A History of the Study of Marine Biology2021-05-01T15:03:49-05:00

A History of the Study of Marine Biology

The history of marine biology may have begun as early as 1200 BC when the Phoenicians began ocean voyages using celestial navigation.

References to the sea and its mysteries abound in Greek mythology, particularly the Homeric poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. However, these two sources of ancient history mostly refer to the sea as a means of transportation and food source.

It wasn’t until the writings of Aristotle from 384-322 BC that specific references to marine life were recorded. Aristotle identified a variety of species including crustaceans, echinoderms, mollusks, and fish. He also recognized that cetaceans are mammals, and that marine vertebrates are either oviparous (producing eggs that hatch outside the body) or viviparous (producing eggs that hatch within the body). Because he is the first to record observations on marine life, Aristotle is often referred to as the father of marine biology.

The Early Expeditions

Capt. CookThe modern day study of marine biology began with the exploration by Captain James Cook (1728-1779) in 18th century Britain. Captain Cook is most known for his extensive voyages of discovery for the British Navy, mapping much of the world’s uncharted waters during that time. He circumnavigated the world twice during his lifetime, during which he logged descriptions of numerous plants and animals then unknown to most of mankind. Following Cook’s explorations, a number of scientists began a closer study of marine life including Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who, although he is best known for the Theory of Evolution, contributed significantly to the early study of marine biology. His expeditions as the resident naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 were spent collecting and studying specimens from a number of marine organisms that were sent to the British Museum for cataloging. His interest in geology gave rise to his study of coral reefs and their formation. His experience on the HMS Beagle helped Darwin formulate his theories of natural selection and evolution based on the similarities he found in species specimens and fossils he discovered in the same geographic region.

DarwinThe voyages of the HMS Beagle were followed by a 3-year voyage by the British ship HMS Challenger led by Sir Charles Wyville Thomson (1830-1882) to all the oceans of the world during which thousands of marine specimens were collected and analyzed. This voyage is often referred to as the birth of oceanography. The data collected during this trip filled 50 volumes and served as the basis for the study of marine biology across many disciplines for many years. Deep sea exploration was a benchmark of the Challenger’s voyage disproving British explorer Edward Forbes’ theory that marine life could not exist below about 550 m or 1,800 feet.

H.M.S. ChallengerThe Challenger was well equipped to explore deeper than previous expeditions with laboratories aboard stocked with tools and materials, microscopes, chemistry supplies, trawls and dredges, thermometers, devices to collect specimens from the deep sea, and miles of rope and hemp used to reach the ocean depths. The end product of the Challenger’s voyage was almost 30,000 pages of oceanographic information compiled by a number of scientists from a wide range of disciplines. The “Report of the Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76” reported, in addition to the fact that life does exist below 550 m/1,800 feet, findings such as:

  • 4,717 new species;
  • The first systematic plot of currents and temperatures in the ocean;
  • A map of bottom deposits much of which has remained current to the present;
  • An outline of the main contours of the ocean basins; and
  • The discovery of the mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The report is an important work still used by scientists today. In addition to the report, Sir Thomson also wrote a book about the voyage in 1877 titled “The Voyage of the Challenger.” He also wrote one of the early marine biology textbooks “The Depths of the Sea” in 1877.

The Institutions

These expeditions were soon followed by marine laboratories established to study marine life. The oldest marine station in the world, Station Biologique de Roscoff was established in Concarneau, France founded by the College of France in 1859. Concarneau is located on the northwest coast of France. The station was originally established for the cultivation of marine species, such as Dover sole, because of its location near marine estuaries with a variety of marine life. Today, research is conducted on molecular biology, biochemistry, and environmental studies.

In 1871, Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first director of the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries (now known as the National Marine Fisheries Service), began a collection station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts because of the abundant marine life there and to investigate declining fish stocks. This laboratory still exists now known as the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and is the oldest fisheries research facility in the world. Also at Woods Hole, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was established in 1888 by Alpheus Hyatt, a student of Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz who had established the first seaside school of natural history on an island near Woods Hole. MBL was designed as a summer program for the study of the biology of marine life for the purpose of basic research and education. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute was created in 1930 in response to the National Academy of Science’s call for “the share of the United States of America in a worldwide program of oceanographic research” and was funded by a $3 million grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.

An independent biological laboratory was established in San Diego in 1903 by University of California professor Dr. William E. Ritter, which became part of the University of California in 1912 and was named the Scripps Institution of Oceanography after its benefactors. Scripps has since become one of the world’s leading institutions offering a multi-disciplinary study of oceanography.

Exploration of the Deep Sea

Barton bathysphereTechnology brought the study of marine biology to new heights during the years following the HMS Challenger expedition. In 1934 William Beebe (1877-1962) and Otis Barton descended 923 m/3,028 ft below the surface off the coast of Bermuda in a bathysphere designed and funded by Barton. This depth record was not broken until 1948 when Barton made a bathysphere dive to 1,372 m/4,500 ft. During the interim, Beebe was able to observe deep sea life in its own environment rather than in a specimen jar. Although he was criticized for failing to publish results in professional journals, his vivid descriptions of the bathysphere dives in the books he published inspired some of today’s greatest oceanographers and marine biologists.

In 1960, a descent was made to 10,916 m/35,813 ft in the Challenger Deep of the Marianna trench—the deepest known point in the oceans, 10,924 m/35,838 ft deep at its maximum, near 11° 22’N 142° 36’E—about 200 miles southwest of Guam. The dive was made in the bathyscaphe Trieste built by Auguste Piccard, his son Swiss explorer Jean Ernest-Jean Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. The descent took almost five hours and the two men spent barely twenty minutes on the ocean floor before undertaking the 3 hour 15 minute ascent.

Bathyscape TriesteThe Trieste’s first dive was made in 1953. In the years following, the bathyscaphe was used for a number of oceanographic research projects, including biological observation, and in 1957 she was chartered and later purchased by the U.S. Navy. The Navy continued to use the bathyscaphe for oceanographic research off the coast of San Diego, and later used the Trieste for a submarine recovery mission off the U.S. east coast. The bathyscaphe was retired following the U.S. Navy’s commission of the Trieste II, and is currently on exhibit at the Washington Naval Historical Center.

The Scientists

Rachel CarsonRachel Carson (1907-1964) was a scientist and writer who brought the wonders of the sea to people with her lyrical writings and observations about the sea. Although she was a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she devoted her spare time to translating science into writings that would infect the reader with her sense of wonder and respect for nature. She published an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1937 titled “Undersea” which was followed by a book in 1941 titled “Under the Sea-Wind. “These publications described the sea and the life within it from a scientist’s point of view, but in the words of a naturalist. In 1951, she published “The Sea Around Us” a prize-winning bestseller on the history of the sea. The success of this book allowed her to resign from federal service and write full-time. Shortly after, her focus turned to the negative impact of pesticides, a cause to which she remained devoted to by fighting to raise public awareness until her death in 1964.

Inspired by the work of William Beebe, Dr. Sylvia Earle (1935-) began her work as an oceanographer at the tender age of 3 when she was knocked off her feet by a wave. She was fascinated by the ocean and its creatures at a very early age growing up near the shore in New Jersey and later in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. She began her studies with marine botany based on her belief that vegetation is the foundation of any ecosystem. Although she struggled to balance her studies and starting a family, Earle earned her PhD from Duke University, becoming well known in the marine science community for her detailed studies of aquatic life. Early in her career, and while she was four months pregnant, Earle traveled 30.5 m/100 ft below the surface in a submersible. This was the first of many submersible dives she would make during her career. Her experience living in an underwater marine habitat earned her celebrity status in the scientific community. In 1969, the Smithsonian Institute released a call for proposals that was circulated in the marine science community for those interested in conducting research while living in an underwater habitat. Earle submitted a proposal describing her intention to use the opportunity to study the ecology of marine plants and fishes in great detail by combining her observations with those of the ichthyologists on board. Unfortunately, the other applicants were male, and the review board deemed Earle’s cohabitation with them inappropriate. Her request to be a part of the Tektite I mission was rejected; however, the Smithsonian later proposed an all-female Tektite II mission which Earle became a part of. The Tektite II mission received a lot of attention at the time (1970) because of its all female crew.

Following her experience aboard the underwater habitat, Earle developed an interest in deep sea exploration, and in 1979 she broke the record for deep diving at 381 m/1,250 ft below the surface in a special suit called the Jim suit designed to withstand the pressure. Her record has not been broken. Earle decided to test the Jim suit as part of her research on a book published by National Geographic “Exploring the Deep Frontier”, and out of her frustration that scuba diving techniques only scratched the surface of the ocean. Following this adventure, Earle started two companies that manufacture deep sea exploration vehicles. The continued advancements in the the technology of these vehicles has helped open up areas in the deep sea previously unexplored. During the 1990s, Earle served as Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She is currently an Explorer-in-Residence with National Geographic, and, in addition to her research, remains committed to raising awareness on marine environmental issues.

Dr. Robert BallardDr. Robert Ballard (1942-), also a deep-sea explorer, may be best known for finding the Titanic using technologies he helped to develop, including the Argo/Jason remotely operated vehicles and the technology that transmits video images from the deep sea. His earlier deep sea explorations led to the first discovery of hydrothermal vents during an exploration in a manned submersible of the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Ballard founded the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory and spent 30 years there working on the use of manned submersibles. Ballard has devoted a great deal of time to furthering the field of deep sea exploration. He created a distance-learning program with more than one million students enrolled, taught by more than 30,000 science teachers worldwide. He also founded the Institute for Exploration located in Mystic, Connecticut for the study of deep-water archaeology which led to the discovery of the largest number of ancient ships ever found in the deep sea. Currently, he is a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, and Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography.

The Explorers

Jacques CousteauThe advent of scuba diving introduced other pioneers to the study of marine biology. Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was determined to safely breathe compressed air underwater in order to lengthen dive times. His work with Emile Gagnan ultimately led to the invention of the regulator which releases compressed air to divers “on demand” (as opposed to a continuous flow). The combination of the Cousteau-Gagnan regulator with compressed air tanks allowed Cousteau the freedom to film underwater, and by 1950 he had produced the Academy Award winning “The Silent World.” By the 1970s he was bringing the underwater realm into millions of homes with his PBS series “Cousteau Odyssey.” Cousteau’s television documentaries won 40 Emmy Awards. Like other oceanography pioneers, Cousteau was criticized for his lack of scientific credentials, however his legacy fostered a greater knowledge and understanding of the devastation caused by threats to ocean health such as pollution of marine resources and resource exploitation.

Hans and Lotte HassCousteau’s Austrian counterpart, Dr. Hans Hass (1919-), also helped introduce the wonders of the underwater world to the public. Hass and his wife Lotte were both passionate about underwater exploration and protection of the marine environment, and together they produced numerous documentaries and wrote a variety of books on their underwater experiences. During his career as an underwater explorer, Hass also made significant contributions to diving technology. He invented one of the first underwater flash cameras and contributed to the development of the Drager oxygen rebreather which he and Lotte used in 1942 to film “Men Amongst Sharks” and continued to use on diving expeditions aboard their research vessel “Xarifa” in the Red Sea and Caribbean. Hass is also known as one of the first humans to interact with a sperm whale underwater which helped him become a pioneer in the study of marine animal behavior.

The Future

Today, the possibilities for ocean exploration are nearly infinite. In addition to scuba diving, rebreathers, fast computers, remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs), deep sea submersibles, reinforced diving suits, and satellites, other technologies are also being developed. But interdisciplinary research is needed to continue building our understanding of the ocean, and what needs to be done to protect it. In spite of ongoing technological advances, it is estimated that only 5% of the oceans have been explored. Surprisingly, we know more about the moon than we do the ocean. This needs to change if we are to ensure the longevity of the life in the seas—and they cover 71% of the earth’s surface. Unlike the moon, they are our backyard. Without a detailed collective understanding of the ramifications of pollution, overfishing, coastal development, as well as the long-term sustainability of ocean oxygen production and carbon dioxide and monoxide absorption, we face great risks to environmental and human health. We need this research so that we can act on potential problems—not react to them when it is already too late.

Fortunately, thanks to the work of past and present ocean explorers, the public is increasingly aware of these risks which encourage public agencies to take action and promote research. The efforts of public agencies using a multi-disciplinary approach, together with the efforts provided by numerous private marine conservation organizations that work on issues such as advocacy, education, and research, will help drive the momentum needed to face the challenges of preserving the ocean.


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One Comment

  1. Kathy September 7, 2020 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    VERY interesting article. Had no idea about Aristotle!!!! Followed Cousteau like a puppy. Thank you. Need to know more about the future


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