Steve Swearer


I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up from a very early age. In fact I know the exact day I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist! When I was 7 years old, my family spent some time on holiday at a lovely beach hotel on the east coast of Sri Lanka. One day we rented some snorkelling equipment and hired a local fisherman to take us to a nearby offshore island for a picnic and to swim in the shallow waters above a beautiful fringing coral reef. This was my first time seeing first hand the visual and structural beauty of life on a coral reef. And I’ve been hooked ever since!

My formal education in marine biology started in high school; I spent two summers studying marine biology, ecology, and oceanography in Wallops Island, Virginia and on Mount Desert Island, Maine and then was fortunate enough to spend another summer as an intern at the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu Hawaii.

I then decided to pursue a degree in Aquatic Biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island USA. During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to have a variety of research opportunities under the supervision of Steven Gaines and Mark Bertness working on recruitment dynamics in the acorn barnacle, Semibalanus balanoides. During this time, I still had in my mind my desire to work on coral reef fishes and luckily I managed to get a summer research assistantship working with Bob Warner (UC Santa Barbara) on spawning behaviour in the bluehead wrasse, Thalassoma bifasciatum, at the West Indies Laboratory on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. This was a great experience for me and gave me my first taste of research with coral reef fishes.


(Left) The day I decided to become a marine biologist (1977). (Middle) Taking a break before fish spawning observations at the West Indies Lab, St. Croix, USVI (1989). (Right) Assessing fish eggs for parasites at the STRI field station in San Blas, Panama (1992).

Upon completing my BSc, I was able to continue pursuing my interests in coral reef fish ecology by working with Mark Carr (UC Santa Cruz) and Mark Hixon (Oregon State University) on research investigating the role of predation on post-settlement survival at Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas and then with Ross Robertson (STRI) and Jerry Wellington (U. Houston) on the spawning and recruitment dynamics of neotropical reef fishes in Panama. This latter project was what really convinced me to pursue a PhD in larval ecology of coral reef fishes with Bob Warner at UC Santa Barbara. Working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama was a wonderful experience, which I continued to do during my PhD. It was a sad day when the research station in San Blas closed down. Of all of the research stations in the tropics I’ve been to, this one was truly special. How can you beat rolling out of bed, walking 3m to your own boat and then be to one of hundreds of patch reefs within minutes on pretty much any day? It was unbeatable in terms of research productivity and opportunity!

My PhD had a few false starts, where I continued to conduct research in Panama on the reproductive biology of tropical wrasses as well as trying, unsuccessfully, to get up a research project on self-recruitment in endemic reef fishes on Guam. I eventually decided to return to St. Croix, where I conducted a multidisciplinary study investigating larval dispersal and retention and their relative importance to population replenishment in coral reef fishes.

So how did a coral reef fish ecologist with expertise in the Caribbean Sea end up in Australia at Melbourne University? Good question! I applied for a lectureship in marine larval biology that I found out about from an Australian friend of mine from my early grad school days. I got short listed which meant the University paid for me to come visit my mate in Melbourne and surprisingly to me, they offered me the position! And I haven’t looked back!

It’s taken me awhile to get familiar with new systems, but I’ve managed to keep my foot in the tropics a little and have broadened my research to explore similar questions within freshwater, estuarine, and temperate reef environments both in Australia and overseas.

Picture4Picture5 KopiePicture6

(Left) Deploying an ROV on a STRI research vessel off Clipperton Atoll (1999). (Middle) Preparing for a dive off Lord Howe Island (2002). (Right) Conducting CTD casts off the coast of Kapiti Island, New Zealand (2009).