Oceanographers collect and study data about the motions of ocean water (waves, currents, and tides), marine life (sea plants and animals), ore and petroleum deposits (minerals and oils contained in the nodules and oozes of the ocean floor), and the contour of the ocean floor (ocean mountains, valleys, and depths). Many of their findings are compiled for maps, charts, graphs, and special reports and manuals. Oceanographers may spend some of their time on the water each year gathering data and making observations. People who infrequently go to sea do additional oceanographic work on dry land. Experiments using models or captive organisms may be conducted in the seaside laboratory.

Oceanographers use equipment designed and manufactured in special shops. This equipment includes devices to measure depths by sound impulses, special thermometers to measure water temperatures, special cameras for underwater photography, and diving gear and machines like the bathyscaphe (a submersible ship for deep-sea exploration). In addition to such commonly used equipment, many new devices have been developed for specific types of underwater work, including robotic devices that explore the ocean floor and hydraulic miners (dredges to extract nodules from the ocean floor), satellite sensors, and acoustic current-measuring devices.

The oceanographer is usually part of a highly skilled team, with each member specializing in one of the four main branches of the profession. In actual work, however, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the four branches. Biological oceanographers or marine biologists study all aspects of the ocean's plant and animal life. They are interested in how the life develops, interacts, and adapts to its environment. Physical oceanographers study such physical aspects of the ocean as temperature and density, waves and currents, and the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. Chemical oceanographers and marine geochemists investigate the chemical composition of the water and ocean floor. They study seawater components, pollutants, and trace chemicals, which are small amounts of dissolved substances that give an area of water a specific quality. Geological oceanographers study the topographic features and physical composition of the ocean floor. Their work greatly contributes to our knowledge and understanding of Earth's history.

Oceanography jobs can be found all over the United States, and not just where the water meets the shore. Although the majority of jobs are on the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts, many other jobs are available to the marine scientist. Universities, colleges, and federal and state agencies are the largest employers of oceanographers. 

Other employers of oceanographers include international organizations, private companies, consulting firms, nonprofit laboratories, and local governments. Sometimes oceanographers are self-employed as consultants with their own businesses.

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