What is oceanography and what does an oceanographer do?​

Photo credits: N. Sardet and S. Mirshak

Oceanography is the study of the ocean and all its complex relationships with the planet. It includes various topics such as its biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and meteorology, among many others. The ocean’s properties and processes function together and cannot be examined separately from one another. As such, the study of oceanography is interdisciplinary. The oceanic currents, for example, influence the chemical composition of the seawater. In turn, the chemical composition conditions the types of organisms inhabiting the ocean. Regardless which field an oceanographer selects as their primary studies, they will still need to comprehend the other aspects of oceanography. Many important oceanographic discoveries have been made as a result of an integrated multidisciplinary approach, involving oceanographers from all branches of the science.

From top to bottom and from left to right: A glider, vials for chemistry, phytoplankton, sediment core. Photos credits: N. Sardet, S. Mirshak, R. Amiraux, Innovation.ca
  • Marine biologists are oceanographers that study marine ecosystems and their inhabitants (e.g. animal, plant, bacteria, viruses).
  • Physical oceanographers are more concerned with studying the movements of the oceans (e.g. current, tides), and other physical proprieties (light, temperature, wind).
  • Chemical oceanographers monitor the chemical composition of the ocean water (e.g. pH, nutrients, pollutants).
  • Geological oceanographers focus on studying the ocean’s floor (e.g. hydrothermal vents, deep oceanic trenches).

Why becoming an oceanographer?

Among many other reasons such as the excitement of working at sea, or the pleasure to work in interdisciplinary labs and travel extensively, the main reasons are the following:

The Ocean remains mostly unexplored!

Humans have documented space and other planets better than they have mapped the ocean floor. It is estimated that only about five percent of the world’s oceans have been totally explored and two-thirds of marine life have been documented and studied. Thus there are still millions more habitats and species that remain to be discovered, which is quite exciting!

There are numerous stakes in better understanding the ocean.

As humans have come to populate most corners of the globe, our impact on the oceans is stressing their ability to continue operating normally. Healthy oceans are crucially important to maintaining a healthy planet. Oceanographers are some of the most important climate researchers in the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change, overpopulation, overfishing, and pollution.

How to become an oceanographer?

Napping on a frozen ocean. Photo credits: C. Coupel

Oceanographers usually receive a background education in biology, physics, chemistry, and geology, but they generally go on to focus their research within one field or the other along their postgraduate studies. Usually, there are internships and assistant-level positions available for those with only undergraduate degrees. However, to get a more prominent position as an oceanographer, students usually go on to acquire a Master’s or PhD level education before becoming ocean scientists.

The day to day duties of oceanographers can vary widely, however, every activity they perform is related to their research. Oceanographers spend lots of time conducting research, which means reading scientific articles, running experiments, collecting data, and then writing about their results and sharing their findings with the world. Lots of this work is done in a laboratory, but in order to study the ocean, a researcher often spends time at sea. In addition to their research, many oceanographers work at institutions around the world where they spend plenty of time teaching about the ocean and seeking fundings for their research. Becoming oceanographer in a long road and the job is extremely time-consuming and not particularly well-paid (in Europe particularly) but you will work in an international environment, autonomously on numerous and various tasks which worth it!