10 Magnificent Maelstroms

Water can grant life but it can also be a dangerous force depending upon its intensity and form. Very small whirlpools can be seen spinning when a sink drains, but the powerful whirlpools in nature are magnificent and destructive. A whirlpool of extraordinary size or violence is a maelstrom. The swirling vortex is deadly. Here are 10 exquisite yet lethal maelstroms.

Mightiest Maelstrom in the World

(image via:Visit Norway)

Whirlpools are caused by a turbulent flow of water. When moving river water is forced to twist around an object or to stream into a narrower riverbed, the water flows faster and is more likely to create an energetic swirling turbulence. In the ocean, depending upon the geology of the sea bed, driving currents can collide and create conflicting tidal flows. Water spins counterclockwise north of the equator and clockwise south of the equator. The destructive interaction forms a whirlpool, a powerful circular current of water. A maelstrom, the vortex of a violent turbulence, is the most deadly of all.

As we believe a black hole in the depths of uncharted space would suck us in if we venture too close, so did ancient seafaring folk believe a giant whirlpool, a spinning vortex, would suck down ships and sailors to their watery demise.  When they sailed the largely unexplored seas, tales were exaggerated of maelstroms and the certain doom of impenetrable ocean depths. Even now though, small boats could be pulled down and sailors are warned to avoid these treacherous waters when the tide is running.  Currents speeds increase when the tides change, so even a large boat may find steering impossible until the maelstrom subsides.

Maelstrom of Saltstraumen

(images via:Flickr,Wikipedia,Flickr)

The Maelstrom of Saltstraumen is located next to Norway. Positioned near the Arctic Circle, the mightiest maelstrom in the world creates the strongest tidal currents on the globe. Every six hours, vigorous ocean currents can run up to 25 miles per hour as more than 105,668 gallons of water surge through the narrow strait that connects Skjerstadfjord and Saltenfjord. When the tidal currents turn, there is a “time window” when larger ships can sail through the sound. In fact, currents appear essentially calm during that time. Nevertheless locals and tourists are advised to use great caution when down by the sea or in a boat since the underwater currents are constantly churning, the water twisting, making the Maelstrom of Saltstraumen the most dangerous maelstrom on the planet.

Moskstraumen Maelstrom

(image via:Wikipedia)

While the Saltstraumen is the strongest maelstrom, the Moskstraumen is the most famous. Perhaps infamous thanks to Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Poe penned a story called A Descent into the Maelstrom and then Verne referred to it at the culmination of the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Herman Melville wrote about it through his character Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. Moskstraumen is thought to be the first mentioned maelstrom in history.

Referred to as simply Maelstrom, it has the dubious honor of 1500 years worth of descriptions about seafarer’s who met sea monsters and their doom in the treacherous whirlpool. Located off the Lofoten islands, Moskstraumen is the second strongest whirlpool in the world. However there are many people who would dispute the powerful circular currents of water that reach speeds of 17.27 mph as the most destructive maelstrom. Its forceful tidal currents, about five miles wide, flow along a deep marine channel between the Norwegian coast and the open sea.

Corryvreckan Whirlpool

(image via:Flickr,Craignish Cruises)

The third largest maelstrom in the world is located in the relatively narrow Strait of Corryvreckan. Extreme tidal currents surge into whirlpools swirling round and round due in part to its location between two islands off the west coast of Scotland and the pyramidal rock on the sea floor. 30 foot waves swell from a depth of 100 fathoms and the reverberation of nature’s fury is heard from as far as ten miles away. Bewitching and bizarre legends were told by Celtic people about the ominous vortex of churning water that at times appears more green than blue. Corryvreckan was once classified as unsafe for voyage, then “very violent and dangerous,” but writer George Orwell journeyed across the water just the same. Orwell was shipwrecked for a short time.

Some Scottish producers tossed a mannequin with a life jacket into the Corryvreckan or “Brecan’s Cauldron” during a documentary called “Lethal Seas.” The life-size dummy disappeared into the dangerous vortex. When the mannequin was later found far away, there was evidence of it being scraped along the bottom and 262 feet showed on the depth meter. The Discovery Channel picked up the film and aired it as “Sea Twister.”

Old Sow

(image via:Eastern Maine,Bay of Fundy)

The largest whirlpool on the Western Hemisphere is called Old Sow. This maelstrom is situated between the shores of Deer Island and Moose Island in-between New Brunswick and Maine. Old Sow derives its name from the “pig-like”sucking sounds that occur when the whirling streams and vortex seethes. Considered one of the five most meaningful maelstroms in the world, this intensely violent whirlpool creates a mighty roaring when the tides back up against a strong wind. Old Sow maelstroms that form between the bays of Fundy and Passamaquoddy have a diameter of about 250 feet, swell up to 20 feet high, and reach speeds of 17.15 mph.

Small to medium whirlpools on every side of Old Sow are called “piglets.” Dreadful and deafening disturbances aside, only smaller sailboats and other boats with keels are considered in danger to steer Old Sow while the tide is running. Most motorized boats are able to successfully navigate these waters. Other rare natural occurrences around Old Sow involve upwellings, standing waves, and non-vortexing depressions in the water.


(image via:Flickr)

The strait separating Naruto and Awaji is less than one mile wide. Naruto strait in located within a very narrow channel near Hyōgo, Japan where tides and water levels constantly fluctuate and throw strong tides into a vortex. The water speeds at over 8 mph through the Naruto channel four different times a day, twice flowing in and twice flowing out. The tidal currents twist like an underwater cyclone, swirling at a velocity of over 20 mph, making Naruto maelstroms the fourth fastest in the world. During the spring and autumn tides, the whirlpools have a diameter of over 65 feet. Tourists as well as locals watch the ebb and flow of giant whirlpools from ships or from above on the Naruto Bridge.

Kauai Maelstrom

(image via:Flickr,Flickr)

Sunrise kisses a marvelously mysterious phenomenon in Kaunai, Hawaii. The sea air whistles before a bellow of water pressure erupts through the lava tubes like a geyser. Before another blast of the blowhole, white foamy ocean sucks water in to swirl dangerous currents, a maelstrom of deadly dragging suction pulling down to the ocean twenty feet below the lava-ledge. This maelstrom of water is as enticing as it is lethal, a destructive downdraft of unrelenting natural violence.

Garofalo – Strait of Messina Whirlpool

(image via:Flickr,Flickr)

Homer told tales of Odysseus on a hazardous mystical sea voyage where he encountered two immortal creatures called Scylla and Charybdis. Although not a sea monster, Charybdis lives on in the Strait of Messina and is now called Garofalo. It is here that the sea floor drops considerably and winds flow against the direction of powerful tidal currents to form another oceanographic phenomenon. The Strait of Messina is 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point with a depth of 830 feet. The maelstrom of Garofalo occurs in the narrow body of water between the southern tip of Calabria and the eastern tip of Sicily, Italy. Dangerous choppy seas and rotating whirlpools can still overturn small sea vessels and the rough broken swells can create substantial navigational hazards for larger ones.

Niagara Falls Whirlpool

(image via:SmugMug,Flickr)

When the Niagara River is at full flow, the waters traverse over the rapids and enter a pool to create another “reversal phenomenon.” The body of water travels counterclockwise around the pool where it tries to cut across the natural outlet. Pressure builds up and forces the water under the incoming stream which causes the swirling Niagara Falls Whirlpool. The basin is 1,700 feet long by 1,200 feet wide with depths up to 125 feet.

Like most whirlpools, tourists are drawn to see the swirling natural forces in action. The oldest attraction at Niagara Falls is the Maid of the Mist boat cruise that sails passengers into the whirlpools beneath the Falls. The Rainbow Bridge, located downriver from the Falls, connects Niagara Falls, New York, and Ontario, Canada. It also allows great views of the whirlpools. The Whirlpool Aero Car is a cable car ride that “flies” passengers over the whirlpool on the Canadian side.

Ligurian Maelstrom

(image via:Flickr)

The Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea, is fed by the Arno River. Both the make of the sea bed and the conflicting tidal currents cause maelstroms to form. Tales and legends are thought to have been told about the whirlpools in this area south of Italy. The word maelstrom can also indicate chaos and inescapable destructive forces. The water in Ligurian Maelstrom writhes and foams, luring the unwise closer to have a better look at the crushing forces of nature.

Maelstrom Doctor’s Cove

(image via:Flickr)

In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, an area long heralded by maritime enthusiasts, a maelstrom forms in Doctor’s Cove. The combination of a blowhole and strong tidal currents create a forceful downdraft, a free vortex. Nowadays these maelstroms are well documented and charted out for boats to avoid.  Although powerful whirlpools have killed many, there is little actual evidence of large ships being sucked beneath the ocean. However the question remains, back in ancient times, who would have survived such a violent destruction to write about it? Myths and legends generally begin with a grain of truth. Is the same true for maelstroms?

Relaxing Whirlpool or Turbulent Tempest

(image via:Google Images,Flickr)

Some whirlpools, like the one in the bottom picture, are enticing and soothing. The picture on top depicts a maelstrom, a spinning underwater tornado that lures the adventurous and the curious nearer for a closer look into the natural phenomenon. Only you can decide if the relaxing whirlpool or the turbulent tempest calls to your soul.

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