Oceanographers: Their Tools and What They Wear

In oceanography, tools are used to examine the creatures of the sea.
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As an oceanographer, you might find yourself in the office one day and halfway around the world the next, working on an undersea project to find new medicines or new species of fish. A day later, you'll switch to working on computer models of the ocean floor or studying wave motions. You'll work with tools that show you how salty or how cold the ocean is, how fast currents move and the shape of the ocean floor near earthquake faults. Your wardrobe will reflect the diversity of the job.

Measuring Characteristics

    You'll work with tools that measure temperature, including a variety of thermometers and a torpedo-shaped sensor called a bathythermograph that relays temperatures “from depth” to the surface. Oxygen test kits and dissolved oxygen probes measure the oxygen in a water sample. Salinity is tested by a hydrometer -- the kind used for an aquarium -- a chemical test kit or a conductive salinometer, which measures the salt by the increase in conductivity it provides to an electrical charge as the water's salt content increases.

Measuring Conditions

    Current meters, dye, weights attached to parachutes called drogues and sealed, empty plastic bottles known as drift bottles measure current strength and speed. Some tools are combined into one housing, such as the CTD sensor, that measures temperature, depth and salinity, and current strength. Other sampling tools include microscopes in labs -- aboard ship or onshore -- to observe specimens, telescopes and GPS units similar to those in your car, to establish the location of key observations and discoveries.


    Measuring water's hardness is done with pH test strips. You may also use depth sounders -- weighted ropes with depth marked in 6-foot increments -- to determine how deep shallow water is. You'll use fathometers -- similar to fish finders -- to measure the depth of deeper water and recording fathometers to make a tracing of changes in the depth of the seafloor. The recording fathometer marks "targets," such as sunken ships, as variations in the depth.


    You'll eventually work with several kinds of robots that carry measuring and sampling tools into the sea and record video or audio information at depths up to 27,000 feet below the surface. Some, called ROVs or remotely operated vehicles, are controlled from the ship and can perform sampling work underwater, including microscopic examination. Others, called automated underwater vehicles or AUVs, are preprogrammed to follow a path without human intervention. They're launched from the ship, follow their programming and rise to the surface days or weeks later after gathering data.


    Oceanographers use satellite-based remote sensing systems to track and perform research on wave heights, sea surface temperatures and life indicators, such as plankton concentrations. Satellites systems, such as NASA’s Earth Observing System, provide extensive information to oceanographers. The information gleaned by satellite systems is sometimes sufficient. In other cases, satellite information can lead to more extensive, on-site research, using sampling and measuring equipment.


    Your wardrobe will change with your activities and may range from boat-crew shabby to business chic. Sometimes, an oceanographer’s clothing is much like the clothing of any other profession and includes business dress or lab coats, when needed. Offshore, it's influenced by the weather and the conditions-- jeans and T-shirts are worn in warm weather and heavier clothing as temperatures drop. It often includes rain gear suitable for extreme weather at sea. Shoes with nonskid soles are essential aboard ships or boats, and boots with steel toes are required on most research vessels for work on deck when sensors are deployed.

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