Free viruses are abundant in the world's oceans. With this realization has come renewed interest in marine viruses and the role viruses play in structuring marine planktonic communities, primarily members of the microbial assemblage. The principal means of studying marine viruses has been by electron microscopy. This review discusses the use of microscopy to study free viruses and compares the ultrastructure of free viruses with bacteriophages and viruses which have been cultured from marine hosts. Many of the free viruses are smaller than typical cultured bacteriophages, which suggests that either many native phages are smaller than cultured phages or that many of the free viruses may be members of those phage families with smaller size classes or, in some cases, that many free viruses may be eukaryotic viruses. Some of the forms currently considered free viruses may be "defective phage" or "phage ghosts," noninfectious particles produced by bacteria, or virus-sized inorganic/organic colloids and warrant further study. Gross virus ultrastructure cannot be used as the sole criterion for determining marine virus diversity, since, as with many microbes, many unrelated viruses have similar morphological characters. Determination of DNA or RNA content as well as studies of protein and DNA relatedness of marine viruses will be needed if we are to understand the complexity of marine virus assemblages. Another important direction for future work is the need for marine bacteriophage/host and virus/host systems in order to study the biology of virus infection.