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Old 02-03-2003
Michael Zezima Michael Zezima is offline
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Is the Red Sea Red?


Many of the world's waters have the names they do for a reason, despite often giving the appearance of not exactly living up to the description all the time.
Every time I glance over my wife's shoulder to see what's occupying her time on the computer, I'm not at all surprised to behold a sailboat cruising in the high seas alongside the text of a SailNet article. You see, Michele loves sailing so much that in this house, I sometimes feel like the second mate. But even though the majority of my navigating is done within the confines of the New York City subway system, I've recently begun the ominous task of risking sea-sickness. Yes, my wife can now happily report that I am gradually becoming a novice sailor.

Nonetheless, because I am an inquisitive writer and self-educated historian, Michele does have to deal with my incessant queries and boundless curiosity about the brine I'll soon be floating upon. For now, she can worry about the sheets and anchors, and I'll be sufficiently absorbed with my thoughts of names and history and geography. Unfortunately, on a planet comprised of 70 percent water, the vast majority of us are severely land-locked when it comes to resolving the lesser-known nautical quandaries. You know, the more abstruse questions that go beyond apparent wind, rig tuning, or precisely how much beer can fit into the average cooler. So, that's what this piece is about: crucial questions, essential questions, poignant questions. For example, as the Bard might propose, what's in a name?


The surroundings of sea and sky at sunset have captivated mariners since man first took to the water.
Although it's difficult for me to imagine manning the tiller along the coast of Africa, I would like to know this: Is the Red Sea red? The answer, it turns out, is sometimes. Long before Moses, the perpetual shifting of tectonic plates bestowed upon the continent of Africa a northeast coast of its very own. Along this coast, enormous masses of red Trichodesmium erythraeum algae occasionally permeate the water that opportunistically rushed in to fill the gap now known as the Great Rift. But all this scarlet seaweed doesn't exactly make the narrow strait red. Sir Walter Raleigh once described it as "no more than a seeming redness," and "in some places it is very green, in others white and yellow, according to the color of the earth or sand at the bottom." Still, the Red Sea does display some redness and will continue to do so unless, of course, the crimson kelp responsible for this phenomenon gets killed off by manmade pollution.

Sure, in this day and age of industrial contamination, there are far more dead bodies of water than there should be, but the original Dead Sea has a more organic derivation. However, first things first: The Dead Sea is not a sea at all, it's a lake—a very salty lake situated between Israel and Jordan, some 1,289 feet below sea level.

"The extremely high salt content is a result of rapid evaporation of the water due to the area's extremely high temperatures," explains Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don¹t Know Much About Geography: Everything You Need to Know About the World but Never Learned. "This high saline level insures that practically no life forms can exist." Thus, the inaccurate, yet understandable "dead" label.


The Black Sea is actually a tideless lake fed by various European rivers.
The Black Sea has earned its name not based on coloration, but on disposition. This tideless, inland sea (yes, another lake) is fed by various European rivers, including the heavily-polluted Danube. "The large influx of freshwater creates two levels within the lake," Davis writes. "Below a certain depth, little life exists."

By the way, now that you know that the Dead and Black Seas are indeed dead and black lakes, you sailors might find it beneficial to discover that our planet's largest lake is also commonly accepted as a sea. The Caspian Sea, named for the Caspii, an ancient tribe with far more useful things to do than differentiate between lakes and seas, measures 143,244 miles square. Its closest competitor in size is Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake, which is only 31,700 miles square (but, hey, at least it knows it's a lake). Incidentally, the Aral Sea, a central Asian neighbor of the Caspian, is also a lake.

While the Caspian Sea has a maximum depth of 3,363 feet, the earth's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baykal, which bottoms out at 5,315 feet and contains more water than all five Great Lakes combined.

Moving along the color spectrum, there's the Yellow Sea, also known as Hwang Hai, which is, well, kinda yellow. Located between China and Korea, the Yellow Sea gets its name (and distinguishing shade) from something called loess, a rich, tawny silt deposited by the (what else?) Yellow River, or Hwang Ho. Of course, as every mariner knows, there is another explanation for why any particular body of water may exhibit a golden hue, but that is for another article. For now, let's just say loess is more.


This scene—captured in a wood cut— would  eventually give way to the towering skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, leaving only a street sign signifying its former identity.
Here's a bit of naming history for my fellow Big Apple-based cruisers. Though there's plenty of good sailing to be done on the Hudson River, a quick survey of Manhattan Island itself provides no hint of its somewhat soupy past. Decades ago the island was crisscrossed by streams, marshlands, swamps, and ponds, many of them navigable. Most if not all of these were drained to make way for "progress," and the island's largest body of water—once called the Collect Pond (a name derived from the Dutch "kalchook," or Lime Shell Point)—was among them. Positioned essentially within the bounds of present-day Franklin, Worth, Lafayette, and Baxter Streets, the Collect Pond was fished out by the mid 1700s and became the site of a public works program in the early nineteenth century. To drain Collect Pond, a canal was constructed running east and west. This canal was later filled in and paved to become, of course, Canal Street. In other words, say goodbye to windblown vessels and wave hello to the internal combustion engine. So you can see there's always a twist behind a name or label, in this case, what we call progress.