Becalmed: changing terrors of the Sargasso Sea

Bring to mind ocean journeys, and you might well imagine high seas, rogue waves, ships dashed on rocks – tales of human resilience pitted against a wild and omnipotent ocean. But what of places where the elements relent, leaving boats to flounder in a windless sea?

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There is one such place renowned for its disquieting calms – the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless oval of water in the North Atlantic measuring some 2,000 by 700 miles. Bounded by ocean currents on all sides, the water rotates clockwise in an ocean gyre, slowly revolving like the eye of a hurricane. The area has struck terror into the minds of sailors for centuries. It was once known as the Horse Latitudes, after becalmed Spanish ships were forced to throw their horses overboard to save drinking water. Tales of ghost ships abound, their skeleton crews left to starve or go insane while their sails hung listlessly.

Despite its fearsome reputation, this singular place plays a vital role in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle calling the Sargasso Sea ‘the golden rain forest of the ocean’. A knotted mass of free-floating sargassum seaweed covers the surface, picked over by crabs, shrimp and curious fish. Young sea turtles shelter in the thick mat of vegetation, and most of the world’s freshwater eels are spawned here.

Sadly, these revolving ocean currents also pull in vast amounts of ocean plastics, which knot together with the sargassum to form so-called windrows: long rafts of free-floating debris. Even more disturbing, below the surface a fog of microplastics is steadily making its way into the marine food chain. The most terrifying ocean journey of all is one of our own making.

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a one-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea;