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August 24, 2015 | By:  Jessica Carilli
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How can you (yes, you!) observe the ocean and its inhabitants?

You can learn a lot about the ocean by reading about it on blogs like this, in books and magazines, and by watching impressive documentaries like the Blue Planet series. But making observations with your own eyes in real time can be more enriching. There are a number of ways that you can observe the oceans yourself, ranging in difficulty from actually going underwater and looking around to viewing underwater images and video online. I encourage you to pursue as many of these observation opportunities as you can!

At the beach

Stranded debris

One fun way to observe what's been living in the water adjacent to the beach you are visiting is to explore the strandline, which shows the height on the beach of the previous high tide. You'll often find shells and algae in piles at the strandline that have been washed up from the ocean nearby. Sometimes, holdfasts from kelp wash up and still contain living creatures like small crabs and brittle stars hiding within the root-like structure.


Another mostly-dry way to explore ocean life at the beach is to explore tidepools. These are pools of water trapped in rocky outcrops that are exposed when the tide is low, forming little miniature aquaria. This zone is called the rocky intertidal. A good way to explore tidepools is to remove your shoes before walking over the rocks. Because you will step more gingerly and carefully, this will minimize damage to creatures attached to the rocks that you may step on, including barnacles, limpets, and chitons. When the wind is still and sun is high, you will have the best view through the water. Perching quietly next to each pool, you'll be able to see other creatures like anemones, snails, fish, seastars, and urchins - or even octopus, sea cucumbers, sea hares and nudibranchs - and of course all sorts of algae.


Snorkeling will allow you to get into deeper water than tidepools, and explore other habitats include sandy shores, rocky and coral reefs and kelp forests. Remember not to walk on delicate organisms like corals, and try not to stir up too much sediment with your fins when you go out snorkeling (lying flat on the water instead of pointing your fins downwards is a good way to avoid this). Snorkeling is also an excellent way to get sunburned, so be sure to cover up or wear good sunblock. The clearer the water, the deeper you will be able to explore while floating at the water's surface.


The invention of SCUBA paved the way for more in-depth exploration of the underwater world. While still restricted to relatively shallow water (the deepest dive was over 1,000 feet, but most divers stay within the upper 100 feet of the ocean's surface), SCUBA allows divers to stay underwater for long enough periods (up to several hours in very shallow water) to make detailed observations. For example, some divers will descend underwater and then quietly watch a certain group of organisms - like spawning or foraging fish - to study their behavior. Others will spend dives mapping or assessing populations of organisms like corals, often over specified distances called transects.


Visiting the aquarium can be a fun (dry) way to see and learn about ocean creatures. Aquariums are not exact replicas of real ocean habitats-they may contain plastic rocks and corals for fish to swim amongst, for example-but there is opportunity to experience ocean life that you might not otherwise see as a casual observer. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I once saw a shark take a bite out of a fish in the Open Sea exhibit, and at the New England Aquarium saw a ratfish laying an egg case. Some aquariums also have live webcams, if you can't visit in person. This jelly cam and mellow soundtrack is mesmerizing, and this whale shark cam makes me want to save up for a trip to Atlanta.



NOAA's Okeanos Explorer is a ship dedicated to exploring areas of the ocean that have not been extensively observed. The ship uses remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to view the ocean floor down to 6,000 meters deep. The coolest thing about the Okeanos is that the images from these explorations are streamed live on the web, so that anyone with internet access can follow along on the expeditions.

Google Earth

Google Earth now includes an array of ocean data, explanations, and imagery. You can track tagged ocean creatures like sharks, see shipwrecks, and learn about different marine protected areas.

Catlin Seaview

The Catlin Seaview survey is on a mission to create high-resolution panoramic images of the world's coral reefs, with the imagery available for everyone to see. You can take a mini-vacation by exploring some of the images here.

Expedition logs

Other oceanographic expeditions also produce online content to allow people at home to follow along. Examples include those run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the New England Aquarium, and the International Ocean Discovery Program.

Can you think of other cool ways that non-professionals can observe the oceans?

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