What Is Biological Oceanography?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Biological oceanography is the study of all life in the ocean. Distinguished from marine biology, which focuses on the biology of specific marine creatures, biological oceanography seeks to understand the interactions between all levels of life in the ocean and their environment. This relatively new scientific discipline has become increasingly important in the 21st century, as biologists and other scientific experts seek to understand changes occurring in the ocean that are affecting life forms ranging from microscopic bacteria to the great blue whale.

Understanding the ecology of the ocean is the principal pursuit of biological oceanography. Some of the common areas of the field include understanding how populations of different species interact with one another, how food chains are formed, and the effect of temperature, chemical, and geological changes on sea life. While some studies may focus on a particular marine species or organism, oceanographers often take a wider point of view, trying to understand how a studied phenomenon or species effects the marine environment as a whole. This wide point of view often requires the integration of many different scientific areas, such as chemistry, geology, and even physics.


While some biological oceanography is conducted through studies at sea, much of the work in this expansive discipline is done in laboratories as well. The study of microscopic organisms, for instance, is often done in a laboratory setting, since it is nearly impossible to examine these creatures in their native environment. In an ocean setting, biological oceanography often involves the use of submersible research vessels, including submarines, sonar equipment, and waterproof cameras, in order to observe and study the wide range of ecology invisible from above the surface. Not surprisingly, a sub-discipline of oceanography is the engineering and improvement of equipment for use in biological studies.

In the 20th century, much effort was made simply to understand what exactly lay beneath the opaque waters of the sea. Now that the depths are somewhat better understood, 21st century biological oceanography tends to focus on issues such as population interaction, conservation, and understanding the changing climate of the ocean. The relation of the oceans to global warming is a primary source of study for oceanographers. Many oceanographers study how the ocean absorbs and manages critical elements such as carbon and nitrogen, to try and understand how marine ecology may change as pollution increases.

The study of biological oceanography is key to understanding how life functions beneath the waves. In addition to researching the effects of climate change and acidification of marine waters, oceanographers are often key players in crafting environmental policy geared toward preserving life in the ocean. In order to ensure the future of their own discipline, as well as the future of marine ecology, oceanographers play an important role in conservation research and action.


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