Ocean engineers work alongside other professionals including marine biologists, marine engineers and oceanographers to advance ocean-based engineering design and research projects and solve technical challenges related to oceans.
Ocean engineers are responsible for overseeing the design, construction and maintenance of equipment and systems for marine environments.
Working with both offshore and near-shore systems, the typical duties of ocean engineers include observing offshore oil fields to assess their impact on ocean systems, designing floating and static ocean structures, creating structures and practices to protect or restore coastal areas and ocean systems, developing underwater vehicles and transportation solutions and researching methods for extracting energy from the oceans.
Ocean engineers are employed by a range of different organisations, from governments to oil and gas and wind energy companies. The types of work undertaken by these professionals depends upon the needs of their employers, but can cover a broad range of areas.
Some of the types of work undertaken by ocean engineers include:
1. Coastal Design, Protection and Restoration:
Coastal engineering uses many of the same skills as civil engineering among other disciplines to deliver solutions to protect and restore coastlines from the effects of the sea, including erosion and rising sea levels. This may involve the use of breakwaters, culverts and sea walls or more organic (or ‘green’) solutions such as aquatic planting, mangroves or marshlands. While man-made (or ‘grey’) solutions tend to be more expensive to build and maintain they may offer better protection against high-energy ocean forces. Ocean engineers may opt to use a hybrid approach that combines both grey and green solutions.
2. Deep Sea and Underwater Life Support Systems:
Ocean engineers use their knowledge and skills to devise underwater life support systems such as hyperbaric dive chambers which require a knowledge of pressure vessels, diving physiology and thermodynamics. Ranging from small chambers to larger life-support systems and ocean space habitats, these solutions are vital to allow underwater work, exploration and conservation efforts.
3. Ocean Wave Energy:
The power of the waves can be used to produce energy and ocean engineers are called upon to help devise solutions to harness the potential of this natural and renewable energy resource.
4. Offshore Oil Platforms:
Offshore platforms need to be resilient enough to withstand ocean currents and wave forces as well as coping with saltwater corrosion and marine life fouling. In addition, these platforms must be structurally sound and anchored to the seabed. Ocean engineers help to ensure all of this as well as assisting with related components such as drilling apparatus and preventing contaminating oil leaks.
5. Offshore Wind Assets:
Offshore wind farms encounter many of the same challenges faced by offshore oil platforms and ocean engineers work to ensure their safe and efficient operation in challenging offshore environments.
6. Port and Harbour Design:
Ocean engineers work on the design, planning, creation, expansion and maintenance of both natural and artificial harbours. This includes working to ensure ports are safe and capable of operating along the coastline to allow vessels to moor and be loaded and unloaded.This involves an understanding of the various loads imposed on these coastal structures over time.
7. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles:
Ocean engineers also help with the design and safe use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). These vehicles are deployed in locations that could be too remote, deep or cold to reasonably be accessed by manned vehicles. UUVs can be remotely operated, autonomous or semi-autonomous.
Ocean engineers can work with a range of organisations and play a role in fields including international trade, national defence, oceanography, oil and gas, transport, underwater exploration and offshore wind.
Combining many of the skills of other professionals such as civil, environmental and mechanical engineers, the work of ocean engineers has ties to other professions including naval architects and marine engineers.
Working around the design and construction of ships, dams, and other marine and coastal structures, ocean engineers will typically be required to visit offshore or coastal regions but will also spend time based in offices undertaking planning and design work.
The exact location will depend upon the employer and the requirements of the role, whether supervising construction on-site, designing solutions from an office location or working as consultants, educators or trainers.
The salary for ocean engineers depends on yur employer, the nature of your work and your level of experience. As with all engineering roles, the rate of pay will increase with experience.
As of 2023, Glassdoor.com note that the average base salary for an ocean engineer is £37,858 per annum, covering a range from around £24,000 to £60,000 for more experienced professionals. However, payscale.com was more conservative with an average salary of £31,361, while Indeed.com noted an average of £34,642 per year.
In the United States, as of 2019, Chron.com reported that the Bureau of Labor Statistics placed the average salary at $98,730 per year, with a range of between $75,500 and $147,710, depending on experience.
Because of the many similarities, ocean engineering is often placed under the umbrella of marine engineering, but there are differences between these two disciplines.
Marine engineering is focused on the design, operation and maintenance of shipboard systems and machinery, whereas ocean engineering focuses on structures and systems in or adjacent to the oceans themselves.
You can find out more about marine engineering in our dedicated FAQ.
Ocean engineers create and deliver technical solutions to problems related to structures within or near the ocean. This includes the design, construction and maintenance of assets such as wind turbines and oil rigs as well as sub-sea structures and underwater vehicles and life support systems.
Ocean engineers also help protect coastlines from erosion and other effects of waves, using both man-made and organic solutions.
The work of ocean engineers combines skills and knowledge from other engineering disciplines, such as civil and mechanical engineering as well as natural science.
Is Ocean Engineering a Good Degree?
Degrees in ocean engineering offer a route into an interesting and important career, with many students taking their studies beyond a bachelor’s degree to take in a master’s degree to solidify their skills and knowledge to become more attractive to employers. Students who study ocean engineering can take their skills and knowledge into related areas like naval architecture with some extra training as required.
Is Ocean Engineering Hard?
Ocean engineering studies require dedication and perseverance but will open up a wealth of opportunities with a range of employers from government agencies to the oil and gas industry and more.
Can Civil Engineering Be Automated?
It is unlikely that ocean engineering will be automated due to the complexity of the role and the need for human judgement to help projects succeed. That being said, automation and artificial intelligence can assist with the work of engineers, including ocean engineers.