The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest of the world’s five oceans, covering around 20 percent of the Earth’s total surface. Stretching from the Americas to Europe, the tropical beaches of Venezuela to New York’s Manhattan island, and the Arctic to Africa, the Atlantic spans over 100 million square kilometers, but is it dangerous?
The Atlantic is as diverse as it is vast. Second only to the Pacific in size, the Atlantic drives many global weather patterns. Ocean currents act like conveyor belts, carrying cold water from the poles to the equator, and warm water to the poles from the tropics. While the Atlantic, like the world’s other oceans, helps regulate climate, it also brings hurricanes, foggy seas, and ice sheets southwards. So what does this mean for seafarers?
Our guide looks at all the dangers of traveling the Atlantic from tsunami risks to killer fish and everything in between. Let’s get into it.
Is the Atlantic Ocean dangerous?
The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest ocean in the world. It drives global weather patterns, including tropical hurricanes, and it is home to a diverse range of sea life. The Atlantic Ocean is actually connected to all the other oceans in some way or another. Its name might come from Greek Mythology, but it is the youngest of the world’s five oceans and is thought to have forged during the Jurassic Period more than 150 million years ago.
Between 195 million and 170 million years ago, a rift opened up within the supercontinent, Pangaea, causing the new crust to form along the underwater Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This drove the breakup of the continent, opening up the Central Atlantic and forming the final and second-largest world ocean.
The Atlantic has been an important avenue for trade and travels over the centuries, and it was the first ocean to be crossed by plane. However, the resting place of the Titanic and the home of the Bermuda Triangle isn’t without its dangers.
The Atlantic Ocean is often dubbed the second-most dangerous ocean in the world, unsurprisingly, following the Pacific, the largest world ocean, but it’s not all about size. Exposure to coastal winds, water surface temperature, and strong currents all make parts of the Atlantic more treacherous than the expansive Pacific Ocean at times.
Open water is always dangerous because it is unpredictable, and the Atlantic Ocean is certainly no different, but it depends where you are and what activities you’re undertaking. The Mediterranean Sea, for example, although its own body of water is part of the Atlantic, and it often ranks as one of the safest seas in the world.
Calm waters, protected bays, and Blue Flag beaches make the Med not only a destination for snorkeling, swimming, and water sports but deep-sea diving and long-haul sailing charters. That said, the 30-foot seas in the North Atlantic tell a very different story.
Most modern tankers and commercial shipping giants make successful trips across all areas of the world’s oceans every day. Still, these trips are never without their problems, and it isn’t just rough seas that can make the Atlantic dangerous.
What is the weather like in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
Although you’ve likely heard stories of freak waves and drifting ice sheets, the Atlantic Ocean, in general, has a mild and moderate climate. That said, the weather on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa in the middle of January is obviously going to be different from the weather on the Manhattan Coast of the US at the same time.
Because the Atlantic is so big and responsible for pushing cold air to warm places, like a conveyor belt, this can create dangerous weather. The Atlantic has a distinct hurricane period because these tropical storms are often formed over the ocean, in the same way, every ear. Warm ocean water and humid air in low-pressure zones are to blame for hurricanes. They occur when humid air rises over warm water, creating storm clouds when the water is released from the air. The air in a hurricane also rotates as it rises.
Hurricanes often form in the central Atlantic, but also over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. They tend to start moving with a westward trajectory but can strike North America when they recurve.
The Atlantic might also have a reputation for being cold, but it varies wherever you go, and in the US, it can be as much as 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the Pacific in places. The average temperature of the Atlantic hovers between 43 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, quite a jump. As cold air flows mix with warmer waters, this can also cause fog which can pose big problems for ships.
The North and South Atlantic are often broadly separated by scientists and geographers, thanks to their distinct ocean currents that influence different weather patterns across the world. The North Atlantic, which spans from the east coast of America and the Caribean to Iceland and the Arctic and over to Western Europe and Northwest Africa, is the larger subsection of the ocean and is widely considered to be more dangerous.
This is where you’ll find the most treacherous weather. However, in the middle of the North Atlantic, freak waves can be much easier for boats to ride over compared to when you’re close to the shore and temperatures will never get as low as they are in the far north near the Arctic Circle. So, even if open water seems most daunting – and it can be – the technical middle of the Atlantic doesn’t necessarily have the worst weather. Hurricanes can form here, but they only really pick up momentum and cause serious damage when they hit land.
Which part of the Atlantic Ocean is most dangerous?
Surprisingly, the Bay of Biscay, enclaved between France’s west coast and Spain’s far north, is often deemed one of the most dangerous areas of the Atlantic Ocean. This large gulf has a unique geographical position in the northeast Atlantic meaning it attracts powerful winds and strong swell, not helped by the shallow sea bed which produces large waves.
This shoreline, which swoops down the entire length of western France and along Spain’s north coast, is well-known for its picturesque beaches, historical port towns, and glamorous resorts like San Sebastian. This Basque Country city is home to upscale restaurants and is a regular stomping ground for the rich and famous, but despite being a premier yacht destination, violent storms and rough seas are commonplace.
It isn’t always temperamental, and around 45 percent of cruisers don’t hit bad weather in the Bay of Biscay, especially those who cross in June and July, but autumn brings the first storms, and the clockwise circulation in the North Atlantic is mirrored by the currents of the bay, creating abnormally high waves that are known to capsize even large tankers.
In fact, coastal areas tend to be more dangerous when it comes to rough seas, especially for smaller vessels. Jagged rocks and sand bays lie in wait close to the shore, while deep sea currents tend to well up and disturb the water surface near shallow areas like ridges.
Is it safe to cross the Atlantic Ocean?
So, is it safe to cross the Atlantic? Despite all these horror stories, the ocean waters can be very calm, especially if you’re cruising in the right areas at the right time of year. Summer in the northern hemisphere, for example, is one of the most tranquil seasons in the Atlantic, but Atlantic crossings are strongly unadvised at this time because the nearer you edge to the tropics, the higher risk you face of hurricanes.
The Atlantic Ocean is also subject to weather shifts and rapid temperature changes, so you can never rely too heavily on a good season. While Arctic Seas are best suited to big commercial trawlers, sailors cross the Atlantic all the time and face little issues. In fact, more than 1,200 sailboats cross from east to west every year, including single-handed sailors, couples, and even families with young kids. If you want to sail the wide ocean seas, you just need to make sure you do so in a seaworthy vessel.
You need a boat that is at least 30 feet long, whether you’re motoring or sailing the Atlantic. Very rough seas can make for unpleasant and not to mention dangerous conditions, but yachts are always prepared for bad weather. That said, if you don’t know what you’re doing at sea, you can die at sea, so you can’t just rely on a good boat to get you across.
There are clearly defined weather windows for crossing the Atlantic, even if it is often seen as a year-long adventure. If you want to do an Atlantic Circuit, starting in Europe and crossing over to the Caribbean before heading north up America’s east coast and crossing back, most voyages will set sail in late November or December and start their return back to Europe in May.
There’s an important reason for this timetable, mainly that it avoids the hurricane season that runs from the beginning of June to the end of November. The best time to sail across the Atlantic is between November and February, but the usual advice is to get south as soon as possible, especially if you’re crossing the Bay of Biscay since the likelihood of gale winds increases later in the year, as does the chance of strong south-westerly winds.
However, another big risk of crossing any ocean and, in fact, one of the biggest dangers for all seafarers, whether you are cruising by trawler or humble sailboat, has nothing to do with the ocean waters at all. No matter how equipped you are for rough seas and changing weather, all ships are prone to piracy.
They might not be rum-drinking, eyepatch-wearing, hook-bearing characters, but pirates certainly aren’t just the stuff of your childhood bedtime stories. Golden Age pirates primarily roamed the Caribbean, North America, and Africa, but today, the Indian Ocean is one of the most prominent areas affected by marine piracy, especially around the Straits of Malacca off Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the waters off Somalia. Still, there is a constant threat of piracy in the Atlantic, as in any ocean, and seafaring criminals can operate both independently or as privateers, working for companies and even governments.
Do tsunamis happen in the Atlantic Ocean?
Sailors in the Atlantic often report freak waves and wild weather, but tsunamis are less common here than they are elsewhere in the world. Compared to the Pacific Ocean and its notorious Ring of Fire, there are a lot fewer volcanoes and less seismic activity in the Atlantic. The only subduction zones in the Atlantic – which are the most common catalysts for tsunami-causing earthquakes – are found along the Caribbean Sea, meaning Atlantic Ocean tsunamis are possible but rare.
You can find active volcanoes in a few Atlantic regions, including on the Spanish Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa. The Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma, for example, faces an imminent risk of a large landslide which could cause an Atlantic tsunami.
However, the likelihood of tsunami waves maintaining their height away from La Palma enough to cause any significant damage after such a collapse is low. Continental shelves would have a further impact on this. In the Canary Islands, these landslides/collapses also happen around once every 100,000 years, whereas they are much more common in the Pacific.
Is there dangerous sea life in the Atlantic Ocean?
On top of currents, pirates, and deadly fog, the Atlantic is also roamed by some diverse wildlife. While most of these underwater creatures wouldn’t affect a sailing trip or a dip in the Mediterranean, some can pose a threat, even to sailors.
First of all, the Atlantic is home to around 43 species of shark. Most regions aren’t known for their shark-infested waters, but the Atlantic laps Florida, Cape Cod, Cornwall, and South Africa’s Western Cape, where sharks have historically terrorized coastal communities.
Most of the Atlantic’s unique sea species dwell close to the seabed in solemn darkness, but aggressive sharks like bull sharks, whitetips, basking sharks, and even great whites, among others, all roam close to the surface in the Atlantic and can pose a threat to swimmers, although attacks are rare.
One of the more real and imminent wildlife risks to seafarers in the Atlantic is whales. We’re not talking about rogue killer whales leaping from the water and sinking their teeth into the side of your trawler Jaws-style (although fatal whale attacks have been reported by sailors), rather boats cruising open offshore water can quite easily hit whales sleeping at the surface of the water, and very large ones at that. Although rare, such incidents have caused boats to capsize and the same can happen if a large whale unexpectedly swims up from underneath the boat and collides with it.
Boats have a lot of software to detect obstacles in the water, but big trawlers often receive so many false alarms from their forward-looking sonars that they have to turn them off. Also, when your technology alerts you to a giant mammal beneath your boat, there is little you can do about it, other than panic, which doesn’t help anything.
Is the Atlantic Ocean cold?
The Atlantic is usually assumed to be cold since it encompasses Arctic water and laps cold regions in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s true that the Atlantic can be very cold and even reach sub-zero temperatures, but it experiences a lot of regional variation. The Atlantic waters on the US East Coast can be relatively warm thanks to warm air and water moving up from the south, in comparison to the chilly west coast Pacific waters that arrive from the Gulf of Alaska in the north. The Atlantic varies between 38 degrees Fahrenheit and 89 degrees Fahrenheit and it all depends on where you go.
Are there sharks in the Atlantic Ocean?
There are more than 40 species of shark found in the Atlantic Ocean, from dogfish to killer great whites. Most Atlantic waters aren’t shark-infested, so to speak, and sharks tend not to pose a huge risk to swimmers, but attacks are rife in places like South Africa and the southeast coast of America. In fact, more shark attacks occur in Florida’s Atlantic waters than anywhere else in the world.
Which ocean is the most dangerous?
Despite coming from the Latin word pācificus meaning “peacemaking”, the Pacific Ocean is often deemed the most dangerous ocean owing to its large size, but the Atlantic with its strong currents and rough winds isn’t far behind. Sailing through the Indian Ocean also poses its own challenges, such as piracy, making its waters pretty deadly, but the South China Sea, the most important body of water for the world economy, is often deemed the most dangerous sea in human terms since militaries of the US and the East could easily clash there.