What does an oceanographer do?

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What is an Oceanographer?

Oceanography, also known as oceanology, is the study of the ocean. Oceanographers are ocean scientists who study the physical, chemical, and biological features of the ocean and all its complex relationships with the planet.

This includes the study of the weather, the motion and circulation of ocean waters, species of marine life and their ecosystems, the ocean’s ancient history, its current condition, and its future in the era of climate change.

These are some examples of specific areas of interest to oceanographers:

  • The formation of the seafloor and how it changes over time (geological oceanography)
  • The relationships between the seafloor, the coastline, and the atmosphere (physical oceanography)
  • The chemical composition of seawater (chemical oceanography)
  • How melting sea ice is changing the feeding and migration patterns of whales that populate the ocean’s coldest regions (biological oceanography)

What does an Oceanographer do?

Research is at the heart of what oceanographers do. They explore the ocean, conduct experiments, collect data, and then publish their findings.

Their work is of immense significance, especially at a time when natural resources have been destroyed and continue to be threatened, when severe pollution is endangering sea life, and when the rise in global temperature is having a direct impact on the oceans and in turn the climactic condition of the earth.

A picture of the ocean, which is studied by oceanographers.

What oceanographers do varies depending on where they are working on any given day.

In the office they may:

  • Analyze data for reporting
  • Document and archive data and samples
  • Draft plans and develop computer models
  • Communicate and attend meetings with clients, government departments, and the public; and report their findings
  • Research new technology and advancements in oceanography and consult with other oceanography professionals
  • Supervise technicians and other staff to ensure that project goals are met
  • Write proposals to secure funding

In the field they may:

  • Deploy buoys and instruments to measure physical features of the oceans
  • Cast nets and equipment to gather samples of marine organisms
  • Collect samples from the ocean floor using equipment such as submersible devices and acoustic probes
  • Receive and process satellite data

In the lab they may:

  • Test samples
  • Design and calibrate new instruments

The focus of the oceanographer’s work depends on which of the four branches of oceanography they choose as their specialty.

Biological oceanographers study marine animals and plants. They are interested in the numbers of marine organisms and how these organisms develop, relate to one another, adapt to their environment, and interact with it. What they learn determines how humans can use the sea for shipping without affecting marine life.

Chemical oceanographers monitor the chemical composition of the ocean water, its biochemical cycle, and the chemical interaction of seawater with the seafloor and the atmosphere.

Their work involves studying and analyzing how the chemical composition of seawater can impact marine life. Through their research they identify ocean resources that can have medicinal applications and find ways to reduce pollutants and keep water bodies clean.

Geological oceanographers are concerned with the ocean’s floor. Using various technologies to map the seafloor and other underwater features, they learn about the structure and evolution of the sea floor and seek to understand the processes that form its canyons, mountains, and valleys.

They may study undersea volcanic activity and its relation to the movement of tectonic plates or the deep oceanic trenches that plunge thousands of feet. Their research is vital for predicting seismic activity and thereby mitigating the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis.

Physical oceanographers study the physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean, such as waves, currents, eddies, gyres, and tides; the transport of sand on and off beaches; coastal erosion; and the interactions of the atmosphere and the ocean.

They examine deep currents, the ocean-atmosphere relationship that influences weather and climate, the transmission of light and sound through water, and the ocean's interactions with its boundaries at the seafloor and the coast.

Of course, all of the subfields of oceanography are intertwined, and all oceanographers apply their keen understanding of biology, chemistry, geology, and physics to unravel the mysteries of the world’s oceans and to understand the processes within them.

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What is the workplace of an Oceanographer like?

Typically, oceanographers work in the field — near the ocean, often in island areas, where they can study and analyze the physical and chemical properties of oceans, collect specimens, and scrutinize ocean movements.

They may conduct their work from underwater laboratories, submarines, or boats, and may travel across the oceans to locate peculiarities in ocean behavioral patterns.

Their most common employers include federal, state, and local government departments; colleges, universities, and research institutes; environmental and engineering consulting firms; marine science institutions; meteorological organizations; marine transport companies and port and harbor authorities; and emergency response organizations.

Oceanographers are also known as:
Oceanologist Ocean Scientist