The Best Marine Biology Colleges in California

Marine biology is a vast and fascinating subject; oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, and 80% has yet to be explored

Some of the most crucial and cutting-edge research in environmental science takes place in the field of marine biology, and the discipline has long been at the forefront of climate change research.

It should come as no surprise that some of the best undergraduate and graduate programs for marine biology are located in California. 

The coast of the Pacific Ocean is an ideal place to study marine life, and some of the world’s top marine science research centers are located at California universities. 

Marine biology may be housed under the umbrella of a school’s biology or environmental science department, and depending on the institution, it may be called marine science, environmental and ocean science, aquatic biology, or something else. 

So, students seeking a marine biology program should not restrict themselves to that search term; instead, they should investigate whether a particular school has a program devoted to studying the ocean, regardless of what it is called. 

To complete a marine biology major, students will usually have to complete a core set of courses in the biological sciences and may be required to take courses in chemistry, math, statistics, and physics. 

Field research is also a typical component of marine science programs, and students will have the opportunity to study some forms of marine life in their natural habitats. 

Many research universities in the field of marine biology collaborate with one another and partner with organizations and agencies where students can get hands-on experience and participate in vital research on marine life and environments and climate change, such as the Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southern California Marine Institute, and more. 

Here is a list of colleges in California with a marine biology program.

University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

University of Southern California
EEJCC, Waite Phillips Hall, University of Southern California, CC BY-SA 4.0

Undergraduate students at the University of Southern California can earn a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences with a minor in Marine Biology in the Department of Biological Sciences, and the school also offers master’s and doctoral programs in marine biology.

In collaboration with the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, the USC biological sciences department holds four-week intensive courses on Santa Catalina Island at the Wrigley Marine Science Center

The Center’s Marine and Environmental Biology section is internationally recognized for its contributions to the study and conservation of marine life. 

Areas for undergraduate research include evolution and population dynamics for marine animals, living marine resources, marine microbiology, coastal water quality, marine environmental genomics, and geobiology. 

Among the USC marine science faculty, Professor David Caron investigates the fundamental and critical ecological roles of phytoplankton and protozoa in marine and freshwater environments, and at the Fuhrman Lab, Professor Jed Fuhrman researches the biodiversity of marine microbial life forms and the ways in which their interactions shape the ocean environment. 

University of California, Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)

UC Santz Cruz
Ponderosapine210, Rachel Carson College Administration Building, CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of California, Santa Cruz, was recognized by U.S. News & World Report in the top 10 schools for excellence in undergraduate teaching. 

The school’s Marine Biology major is housed in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. 

Students are encouraged to become engaged in research early on so as to open up their educational horizons and improve their career prospects. 

Undergraduate marine biology students can choose to study abroad, including a full-semester program at the University of Queensland in Australia, which involves staying at research stations on the Great Barrier Reef and observing Brisbane-area mangrove and seagrass habitats. 

The Coastal Science Campus on the edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to research facilities on conservation and ecology that foster collaboration between state agencies and educational institutions. 

One such facility is the Institute of Marine Sciences, where ongoing research includes employing elephant seals for data collection to find areas of the ocean with high concentrations of marine organisms, which could help reduce damaging human interactions with ocean life.

University of California, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)

UC Santa Barbara
Coolcaesar, UCSB University Center and Storke Tower, CC BY-SA 4.0

There are several different ways to pursue the study of marine biology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, each with a different focus. 

The bachelor’s degree programs include Aquatic Biology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, Ocean Science emphasis in the Geography Department, Climate and Environment emphasis in the Earth Science Department, and the Marine Science program within the College of Creative Studies.

Students can gain hands-on experience through the school’s partnerships with the University of California Natural Reserve System, which encompasses the diverse array of California ecosystems; the Santa Barbara Coastal Long-Term Research Site, where university researchers monitor kelp beds and other marine life; and the Moorea Long-Term Ecological Research Site, where researchers study coral reefs

At UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, ongoing research includes the value of adaptive monitoring in fisheries, phase-2 tests of a new bioplastic designed to degrade in marine environments, and the continuing impacts of an extreme undersea heat wave nicknamed “the blob.” 

University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)

Undergraduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, can pursue a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology through the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

In addition to requiring coursework in the life sciences and marine science, the marine biology program is a capstone major, meaning that students conduct independent research and produce final projects.

The major incorporates quarter-long research programs where students observe organisms in their natural habitats. 

The field marine biology quarter is held at Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station in Moo Frecrea, French Polynesia, which is dedicated to research on sustainability and biocomplexity. 

The marine biology quarter takes place in various locations, with past sites in New Zealand, French Polynesia, Belize, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. The ability to snorkel is critical, and scuba certification is highly recommended.

Faculty research topics in marine biology at UCLA include the formation of coasts and the evolution and diversity of coastal species, marine biodiversity hotspots and the processes that promote speciation, and the relationships between viruses and host populations. 

University of California, San Diego (San Diego, CA)

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a department of the University of California, San Diego, is a global research hub in the field of marine science

The Scripps Institute was a pioneer in the modern era of climate change research and continues to be at the forefront of current advancements in that area.

The international program Argo is aimed at understanding and predicting changes in the oceans and the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Argo acquires data using a fleet of robotic instruments that are released into the ocean, where they descend to pre-set depths and drift in 10-day cycles, gathering data on the water’s temperature and salinity as well as other biological and chemical factors. 

Some of the research centers within the Scripps Institute include the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, dedicated to preserving the natural world; the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology, which investigates historical maritime societies and human interaction with the ocean; and the Scripps Polar Center, which brings together interdisciplinary teams to investigate the polar regions. 

Research internships are available for undergraduates in various departments and partner organizations, such as the Marine Physical Laboratory, the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, and more.

California State University, Long Beach (Long Beach, CA)

California State University, Long Beach, offers a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology within the Department of Biological Sciences. 

The program includes an opportunity for a semester-long immersion program on Santa Catalina Island with the Southern California Marine Institute, with optional scuba-diving certification and motorboat operation training.

The master’s degree program in Marine Biology is heavily research-focused and prepares students to proceed to a Ph.D. or to pursue science-related careers in teaching, biological consulting, resource management agencies, and more. 

There is a wide variety of research among the faculty, but areas of particular interest include the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands, comparative physiology, the impacts of pollution and other human activities on ocean life, and the evolution of marine fishes. 

Students may become involved in faculty research and gain hands-on experience volunteering in the Marine Lab.

In 2021, marine biology graduate students at California State University, Long Beach, assisted NOAA with sampling to determine the extent of a crude oil spill in the Huntington Beach area. 

They collected fish to test for the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which helped the agency assess the degree of contamination and direct their mitigation efforts. 

California State University, Monterey Bay (Seaside, CA)

CSU Monterey Bay
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

California State University, Monterey Bay, offers a bachelor’s degree program in Marine Science that prepares students to enter careers in the public or private sectors or to continue with graduate studies. 

The school also offers a master’s degree in Marine Science through Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

CSU Monterey Bay’s extramural research funding is through the Marine Science Research program, which exists to improve understanding of the relationships between human activities and ocean ecosystems. 

Ongoing faculty projects include the California Undersea Imagery Archive, which collects still and video imagery from a variety of projects for future research; the Ocean Instrumentation Project, in which students are involved in developing low-cost instruments for student projects; and the NSF Geo-Futures Program, which provides educational resources in the sciences and mentoring for students from underrepresented groups.  

Student internships and other hands-on learning opportunities are available through the Undergraduate Research Center, which offers research mentorship for undergraduates, and the Science Internship Program, a resource for internships on and off campus. 

The Science Internship Blog features students describing their learning experiences, such as teaching educators to use data-gathering and visualization tools at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; recording air and water temperatures while observing marine animal life in Monterey Bay; and conducting guided tours through Elkhorn Slough.

University of San Diego (San Diego, CA)

For undergraduates, the Environmental and Ocean Sciences major at the University of San Diego emphasizes both scientific rigor and ethical judgment and offers several educational pathways: environmental science (B.S. or B.A.), environmental studies (B.A.), and marine ecology (B.S.). 

The University of San Diego partners with the Ocean Discovery Institute, which provides learning opportunities in the sciences for traditionally underserved young people. 

Current graduate students in environmental and ocean sciences are conducting ongoing research on the impact of ocean acidification on marine snow, long-term changes in wetlands vegetation, factors affecting the health of Loggerhead turtles, oceanic microplastics concentrations, and more. 

The proximity of the ocean means students may be treated to unexpected natural phenomena; in 2020, the campus witnessed a stunning bioluminescent algae bloom that made the ocean’s waves glow neon blue at night.

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