Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville was born on 23 May 1790 at Condé sur Noireau, Normandy, France. He was the son of Gabriel Charles François Dumont d'Urville, a civil and criminal judge and heir to vast estates, and his wife, Jeanne Françoise Julie Victoire de Croisilles, who belonged to one of the oldest families of French nobility. During the French revolution, about 1793, the family were forced to leave their home. After a period of travel, in 1795 they settled in a secluded property at Caen, on the banks of the River Orne, where two years later Gabriel Dumont d'Urville died. Jules was the eighth child in the family but by this time his two elder brothers had died, leaving him the only surviving son.
A delicate child, Jules did not have any formal education in his early years. In 1798 his uncle, Father Jean Jacques François de Croisilles, became his tutor, and was responsible for his education until he entered the Lycée Malherbe at Caen on a scholarship at the age of 14. In November 1807, at the age of 17, Jules presented himself as a candidate for the navy and entered with the temporary rank of midshipman. In 1812 he was promoted to ensign. On 1 May 1815 at Toulon he married Adèle Dorothée Pepin, the daughter of a watchmaker. There were at least four children of the marriage, but none survived to adulthood.
During the early part of his career in the navy Dumont d'Urville developed his interest in linguistics and botany. In 1820 he was sent on a voyage to the eastern Mediterranean and in 1822 published privately Enumeratio plantarum, a study written in Latin of the botanical specimens he had collected there. By the time this work appeared, Dumont d'Urville was a member of the Linnean Society. While travelling in the Mediterranean, he was also responsible for securing the statue of Venus de Milo for France. On 1 May 1821 he was made Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and on 15 August 1821 he was promoted lieutenant.
In 1822 Dumont d'Urville set off on the first of his voyages of scientific discovery. On 11 August the Coquille sailed from Toulon with Louis Isidore Duperrey as commander and Dumont d'Urville as second in command. With the assistance of René Primevère Lesson, Dumont d'Urville had specific responsibility for botanical investigations on the expedition. He also undertook entomological studies. During this voyage, which lasted 31 months, the Coquille sailed 73,000 miles and crossed the equator six times. Various islands were discovered and named, part of the coast of New Guinea was charted, and vast quantities of specimens of all kinds were collected. Dumont d'Urville visited New Zealand for the first time when the Coquille anchored in the Bay of Islands from 3 to 17 April 1824. While at the Bay of Islands, the French had contact with Maori and heard their version of the death of Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne. The voyage returned to Toulon on 24 March 1825.
On 25 April 1826 Dumont d'Urville, who had been promoted to the rank of commander, sailed from Toulon on another voyage which was again to take him to New Zealand. His ship, the Coquille, was now renamed the Astrolabe. Although the main purpose of this voyage was to explore islands in the South Pacific and undertake scientific investigations, Dumont d'Urville was also instructed by the admiralty to visit the regions where it seemed likely that the ships commanded by the comte de La Pérouse had vanished in 1788. Relics were found at Vanikoro, on 27 February 1828. New Zealand was sighted in January 1827 and Dumont d'Urville spent almost three months exploring and charting the northern shores of the South Island and the east coast of the North Island to North Cape. Important botanical and entomological investigations were carried out by Dumont d'Urville, Jean René Constant Quay, Joseph Paul Gaimard and Pierre Adolphe Lesson. The Astrolabe arrived back at Marseilles on 25 March 1829 where the precious cargo of specimens was unloaded before the ship continued to Toulon.
On the completion of this voyage Dumont d'Urville expressed some regret that the efforts of his officers and men were not sufficiently recognised. However, on 8 August 1829 Charles X signed an act promoting Dumont d'Urville to the rank of post captain and on 17 August l'Académie Royale des Sciences de l'Institut received with warm approval his official report of the expedition.
Dumont d'Urville was commanded by the King to publish an account of the voyage of the Astrolabe; comprising twelve volumes and five albums, it was completed by May 1835. Two volumes of a five volume text written by Dumont d'Urville deal almost entirely with New Zealand and include a journal narrative of the visit, with a lengthy section on Maori life, customs and language. He was also responsible for a volume of charts and maps, and another volume, Philologie, reflects his interest in linguistics. At the same time, using the device of a fictional voyager, Dumont d'Urville published privately in 1834–35 a popular, two volume work, Voyage pittoresque autour du monde. He wove into the narrative extracts from the voyages of other navigators.
On 7 September 1837 Dumont d'Urville left Toulon on his third voyage to the southern oceans. He wished to make the voyage in order to pursue ethnographic and linguistic studies and planned an extensive exploration of the Pacific and polar regions. He had two ships, the Astrolabe, which he commanded, and the Zélée, which was under the command of Captain Charles-Hector Jacquinot. In 1840 he visited New Zealand for the third time, from March until May, approaching from the Auckland Islands and sailing up the east coast of both South and North Islands. Some days were spent in Akaroa Harbour. During this visit Dumont d'Urville charted the coastline, met with Maori and European, and commented on the recent British annexation of New Zealand.
On his return to France Dumont d'Urville was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in December 1840 and was awarded the gold medal of the Société de Géographie, of which he was a foundation member. Again he received a royal command from King Louis-Philippe to publish an account of the voyage. He wrote the first three volumes of Voyage au pôle sud et dans l'Océanie and had completed the first three chapters of the fourth volume when he died with his wife and only surviving son in a railway accident between Bellevue and Meudon on 8 May 1842.
Dumont d'Urville achieved recognition in several fields during his lifetime. He was acknowledged as one of France's foremost authorities in geographical discovery. His were the first major charts of New Zealand after those of James Cook. A highly skilled navigator, he showed a marked talent for handling the men under his command, although he had a somewhat austere and proud manner. He was extremely knowledgeable about linguistics and later classified and amplified the copious notes he had made on the languages of the Pacific, including New Zealand. His reports on the voyages contain passages of great descriptive beauty, and he soon acquired a reputation as a writer of distinction.
As a botanist and cartographer Dumont d'Urville left his mark on New Zealand. He gave his name to the genus of seaweeds Durvillaea, which includes the giant bull-kelp; the seaweed Grateloupia urvilleana; the species of grass tree Dracophyllum urvilleanum; the shrub Hebe urvilleana and the buttercup Ranunculus urvilleanus. D'Urville Island was named in his honour by his officers and D'Urville River in Nelson was later named after him by Julius von Haast. Dumont d'Urville himself named Adele and Pepin islands and Adélie Land in Antarctica for his wife, and Croisilles Harbour for his mother's family.