Oceanographers study the sea and all its different facets, such as the sea floor, marine life, ocean currents, the physical and chemical composition of the water and also the air above the ocean. The entire field, including the deep ocean and the continental shelf regions, as well as the shore with its dunes and the tidal rivers, fall within the sphere of activity of oceanographers.

Oceanographers carry out geological, geophysical and geochemical surveys, as well as research into the dynamics of ocean currents, the interaction between wind and waves, and temperature and humidity on the water surface.
The five branches of oceanography are:

Marine Biology: this involves all aspects of plant and animal life in the sea. Marine biologists study the occurrence, distribution and development of plants and animals and how they are influenced by environmental factors.

Physical Oceanography: physical oceanographers study the physical properties of water such as temperature, salt content and density and phenomena such as currents, waves and shores. They also study the interaction between the sea and the air above it and how this influences the weather and climate.

Marine Geoscience: Geological oceanographers are concerned with the processes involved in the formation of the sea floor and coastline, underwater land formation and physical composition of the ocean floor, and current processes of erosion, sedimentation and silting.

Marine Chemistry: Chemical oceanographers study the chemical composition of seawater and the effect of chemicals on the marine environment. Pollution of seawater offers new challenges to chemical oceanographers to determine the influence of that pollution on the quality of the water.

Coastal and Ocean Engineering: This is the application of engineering techniques to the coastal zone. It is essentially a branch of civil engineering that interfaces with the marine sciences. It involves the development and maintenance of harbours, coastal recreational facilities, inlet pipes for seawater, effluent outfalls and the general management of the coastal zone.

Oceanographers also work in laboratories on land, but, by the very nature of their work, they periodically work on a research ship or smaller boat. The development of underwater respiratory apparatus, specialised diving equipment, research submarines and deep-sea vehicles makes it possible for the oceanographers to stay under water for long periods and do research on marine life. The final component of the work is the computer processing of the data collected, with the aid of modern equipment. Oceanographic technicians support oceanographers in their research projects and in the laboratories.

Personal Requirements

  • scientific aptitude
  • love the sea and lively interest in it
  • persistent and patient
  • enjoy working outdoors
  • work well with others, good interpersonal skills
  • strong sense of responsibility
  • good health and physical stamina
  • good observational skills
  • able to discriminate detail
  • not suffer from seasickness
  • excellent physical fitness, for diving and long periods at sea

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Science
Recommended subjects: Geography

What to Study

Degree: BSc degree with Zoology, Botany, Marine Biology as major subjects with supporting courses in Physiology, Geology, Statistics and Mathematics - most universities. BSc (Physical Oceanography) - UCT

Post-graduate training is offered by the University of Port Elizabeth. Courses in Marine Biology are offered by the Universities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Natal and RU. The Universities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Natal have Geology Departments that are very much involved in marine work.

An honours degree is the minimum qualification to become a researcher

Diploma: N.Dip: Marine Engineering - CPUT
N.Dip: Maritime Studies - DUT, Northlink
N.Dip: Oceanography - CPUT


  • universities
  • Department of Environmental Affairs & Tourism
  • Soecor
  • Mossgas
  • CSIR
  • Anglo American Corp of SA
  • SA Navy
  • marine research laboratories
  • museums
  • self-employment, as a consultant for companies operating in the coastal zone and marine environment
Job opportunities for oceanographers are limited.

Further Information

The Sea Fisheries Research Institute
Department of Environment Affairs & Tourism
Private Bag X2
Roggebaai, 8012

Centre for Marine Studies
University of Cape Town
Private Bag
Rondebosch, 7701

Oceanographic Research Institute
1 King Shaka Avenue
South Africa
Tel: (031) 328-8222 

Getting Started

  • try to obtain a vacation job with a company involved with marine conservation
  • get as much experience as possible on ships
  • observe the sea and its plant and animal life
  • arrange to speak to an oceanographer about this type of career

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations

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