We review how ocean currents are measured (in both Eulerian and Lagrangian frameworks), how they are inferred from satellite observations, and how they are simulated in ocean general circulation models (OGCMs). We then consider the value of these 'direct' (in situ) and 'indirect' (inferred, simulated) approaches to biologists investigating current-induced drift of strong-swimming vertebrates as well as dispersion of small organisms in the open ocean. We subsequently describe 2 case studies. In the first, OGCM-simulated currents were compared with satellite-derived currents; analyses suggest that the 2 methods yield similar results, but that each has its own limitations and associated uncertainty. In the second analysis, numerical methods were tested using Lagrangian drifter buoys. Results indicated that currents simulated in OGCMs do not capture all details of buoy trajectories, but do successfully resolve most general aspects of current flows. We thus recommend that the errors and uncertainties in ocean current measurements, as well as limitations in spatial and temporal resolution of the surface current data, need to be considered in tracking studies that incorporate oceanographic data. Whenever possible, crossvalidation of the different methods (e.g. indirect estimates versus buoy trajectories) should be undertaken before a decision is reached about which technique is best for a specific application.