field?

Laidig: My first thing would be to go to school. I don’t think if you don’t have a bachelor’s, they’re gonna look at you, but they might. What I tell all the students that we deal with, because we’re here on the UCSC campus, [is] if you can get the opportunity, volunteer with different projects, or if they have paid internships, that’s even better. If you can volunteer, you can find out what you like or don’t like. Then when you volunteer, talk to people [and] get your name out there. You know, because person to person is usually the best way to get hired. If you get in there and know people, and then find a job you want, then you know someone in that field. What ends up happening, if something comes up and your résumé pops in against three others then, “Hey, I know this person [and] I know how they work.”

Lookout: Are there any summer opportunities for students?

Laidig: Maybe, but most of [them] are probably filled by now. But there’s always opportunities here. NOAA has a few different internships now, there’s one called IN FISH and [the] Hollings scholars. Then there’s lots of other ones through universities that you can get. There’s term jobs that come up on the government job sites. I think USAJobs might have a six-month job or something that comes up.

NOAA researcher Tom Laidig
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What salary range can someone expect to receive?

Laidig: An entry-level person would probably get between $20 and $30 per hour — it all depends on where you are. Being close to the Bay Area, you get a little bit more than you might [in] middle Oregon. Then if you go up in the government, we’re capped at a certain amount, so I don’t know, $50 an hour.

Lookout: What advice would you give to a new graduate or someone looking to switch into this career field?

Laidig: If you really want to get in, I would say volunteer or intern with different groups. If you already know what you want to do, talk to those people. If someone’s in school, talk to your professors [and] get to know them. Learn what they know about that field, and then maybe from them talk to some other people. Possibly, if you can go to any of the conferences that there are, it’s a great networking opportunity when you go to those. Talk to many different people and try to find a job because the jobs are few and far between in general. They are out there, you just need to know who to go to. Or if you know one person who happens to be in the know, they might know of lots of different jobs. It all depends on who you know.