Hydrographic and oceanographic data

There are thousands of buoys and satellites monitoring the ocean and its weather patterns. Here’s a smattering of the data collected from these sources:

United Nations Atlas of the Oceans – designed for use by policy makers who need to become familar with issues confronting the seas.

NASA Winds project – measuring ocean winds from space.

SeamountsOnline – an information system on seamount biology.

NOAA’s Vents Program – conducting research on the thermal vents located on the sea floor, and suboceanic volcanic activity. There are creatures living far, far under the ocean in conditions previously thought to be completely out of the question for life to exist.

Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory – development of ocean and atmospheric observation systems such as buoys.

National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (OPP) runs McMurdo Station, the largest Antarctic research station.

International Arctic Buoy Program maintains a network of drifting buoys in the Arctic Ocean, providing information for climate research amongst other things.

IFREMER, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea does research and monitoring of coastal waters as well as making recommendations for management of ocean resources.

Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping Joint Hydrographic Center is a hotbed of expertise on hydrographic and ocean mapping services

There’s a ton of information on the Artic Passages of Franklin and Amundsen here at the PBS NOVA site. This is a fascinating and inspiring slice of history.

The Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project is all about oceanography on top of the world!

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is the world’s largest nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education institution. They have great podcasts on iTunes too.

Bookshelf: The World is Blue

The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One – Sylvia Earle

The World is Blue
The World is Blue - Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle is a legend (I’ve said so before), and this is a book that flowed out of a TED talk she gave about the need to take urgent action on ocean conservation. I gained a huge amount of understanding about why indiscriminate fishing is a problem for ecosystems (she compares it to removing bits from a computer that look useless, and then expecting it to work afterwards). She also explains the extent of our dependency on the ocean – for example, one kind of plankton provides about 20% of the oxygen we breathe, with other kinds making up a further 50%.

Earle has a long history of ocean exploration, and has been scuba diving and driving submersibles since the 1950s. Her anecdotes about things she has seen and people she has spoken to are fascinating. She was part of the very early days of ocean exploration and recreational scuba diving, and has spent thousands of hours underwater (for comparison, I think I’ve spent only 40 hours breathing compressed air!).

Earle is a strong advocate for Marine Protected Areas – proper ones, that don’t allow fishing. She likens a MPA that allows fishing to a game park – say Kruger – that allows hunting! She also supports the initiatives such as SASSI that classify fish species according to the sustainability of the catch process and their level of endangerment. (If you don’t have a SASSI card, you need to get one before your next seafood dinner!)

I was particularly struck by Earle’s account of her response to a question asked of her in the 1990s by the head of the Japanese delegation at the International Whaling Commission: “… What’s the difference between eating a steak from a cow and eating whale meat?”

I tried to respond seriously: Cows are herbivores and go to market in a year or two, have been cultivated by people for food for ages, and require care and an investment of some sort by farmers; while whales are free, wild beings that belong to no one, are typically taken after they have lived for decades, and are relatively few in numbers (or are not “restocked” like cows), leaving an irreversible tear in the ocean’s fabric of life when removed. There are billions of cows, but all whale species are greatly reduced in number, some bordering on extinction owing to whaling. Taking even a few increases the risk of depletion owing to other pressures – storms, disesase, pollution, and fluctuating food sources. The whales of today have ancestral roots 65 million years deep, and nothing in their survival strategies factored in the impact of humans as predators. What might we learn from them as living creatures, able to communicate with sound over long distances, develop close-knit societies, navigate over thousands of miles with no maps, and perform daily deep-diving feats that defy the capacity of even the most athletic humans? If only considering whales as  a priceless source of knowledge, we discover that their value alive far exceeds their worth as pounds of meat. In narrowly-defined economic terms, the growing business of whale-watching is lucrative and demonstrably sustainable, while commercial whaling is subsidised, with a consistent record of “management” failure.

The World is Blue, Sylvia A. Earle, National Geographic Press 2009, pp 38-39.

Buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. I highly recommend it.

Ocean conservation and research

Coral reefs

Coral reefs are among the world’s most threatened habitats, being directly and devastatingly impacted by global warming, overfishing and pollution. Here are some organisations working to protect and conserve them:

Coral reef in Sodwana
Coral reef in Sodwana



  • Oceana is focused on ocean conservation in general
  • The Southwest Fisheries Science Center does research on marine resources in the Pacific and Southern Ocean, from a biological, economic and oceanographic perspective

Podcasts for sea lovers

Even scuba divers need to get in the car sometimes… It’s a four and a half hour drive from Durban to Sodwana! Having an ipod packed with interesting stuff can help make it less painful. Here’s a small selection of podcasts you can find on iTunes for download. Not all of them are still being updated.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is the world’s largest nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education institution. They have great podcasts on iTunes.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is Woods Hole’s main competitor, and has a podcast on ocean-related research.

It’s a very short series, but Science and the Sea has some interesting material.

The NOAA has a series on the US National Marine Sanctuaries. They also have a series on the Southwest Fisheries Science Centre.

Bookshelf: Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas

Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas – Sylvia Earle & Linda Glover

Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas
Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas

I eyed this book for weeks and weeks before finally succumbing and placing an order online (get it here). It’s a National Geographic publication, and – as one would expect – absolutely magnificent. It’s mainly about the detailed ocean maps, but there are articles on each ocean, and on topics such as the impact of climate change, conservation and deep sea exploration.

Sylvia Earle is incredibly impressive – a living legend (according to both the US Library of Congress, and yours truly).  She has a long history of work in and on behalf of the world’s oceans, holds several diving records (she’s hardcore) and is a world-renowned scientist and explorer. She’s an expert on the subject of oil spills, and is – I think – soon set to release a book on the latest BP-led fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.  She also holds the designation of Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, which sounds both like a contradiction in terms and like the coolest job in the world.

I spent most of my time in this book poring over the maps, and picking up nuggets of (potentially) useful information about where the sea is deep, where it’s shallow, and what the bottom profile of a whole host of international dive sites is like. There are water temperature maps (myriad rainbow shades showing the spectrum from freezing cold water in indigo, to lovely warm water in red). There are fascinating charts showing the position of the various (and multitudinous) information collecting devices (buoys and others) all over the world’s oceans. I also learned, thanks to one of the detailed double-page maps, that the ocean’s currents are far more complex than primary school geography led me to believe… The update on the state of oceanography and deep sea exploration was also fascinating. I was awed to discover that the average – that’s AVERAGE – depth of the world’s oceans is about 4 kilometres. As recreational open-circuit scuba divers, we can go to 40 metres with the appropriate qualification. That’s hardly scratching the surface.

This is a magnificent coffee table book, but not just one that you’ll leave lying about and not return to over and over. The impression it left me with was twofold: one, how vast and varied our oceans are. The second impression was of how little we know about what’s under the waves. That is kind of thrilling!

You can obtain a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

Bookshelf: Oceanography and ocean history books

Are you interested in the physical processes of the earth’s oceans? Currents, waves, and how the oceans got to be the way they are? Fear not, I have just the reading list for you. Dig in!


Ocean history