Necessarily the list can only relate to individuals and their missions which used watercraft for much of their duration. Maritime exploration has not diminished in importance with the emergence of the aircraft, and remains an important part of contemporary scientific research.
Although human maritime exploration is very ancient, only explorers known in recorded histories of their cultures are noted here. As such they represent three global maritime regions (in English alphabetic order): the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and their sub-regional seas as points of origin of the exploration missions.
The list includes explorers which had contributed, and continue to contribute to human knowledge of the planet's geography, weather, biodiversity, human cultures, the expansion of trade, or established communication between diverse populations.
Although many maritime explorers also used force as part of their missions, these are not considered as a reason for exclusion from the list because it represents a subjective contemporary view of the use of force.
^The numbers indicate the number of exploratory voyages. A ship sailing from port through familiar seas does not start exploring until terra incognita is sighted, or a new sea is sailed confirming the lack of land — as in the case of James Cook's second voyage, when he could confirm that the Terra Australis land mass did not exist in the regions of the Southern Ocean that he sailed.