The History of NOAA's Ocean Exploration

Within this section, we trace the history of ocean exploration by NOAA and its forerunners.

Through the 19th Century, NOAA's ancestor agencies, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, were the principal ocean explorers for the U.S. government. Today, NOAA's exploration activities have been richly complemented by explorers and scientists from the academic community, other federal agencies, state governments, and the private sector.

Although our focus here is on ocean exploration activities that have shaped NOAA's exploration priorities. This ocean exploration history begins with the establishment of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1807 and goes through 1970, the year that NOAA was formed under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Under NOAA, exploration of our oceans has continued through the years and will continue into the future.


NOAA’s Overarching Exploration Themes

During these two centuries, NOAA’s scientific ocean exploration has developed around the following themes:

  • systematic mapping of the seafloor and related geologic and geophysical parameters;
  • the search for creatures that live within the sea and the study of their interrelationships;
  • the systematic study of local and planetary tides and currents;
  • the struggle for humankind to work, observe, and live within the sea;
  • the search for understanding of the dynamic interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere that drive the great climatic systems;
  • the study of the chemical composition of the sea; and
  • penetration of the seafloor by mechanical and acoustical means in order to comprehend the geology, geophysics, geochemistry, and past history of our planet.

An eighth theme, the search for seafloor cultural artifacts and heritage sites, has matured as seafloor mapping, remote sensing systems, and various other technologies have become more sophisticated.


Historical Periods

Click on any of the time periods below to access a historical timeline, presented in synoptic form with the key dates and associated events described in the essays following each timeline period.


The Early Years (1807-1865)

This period describes the first efforts of our young nation to survey the coast. Guided by the visionary Alexander Dallas Bache, this period resulted in the first map of the Gulf Stream, the first discovery of the continental shelf break, and the collection of living organisms at depths previously thought to be beyond the limits of life.


The Breakthrough Years (1866-1922)

This section discusses the enormous body of new information and knowledge gathered during this time period, including work from two U.S. research vessels, the Blake and the Albatross. On the Blake, true innovations in the techniques of depth measurements led to the first modern maps of the seafloor. The Albatross continued this work, but its claim to the annals of history derives from its biological investigations, as during its service, researchers discovered tens of thousands of new species.


The Age of Electronics (1923-1945)

This period ushers in the modern era. The first installment, presented here through 1945, discusses the advent of acoustic technology and the sweeping changes it produced on marine science and oceanographic research.


The Age of Electronics (1946-1970)

This section describes new technologies that further increased our understanding of the ocean realm. Breakthrough tools such as Deep Tow instruments and multibeam sounding characterized and mapped the ocean floor, while manned submersibles allowed scientists to dive into deep waters. A move toward international cooperation in ocean science spurred the focus of the interactions between the ocean and atmosphere. Recognizing the need to predict changes in the Earth's environment, as well as conserving and wisely managing the nation's coastal and marine resources, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was founded in October 1970.


We gratefully acknowledge this contribution by Captain Albert Theberge, NOAA Corps (ret.), of the NOAA Central Library.