The aerosol optical depth (AOD) and Angstrom exponent for the period 2002-2004 is evaluated for clean marine and continentally influenced air masses over the northeast Atlantic region. Measurements were carried out at the Mace Head atmospheric research station on the west coast of Ireland using a precision filter radiometer which measures the aerosol optical depth at four wavelengths centered at 368, 412, 500, and 862 nm. The clean marine AOD at 500 nm is characterized by a mean value of 0.14 +/- 0.06, exhibiting relatively small temporal variability. The Angstrom exponent was less than 1 for the majority of cases, having an average value of 0.40 +/- 0.29 in clean marine conditions. The latter is consistent with the presence of relatively large supermicron particles, such as sea salt dominating the marine aerosol size distribution. The Angstrom exponent shows a distinct seasonal cycle in clean marine air, with maximum values being derived in the summer months and minimum values in the winter. In continental air masses, while the range and standard deviation of the AOD is larger than in clean marine conditions, the overall mean AOD (tau(500) = 0.19 +/- 0.12) is comparable with the clean marine AOD. The continental Angstrom exponent is larger, having a mean value of 1.07 +/- 0.32. This is attributed to a dominating accumulation mode in the presence of urban-industrial aerosol particles originating mainly from continental Europe. These results demonstrate how the natural marine AOD can rival polluted AOD over the northeast Atlantic region and highlight the importance of the natural marine aerosol contribution over oceans.