What is Oceanography? 

Oceanography, the study of all aspects of the oceans, is a very complex discipline, and many  terms have been applied to describe its components. Marine Science is considered a synonym for Oceanography.

Oceanography is the science of the world’s oceans. It is an incredibly diverse field.


Anyone who studies oceanography is known as an OCEANOGRAPHER. Oceanographers use science and mathematics to study and explain the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, polar ice caps, the atmosphere and the biosphere. Their aim is to understand and predict how the oceans work, as well as working out how to make the most efficient and sustainable use of its resources.

Types of oceanographer

There are four main types of oceanographer:

  • physical oceanographer – studies the properties of currents, waves, tides and ocean circulation;
  • chemical oceanographer – determines the chemical composition of sea water and sediments;
  • biological oceanographer – studies marine animals and plants and how organisms interact with their environment;
  • geological oceanographer – examines the seabed, including the rocks and minerals.



The fundamental concepts of Oceanography have been divided into four groups that, taken  together, apply to or cover all of the major processes within the oceans.  The four groups are aligned with four major academic sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and geology.

1.Physical oceanography emphasizes the circulation of ocean water at all depths and all time-and-space scales. It is concerned with the distribution of the Sun’s heat, the effects of prevailing and occasional winds, the impact of tides, and frictional and other interactions at the ocean’s boundaries. Ocean-atmosphere interaction and dynamics also play a major role in the study of ocean physics, and theoretical principles of fluid dynamics are readily transformed to the study of the ocean, the most massive accumulation of fluid on the Earth’s surface.

2. Chemical Oceanography, sometimes called Marine Chemistry, considers all of the dissolved and particulate components in the ocean that might become involved in chemical reactions, both biologically influenced and biologically independent, on virtually all time scales from
nanoseconds to millions of years.

Some of these components are: inorganic ions like magnesium
or chloride that exist in high concentrations, minor or trace substances like nitrate or iron that are quite reactive on short time scales, various particles like biological organic debris or minerals, dissolved atmospheric gases like oxygen or carbon dioxide, and stable and radioactive isotopes like carbon-13 or tritium that provide time clocks for or details of chemical processes.

3. Biological Oceanography, sometimes called Marine Biology, is the study of everything in the sea that has characteristics of life, from viruses to whales. It considers the nature of their interactions, often referred to as marine food webs, and the exterior physical or chemical
influences on those interactions. Virtually all of the established aspects of biology, such as ecology and molecular biology, are applied in some fashion to the study of biological oceanography, and some of the most interesting and critical biological questions are in fact marine. The ocean is by far the largest ecosystem on the planet!

4. Geological Oceanography, sometimes called Marine Geology, covers a vast range of time and space scales since it considers processes that occur in minutes over millimeter-scale distances as well as processes that effect entire ocean basins and continents over time spans of millions of years. Its focus is more on the lower boundary of the ocean, the sea floor, than ocean water perse, but processes in the water like the growth of organisms that make shells have considerable
impact on the geology of the sea floor.

The use of stable and radioactive isotopes has been especially beneficial in sorting out geological history and processes, but conventional
sedimentology is a mainstay of the study of the materials that pile up on the sea floor.


Oceanographic research vessels carry out research on the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of water, the atmosphere and climate, and to these ends carry equipment for collecting water samples from a range of depths, including the deep seas, as well as equipment for the hydrographic sounding of the seabed, along with numerous other environmental sensors.

Vessels are arguably the most critical element in any ocean-going venture. Once a ship leaves the safety of its dock, it is an island unto itself on the open seas, its crew at the mercy of the waves. Any ship, from a 15-foot sailboat to a 1,500-foot tanker, must carry all of the food, water, fuel, and equipment that its crew will need to live safely for the duration of the journey.

In the case of research vessels, the ships must also be equipped with special tools and technology that allow scientists to explore ocean environments. Research vessels are highly advanced mobile research stations, providing stable platforms from which explorers can deploy equipment, divers, and submersibles. In addition, these vessels carry state-of- the-art electronics, computers, and navigational and communications systems.



For more information on oceanography, visit  ‘ask a question’ page.

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