Literature is full of examples of whirlpools. One of the first was written by Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1841 story, “A Descent into a Maelström,” and since then, dramatic whirlpools large and powerful enough to suck in full sized ships to the bottom of the ocean have played many a role in fictional stories, from the ending of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne to the tale where a group of adventurers goes to a ruined, underground city in the Dragonlance Chronicles.
The giant Atlantic Ocean whirlpools seen by satellite.
The Truth About Maelstroms
The original maelstrom as described by Edgar Allan Poe is the Moskstraumen, which is caused by tidal currents off the Norwegian coast. Unlike the powerful vortex that is depicted in Poe’s story, the Moskstraumen is not a circular vortex that reaches the bottom of the ocean but is rather a set of currents and crosscurrents that travel at around 18 kph. The strongest maelstrom on record, however, is the Saltstraumen, also off the Norwegian coast, and is caused by the world’s strongest tide meeting the perfect geographical conditions at that location.
Other naturally maelstroms exist throughout the world, such as the Corryvreckan off Scotland, which is so loud it can be heard up to 16 kilometers away, and the Old Sow Whirlpool off the American coast, and their causes are much the same as those of the Moskstraumen and the Saltstraumen.
Maelstroms can also take place during natural disasters, such as tsunamis. The March 11, 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan created a maelstrom off Oarai, in the Ibaraki Prefecture, which was recorded on video and which became a viral sensation.
The March 11, 2011 earthquake whirlpool in Japan and the Saltstraumen whirlpool (Wikipedia image).
Giant Whirlpools in the Atlantic Ocean
Whirlpools are another matter entirely, as these may be more like Poe’s description in appearance but can be larger in size. Whirlpools are well known phenomena that appear throughout the world’s oceans and can be created by to differences in water temperature and salinity. Cold water is heavier than warm water, and when masses of cold water move towards an area of warm water, the cold water tends to go under the water with higher temperature. But not all whirlpools are easy to explain.
Scientists have recently discovered two giant whirlpools in the Atlantic Ocean and they have no explanation for their existence. They measure approximately 400 kilometers and turn in a clockwise direction, much like frisbees when thrown in a backhand fashion using the right arm. Their rotation had been measured to be a meter per second, which is stronger than the prevailing currents. In the dry months, the whirlpools do not disappear even when the flow of the Amazon river to the West almost comes to a standstill. Thus, it’s been assumed that the outflow of the river has no direct relation to the giant whirlpools.