Marine Geography

The World Ocean, which covers 71% of the planet, and its coastlines provide fascinating topics for study for those with an interest in the geography of the sea. Marine Geography is the study of the social and economic relationships between people and the physical environment of the sea; it is geography with a difference, says Dr Chris Wooldridge of Cardiff University

The marine geographer recognises that - thanks to modern technologies such as remote sensing, hydrographic surveying, seismic mapping and deep ocean submersibles - a whole seascape of submarine features and valuable resources is still waiting to be explored...and that the low water line of the tide is no longer a barrier to academic study or professional practice.

The last frontier

Significantly, marine geography recognises that the World Ocean may be regarded as the last frontier on Earth for the exploration and development of resources to sustain society in the future. Reserves of offshore oil, gas, sand and gravel, plus supplies of renewable energy, food, chemicals and minerals, and the use of the sea for transport and defence make its study of critical importance to all countries of the world, even the land-locked nations.

Traditionally, oceanography is the study of the physical and chemical characteristics of the water column and marine biology focuses on the plants and animals of the largest habitat on the planet. Today, marine geography is a multidisciplinary approach to marine resource exploitation set in the context of sustainable development and environmental protection.

Marine geography draws on the traditional and well-established skills of the geographer to observe, map, survey, analyse and interpret a wide range of physical and human variables but focuses on the natural and social science of the sea and coastline. The size of the ocean, the dynamic nature of the sea, the mobility of its living resources and the pressure of human activities concentrated on the coast present special challenges for study that require new approaches and techniques.

Beyond the traditional skills

The range of multidisciplinary skills of the traditional geographer may be supplemented and enhanced further by studying such topics as:

  • Marine human geography
  • Coastal and submarine geomorphology
  • Atmospheric-Oceanographic systems
  • Chartwork and hydrography
  • Marine ecosystems and conservation
  • Offshore oil and gas industry
  • Fisheries management
  • Shipping economics
  • Marine surveying
  • Marine environmental management
  • Port operations and waterfront development

(the list is not exhaustive but it does indicate the different aspects that characterise the subject area).

Marine geographers should be prepared to study the sea from the sea. Fieldwork is often supplemented by working offshore from a variety of vessels in order to:

  • Learn the techniques of sea-bed mapping
  • Sample the seafloor for rocks and sediment
  • Trawl for fish or plankton
  • Measure tidal streams and suspended sediment
  • Monitor seawater quality
  • Acquire the skills of navigation and survey execution
  • Carry out coastal reconnaissance for conservation and management

Knowledge and skills can be learnt from formal academic studies and professional training schemes. The special attitude required for working in the marine environment (respect for the power of the sea, adaptable working to fit in with tide times, multi-skilled background, ability to work with others under often demanding conditions) is best developed by direct experience on the coast and whilst offshore.

Career prospects

As a recognised discipline, marine geography has been established for over 25 years and graduates are employed in a wide range of marine-related careers throughout the world. Marine geographers work both onshore and offshore, depending on their specialisation and role. Existing academic schemes contain a high proportion of vocational training and transferable skills. Examples of career destinations for graduates in marine geography include:

  • Coastal zone management
  • Hydrography and seismic survey
  • Port authorities
  • Environmental/Engineering Consultancies
  • Conservation Projects
  • National and Local government departments (with marine interests)
  • Marine research laboratories
  • Fish farming
  • Oil and gas industry
  • Marine journalism
  • GIS data management
  • Ministry of Defence

Although it is not essential, most marine geographers have a genuine enthusiasm for the sea. Before coming to university, many have an interest in surfing, sailing, diving, boating or just a natural curiosity for the plants and animals of the underwater world. No special marine background is actually required as there are plenty of opportunities for individuals to gain experience, whether their interests concern the conservation of whales and dolphins, exploitation of oil and gas reserves or the law and political geography of the sea.

Entry requirements

A level or equivalent qualifications in geography and almost any combination of natural or social science subjects can provide a suitable background for a degree or career in marine geography. The subject itself is inherently multidisciplinary in both academic study and professional practice and the transferable skills of the marine geographer retain high currency in the market place, especially for those prepared to travel. The 'marine' student can contribute skills to traditional geography careers but can always offer that unique specialisation from studying the sea: geography with a difference.

For further information

The following establishments offer courses in Marine Geography:

Cardiff University:

Southampton Institute:

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