Abstract The Mediterranean Sea has been investigated intensively since the early nineties, using modern techniques and collaborative approaches. This overview summarizes some of the resulting advances that were made concerning the physical oceanography of the western Mediterranean. The water mass formation processes are now much better understood and have been quantified to a large extent. The boundary conditions of the system in terms of surface fluxes and strait transports can be determined with improved accuracy, thus enabling future investigation of interannual variability. The dynamics of the surface and intermediate layers have revealed a variety of eddy and mesoscale processes that are important for the circulation and spreading of water masses. The deep circulation is being investigated with Lagrangian techniques (tracers and floats). First results show a large component of the deep water originating from the Tyrrhenian Sea and intense cyclonic and anticyclonic eddy flows.