A Brief History of Oceanography

Definition and History of Oceanography

 By Bryanna Paulson

Oceanography is the study of all aspects of the world’s oceans and seas, including their physical, chemical, and biological properties.  The study of oceanography is interdisciplinary, because the ocean’s properties and processes are linked and typically cannot be examined independently from one another.  For example, the chemical composition of water influences what kinds of organisms inhabit the area (McDaniel et al., 2012).


Humans began studying the ocean tens of thousands of years ago when people started to venture off of the coast and navigate the seas.  At that time, people were motivated to learn more about the sea for travel, trade, and resources (Dive and Discover, 2005).


Modern oceanography became a field of science approximately two hundred years ago, when scientists started studying ocean life, currents, and the seafloor off of coasts.  The first scientific expedition to study the oceans and seafloor was the Challenger Expedition, from 1872 to 1876, aboard the British HMS Challenger.  The ship traveled over 100,000 kilometers circumnavigating the world, taking sediment samples, cataloging species, measuring water temperature, and more (Bishop, et al., 2012).  


Oceanography ship

Source: NOAA


Not until World War II, when submarines and sonar were being developed, did scientists begin to study the deep ocean.  During the war, the U.S. Navy wanted to learn more about the deep ocean in order to gain fighting advantages in submarine warfare.  The development of sonar and submersibles enabled scientists to map the seafloor and examine the organisms that inhabit the deep waters (Dive and Discover, 2005).


Oceanography Submarine

Source: www.coldwarsubmarines.com


Satellite navigation was another significant innovation, which further developed the field of oceanography.  Until the development of this more accurate mode of navigation, celestial navigation was the dominant method among mariners.  Celestial navigation is only accurate to about half a kilometer, while satellite navigation is accurate plus or minus 100 meters (McDaniel et al., 2012).


Oceanography is still a relatively new and developing field of science.  Our knowledge of the world’s oceans is still incomplete and many consider the deep ocean as the “last frontier.”





McDaniel, M. et al. (2012, Feb. 1). Oceanography. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.org.


Bishop, T. et al. (2012, July 16). Then and Now: The HMS Challenger Expedition and the “Mountains in the Sea” Expedition. Retrieved from http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov.  


Dive and Discover. (2005). History of Oceanography. Retrieved from http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu.