Sailing Into The Black Sea: Facts & Myths That Spur Interests

by | Last updated Nov 24, 2023 | Navigation | 0 comments

The Black Sea, mystifying as it may sound, is not really black nor with any sense of it. Spoiler alert: its waters are actually the same colors as any other sea or ocean.

The word black may symbolize evil, disaster, or something supernatural. Black Magic, Black Death, or Black Friday- you name it, right? 

However, none of these has anything to do with the Black Sea.

Contrary though, this body of water is rich in marine life. It is home to countless species of aquatic creatures that thrive within its depths. 

Aside from the blooming sea life, it also serves as an economic hub that creates a livelihood for people living near its coasts.

I’ve sailed into this body of water many years ago. As a matter of experience, it’s one of the calmest seas I’ve been to. 

I still remember our ship making a water ballast exchange before approaching the port of Novorossiysk, Russia.So what made it earn the name “Black Sea”?

Dolphins swimming in the calm and turquoise waters of the "Sea in the North".
Dolphins swimming in the Black Sea.

The Myth: Why Do We Call it the “Black Sea”?

Let us explore the many stories surrounding this body of water.

During the height of the Greek empire, they initially called this region Pontos Axeinos. They adopted the name from an ancient Iranian word axšaina or axšaēna meaning “dark colored”.

The reason why they call it so has got something to do with the features of its waters and the people living on the nearby shores.

From Inhospitable to Hospitable

Due to the presence of very hostile tribes living along its coasts, ancient sailors named it the “Inhospitable Sea”. These ethnic groups often fight against each other while being unfriendly to foreigners.

But that was just the surface. The waters of the Black Sea were extremely difficult to navigate using their ships. They also can’t find any island to serve as a refuge whenever the waters become turbulent.

Adding the threat from the shore and the unmerciful waters cemented the notion that this body of water is not friendly.

However, the Greeks, highly superstitious as they were, believed that calling it the “Inhospitable Sea” was a bad omen. To them, it denotes something sinister or threatening.

Thenceforth, they changed the name to Eúxeinos Póntos or Euxine Sea which literally means “Hospitable Sea”. This was also after they conducted a massive military campaign, colonized the southern coasts, and eliminated the savage tribes.

The Sea in the North

During the reign of the Achaemenids, bodies of water were named in reference to colors. It’s like color-coding certain directions for simpler identification.

Black or dark represents the North, red the South, white represents the West, and green or light blue for the East

This symbolism pertaining to cardinal points was used during Herodotus’ time. Ancient records found today also support this data.

If you were part of that empire, the map below would tell you about it.

Map of the Achaemenid Empire with the Red Sea (South), Mediterranean Sea (West), and the "Sea in the North".
The Achaemenid Empire.

We can find the “Red Sea” south of the Achaemenid Empire. Before calling it the Mediterranean Sea, its other name was “White Sea”. 

The Black Sea was called the “Sea in the North” because it was north of the empire.

But we already have a “Sea in the North” which is the North Sea. That’s another story for some other time.

Dark Color Beneath the Waters

Though it has been mistakenly named for its color, there have been instances where the water in the  Black Sea darkened or at least created a black sludge.

During intense storms, the sea appears to look black. Sailors mostly noticed it, especially during winter when clouds cover the skies. 

Thick fog also blocks the sun from penetrating into the waters thereby making the water look gloomy.

People found old shipwrecks dating back to ancient times. The black sludge covering those boats reinforces the idea of calling it the Black Sea.

Black Sea Interesting Facts

Though its name spells doom, gloom, and peril, the Black Sea is one of the most interesting seas out there.

It continues to amaze seafarers, marine biologists, scientists, and tourists from around the world. In fact, some of the world’s best holiday destinations are found within its coastlines.

1. The Second Biggest Sea in Europe

Black Sea covers an area of 168,500 square miles which is the second biggest sea in Europe, next to the Mediterranean Sea.

The deepest part is 2,212 meters with a total volume of 131,000 cubic miles. Its longest east-to-west distance is 730 miles or more than two days if your ship runs at 12.5 knots.

Though it is that huge, only six major rivers surround it namely the Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, Don, Southern Bug, and the Rioni.

Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus Strait and Eúxeinos Póntos

2. Largest Meromictic Basin

Say what?

Here’s an interesting fact: the upper layers of water do not intermix with the deeper layers of water. That is the reason why it’s called meromictic. 

The flow pattern is primarily controlled by basin topography and fluvial inputs which result in a strongly stratified vertical structure.

This condition makes 90% of its deeper part anoxic or empty of oxygen. The oxygen-rich (upper) layer is not able to circulate below. So yeah, this may qualify for the name Black Sea, at least for humans.

As a result, marine life primarily exists from the top up to a few hundred meters of its depth. The deeper it goes, the less oxygen it has until it reaches zero from approximately 200 meters.

3. Has Currents. No Tide

For us sea folks, the presence of currents normally indicates the presence of tide. But not in the Black Sea.

This body of water has no tide throughout the year which means that the water level doesn’t change. Well, actually it does but for a very tiny amount. Good for sailors during their port watch!

Two types of currents exist in the Black Sea. First is the water-driven currents that happen at the surface. Second is the newly discovered undersea current which goes through the Bosporus Strait.

Besides the horizontal currents, there are also vertical currents or “upwelling” but only limited from the water surface down to 200 meters.

4. Two-Lane Currents

Double currents occur in the Bosporus Strait and the Kerch Strait.

This is how they work.

Less dense and less saline waters from the Black Sea flow on the surface of the Bosporus Strait to the Sea of Marmara.

Since the waters coming from the Sea of Marmara are more saline and denser, its inflow to the Black Sea takes place under the strait.

Due to this phenomenon, scientists discovered the presence of undersea currents along the bottom of the “Hospitable Sea”.

This feature is the same in Kerch Strait.

5. Landlocked Sea

As you can see on the map, the “Euxine Sea” is mostly covered by land. Remember that it is called a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean.

To get there, you have to enter the Straight of Gibraltar and sail through the Mediterranean Sea. As soon as you reach Greece, sail northward over the Aegean Sea. Pass the Straight of Dardanelles until you reach the Sea of Marmara.

The Straight of Bosporus separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

The only way to get in and get out of “The Sea in the North” is to pass through the Bosporus Strait. 

This means that Turkey has the monopoly (if they want to) over the other five countries surrounding the Black Sea- Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia.

Surrounding countries are Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Landlocked sea.

6. 2,500 Years

It would take 2,500 years if we were to completely “recycle” the water in the Black Sea.

In other words, adding new water while simultaneously filling it up using the Turkish Straits takes 2 and a half millennia to finish.

This is because the water exchange in the Bosporus is very slow and the channel itself is very narrow.

7. World’s Largest H2S Deposits

Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) is a very dangerous gas. It smells like rotten eggs in tolerable concentrations. 

At higher amounts, your sense of smell begins to numb until you start losing consciousness and eventually die.

On board, H2s is dubbed as a killer gas. It claimed many lives already and seafarers are extra careful with it.

However, I was surprised that the Black Sea contains the biggest amounts of H2S. Right when you are avoiding this gas, it just sits under the depth of its waters. 

Aside from the gas itself being fatal, it’s also highly flammable!

The presence of H2S is another reason why marine life only exists from the water surface up to a depth of 200 meters.

But here’s a grim prediction.

Computer models show that an asteroid impact in the Black Sea would release these gas deposits and may wipe out life near its coasts.

Impending catastrophe! Perhaps this could be one explanation behind its name.

8. 50% Lower Salinity

The salinity of the waters in the Black Sea is 50% lower than that of the oceans even though they both share the same chemical composition.

Surface water in this region has a salinity of 17 PSU (particle salinity unit). Meanwhile, the water coming from the Mediterranean is 38 PSU. It reduces to 34 PSU once it reaches the Hospitable Sea.

The salinity increases with depth up to 21 PSU at roughly 50 to 150 meters. The deepest parts of this body of water have about 28 to 30 PSU.

Salinity increases to 38 PSU at the Bosporus.

This is interesting since there is a study indicating that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake during the Great Ice Age.

9. No Black Sea Bass

For the gourmets and fish enthusiasts out there, ironically, the Black Sea Bass doesn’t exist here. It only thrives along the US Atlantic coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico.

Black Sea Bass is a kind of fish that you can cook and serve grilled, sauteed, broiled, and steamed. It is also a popular fish for sport.

A black sea bass fish
A black sea bass fish.

10. Hitler’s Lost Fleet

Recently, divers found three of the six U-class submarines (U-18, U-19, U-20, U-21, U-22, U-23) at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Dubbed “Hitler’s Lost Fleet”, these subs were deployed to score against the Soviet fleet in that region.

The only way for these subs to go in (and out) the Black Sea was to use the Bosporus Strait. However, Turkey didn’t allow any military vessel to use that passage invoking the Montreux Convention.

Because of that, they disassembled the submarines, and loaded them into trucks that traveled 2,000 miles from Germany!

Divers discovered U-boats U-19, U20, and U-23 a few miles off the coast of Turkey.

Remnants off the sunken German U-23 submarine.
Sunken German U-23 submarine.

What’s your experience in the Black Sea?

May the winds be in your favor.



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