The pelagic zone consists of the water column of the open ocean, and can be further divided into regions by depth, as illustrated on the right. The word pelagic is derived from Ancient Greek πέλαγος 'open sea'. The pelagic zone can be thought of as an imaginary cylinder or water column between the surface of the sea and the bottom. Conditions in the water column change with depth: pressure increases; temperature and light decrease; salinity, oxygen, micronutrients all change.
Marine life is affected by bathymetry such as the seafloor, shoreline, or a submarine seamount, as well as by proximity the boundary between the ocean and the atmosphere at the ocean surface, which brings light for photosynthesis, predation from above, and wind stirring up waves and setting currents in motion. The pelagic zone refers to the open, free waters away from the shore, where marine life can swim freely in any direction unhindered by topographical constraints.
The oceanic zone is the deep open ocean beyond the continental shelf, which contrasts with the inshore waters near the coast, such as in estuaries or on the continental shelf. Waters in the oceanic zone plunge to the depths of the abyssopelagic and further to the hadopelagic. Coastal waters are generally the relatively shallow epipelagic. Altogether, the pelagic zone occupies 1,330 million km3 with a mean depth of 3.68 km and maximum depth of 11 km, Pelagic life decreases as depth increases.
The pelagic zone contrasts with the benthic and demersal zones at the bottom of the sea. The benthic zone is the ecological region at the very bottom, including the sediment surface and some subsurface layers. Marine organisms such as clams and crabs living in this zone are called benthos. Just above the benthic zone is the demersal zone. Demersal fish can be divided into benthic fish, which are denser than water and rest on the bottom, and benthopelagic fish, which swim just above the bottom. Demersal fish are also known as bottom feeders and groundfish.