The History of Oceanography

Early oceanography began because people wanted to understand how their boats would fare at sea. In fact, understanding the wind and the sea helped some seafarers win several coastal wars. Such knowledge was sometimes referred to as “environmental intelligence.”

The first evidence we have of voyaging or traveling on the ocean for a specific purpose, comes from the records of trade on the Mediterranean Sea. As they went out, mariners began to record information to make their voyages easier and safer. They recorded the location of rocks in the harbor, landmarks, sailing times, and currents. The mariners who made these charts were called cartographers.

The history of oceanography can also be studied by looking at different coastal people and study how they interacted with the surrounding oceans and seas.

The Chinese built an extensive system of inland waterways. Curiosity and commerce encouraged adventurous people to undertake voyages that were more ambitious.

The Vikings had strong fast ships that allowed them to pillage the coast of Europe quickly.

The Portuguese used the “trade winds” to carry their trades along the coast of Africa and India.

The Polynesians spread their culture over the Pacific using the prevailing winds, but found it difficult to return due to the same winds.

There is also a great deal of historic oceanography recorded as more scientific and economic expeditions were launched.

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Captain James Cook was a scientific explorer that charted the Easter Islands, New Caledonia, and South Georgia. Cook made three major voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He was the first European to map the eastern coastline of Australia, discover the Hawaiian Islands, and map Newfoundland and New Zealand. Furthermore, Cook was the first to circumnavigate the world near Antarctica. During his travels, he took samples of marine life, land plants and animals, the ocean floor, and geological formations. He recorded them for others to review and for his pioneering discoveries he was given the title of “First Ocean Scientist.”



John Harrison was the first to build a chronometer, a time piece that is used to determine longitude. This was extremely important to sailors as they needed to know their location after spending weeks at sea.


Day 3.3

The United States Exploring Expedition launched in 1838, under the Lt. Charles Wilkes, was the largest number of ships sent on an exploring mission since 1431. The expedition was sent to see if there were holes at the poles of the earth and to collect scientific specimens.



Matthew Maury was a naval officer who studied ships’ logs for temperature and wind direction to develop wind and current charts. He was the first person to use worldwide patterns of surface winds & currents to base sailing directions. Maury was considered by many to be the “Father of Physical Oceanography.”


Day 3.5

Charles Darwin was a marine biologist who made contributions to oceanography such as the “Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs”, which discussed how atolls and reefs grew up from the sea floor. Darwin’s Challenger mission remains the longest continuous oceanographic survey spanning from December 1872 to May 1876.

As the world became more comfortable with sailing the high seas, technological advancements were made to allow people to learn even more about the world’s oceans.

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In1872, the H.M.S. Challenger set out as the first purely scientific oceanographic expedition. Led by commanding officer Captain George Nares, the Challenger traversed 68,890 nautical miles until the return to harbor in 1876. Samples were taken from the North and South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in addition to the polar seas and the Antarctic Circle. The Challenger Expedition was essential in establishing oceanography as a science.

The First World War influenced the appearance of submarines, and the use of sound to determine depth and the formation of the sea floor. After World War II, the Office of Naval Research was established and consistent ocean research was enacted.