Warehouse B
Swirling Waters
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Mystery Maelstroms Really Exist


By James Donahue


Old sailors used to spun yarns about sea monsters and giant maelstroms that swallow ships. The stories were part of the lore of the sea, but there was usually a bit of truth attached. Monster creatures including unusually large octopi have been observed in the deep, and there are at least two known places in the world where powerful maelstroms of swirling water are known to exist.


The most powerful of the two is Saltstraumen, a strait between Skjerstadfjorden and Saltenfjorden, Norway, near the City of Bodo. There a rushing tidal current every six hours creates a giant whirlpool that can get as large as 10 meters in diameter and whirl at speeds estimated at 20 knots.


The tides rise and fall every six hours, so the whirlpool is observed regularly four times a day. Also there is a strong current through the strait that changes direction every six hours.


The other whirlpool, also caused by shifting tides, is known as Old Sow. It can be seen from the shores of Eastport, Maine in the Western Passage of the Passamaquoddy Bay near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. The phenomenon gets its name from the sounds that can be heard from the churning waters.


It is said the whirlpool forms when the rising tide passes both sides of Indian Island, takes a sharp right turn around the southern tip of Deer Island and floods the Western Passage. They say the deep valleys and peaks on the ocean floor, going as deep as 400 feet, also contribute to the events that occur on the surface.


Old Sow is said to be most active about three hours before high tide. This activity goes on for about two hours and can be seen as a collection of small gyres, troughs, spouts and holes. On rare occasions a large swirling funnel, sometimes up to 250 feet wide, is formed. The area is most active during spring tides or during a full moon.


Are whirlpools like Old Sow dangerous and can ships we caught in them. The answer is yes and it has happened. There are stories of vessels and lives lost in the maelstrom but the most serious accidents in recent years have involved near misses.


In 1995 a fishing boat, the Fundy Star II, rolled on its side when caught in the current. The three crew members were rescued by a nearby boat.