Oceanographers are scientists who apply biological, chemical, physical, and geological principles to the study of the world’s oceans. They study flow patterns such as currents, circulation, and tides; the relationship between the oceans, weather, and climate; chemical factors such as contaminants; and ocean interactions, for example with air, ice, and land formations. Oceanography is a combination of validating existing ideas and research and finding new ways to explore the ocean and explain new findings.

At a Glance

Imagine it is a bright, warm summer afternoon. A fresh breeze is blowing and the sun is glinting off the waves. You are standing at the rail of a research vessel hundreds of kilometres off the Canadian coastline, taking a break from your work in one of the ship's equipment rooms. You are an oceanographer and you've spent the last three hours directing an underwater vehicle that is gathering data from the ocean floor. You have been aboard this ship sailing the Atlantic Ocean for the past four weeks studying a portion of the ocean floor for a large oil exploration company.

The company intends to build an underwater pipeline and has hired you to help determine the best location for this pipe, where it will be at the least risk of damage from the ocean. As an oceanographer, you gather information for environmental assessments of projects like this pipeline. When first approached about this project, you began by researching existing information on the region of the ocean floor where the pipeline is to be built. Most of the floor has been well mapped, but the maps are several years old now.

Conditions at the ocean's bottom can change quickly, so before a new pipeline can be approved, the maps must be updated and the data kept current. That's why you are part of this research expedition. Your radio-controlled underwater vehicle is equipped with a sonar system to survey the ocean floor and gather data on geological threats such as active fault lines. The vehicle also has a camera on board that will photograph the area and help identify the area's physical and ecological characteristics, including marine life. And while the vehicle is still at the bottom of the ocean, you can direct it to take seawater samples that will be analyzed for the accurate chemical composition of the water in that area of the ocean. All this information will be included in your report to the oil exploration company as to the safest location for its pipeline.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an oceanographer:

  • Study the ocean's currents, waves, tides, and other flow patterns.
  • Use satellite instruments to gather important data such as the temperature at the sea's surface, surface currents, wave heights, and wind speeds.
  • Use instruments and sampling devices to observe and describe the distribution and activities of marine organisms of all sizes, for example, plankton concentration and whale pod movement.
  • Measure temperature, salt and gas concentrations, and nutrient levels with electronic instruments.
  • Use computer models to describe how the physics, chemistry, and biology of the ocean might respond to climate change and the influence of the ocean on atmospheric conditions, for example, heat and gas exchange.
  • Use computer models to demonstrate ocean circulation and mixing.
  • Study and map underwater formations such as volcanoes and earthquake faults, as well as rocks and sediment on the seabed.
  • Investigate the risks to coastlines from storms and tidal waves.
  • Prepare technical reports, publish research results, and present research at seminars, conferences, and lectures.

Work Environment

Oceanographers work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Drafting plans and models
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, and the public, and presenting report findings to clients
  • Researching new technology and advancements in oceanography, and consulting with other oceanography professionals

In the field:

  • Deploying buoys and instruments to measure physical features of the oceans
  • Casting nets and equipment to gather samples of marine organisms
  • Collecting samples from the ocean floor using equipment such as submersible devices and acoustic probes
  • Receiving and processing satellite data

In the lab:

  • Testing samples
  • Designing and calibrating new instruments

Where to Work

There are a number of places oceanographers can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Marine science institutions
  • Meteorological organizations
  • Marine transport companies, port and harbour authorities, and emergency response organizations

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as an oceanographer, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an oceanographer is a university graduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an oceanographer, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Oceanography
  • Marine Biology
  • Aquatic Biology
  • Hydrogeology

Certification is not mandatory in order to work as an oceanographer, but most practitioners belong to professional groups such as the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) or the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Role Models

Clive MacGregor

My post-secondary education began with a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in chemistry. After graduating, I attended a presentation by an oceanographer and it changed my career focus. I soon had a job and plans for my Master's degree in Oceanography. If you want to work in this area, employment as an oceanographer can be found with large oil companies, federal and provincial governments as well as consulting firms. One of my first duties as an oceanographer was principal investigator on coastal environmental surveys. A few years later, I started my own consulting company providing services in coastal environmental sampling, offshore discharge monitoring, occupational hygiene and marine chemist gas inspections of commercial shipping.

My company grew as I gained experience, and twenty years later, my employees bought the company. My twenty-eight years' of experience is a valuable asset and I now work as a consultant for the company I used to own. Ongoing learning and upgrading of skills is a necessity. I take at least two courses a year to re-qualify in specific skill areas and to keep up with technological advances. These courses cover scientific areas and training in computer technology. One other way I stay current is through my work. Many problems are unique and require a scientific investigative approach.

Each new challenge is a learning opportunity. Individuals who are well trained in science and have acquired professional expertise will find great potential in the field of oceanography. The government is moving toward regulating the industry by requiring certain qualifications and designations. People with technical training will find work but advancement may be more limited. Your opportunities will also be linked to your ability to expand business or save costs for the organization you work for. If you like problem-solving, working independently on projects and the ocean environment then consider oceanography as a career.

There are exciting projects that require professional skills and commitment from talented people. I am proposing a new oil spill analysis project that will sample oil from suspect sources and determine where the spill originated. You won’t be bored working as an oceanographer. I have the usual office hours and try to "work smart” instead of putting in longer days to get the job done. That being said, I sometimes go offshore and spend many hours working over a two-week period before returning to the office.

Travelling can also take me overseas occasionally. When in the office I have normal office duties such as email, phone, answering co-worker questions, preparing proposals and interpreting data. Communication and computer skills are the two most used abilities on a day-to-day basis. The most valuable thing I can offer the environment is my extensive experience. I have been able to use that knowledge to create a prosperous environmental consulting company. My new focus is on training others to understand environmental issues as well as finding solutions to unique problems. Maybe something I do will influence the career direction of a future oceanographer.

Your Impact

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