Like the surface of a busy swimming pool, spacetime is awash with waves generated by the local and distant motions of mass and, in principle, much of this activity can be reconstructed by analysing the waveforms. However, instrumentation with a reasonable chance of directly detecting these gravitational waves has only become available within the past year, with the LIGO detectors now running at design sensitivity. Here we review the burgeoning field of observational gravitational astrophysics: using gravitational wave detectors as telescopes to help answer a wide range of astrophysical questions from neutron-star physics to cosmology. The next generation of ground-based telescopes should be able to make extensive gravitational observations of some of the more energetic events in our local universe. Looking only slightly further ahead, the space-based LISA observatory will reveal the gravitational universe in phenomenal detail, supplying high-quality data on perhaps thousands of sources, and tackling some of the most fascinating questions in contemporary astronomy.