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The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea

The Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent Caribbean Sea both are semi enclosed arms of the Atlantic Ocean and thus are often named the American Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: NASA, SeaWIFS)

The Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent Caribbean Sea both are semi enclosed arms of the Atlantic Ocean and thus are often named the American Mediterranean Sea. While the Gulf of Mexico has wide shelves far extending into the sea, the Caribbean shelves are narrow and partly steeply sloping towards depths of 2,000 to 3,000 Meters. Both seas are well investigated today, however the geological development is still under discussion. Volcanic activity and earthquakes are common in the Caribbean Sea.


Many small passages and straits connect both seas with the Atlantic Ocean, however, water exchange between the basins is limited since the connections are mostly extremely shallow. The Yucatán Channel links the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico. The Caribbean's water is clear, less salty than the Atlantic and has a counterclockwise current. The water mainly enters to the Caribbean through the Lesser Antilles, is warmed, and exits via the Yucatán Channel towards the Gulf of Mexico, where it forms one tail end of the Gulf Stream.


The Caribbean Sea is located in the northern trade wind belt and has steady winds form easterly directions. The rainfall is most heavy in summer when extreme tropical climate prevails. Most of the Hurricanes of the American Mediterranean enter the area from the Atlantic Ocean, while only few are formed locally.



Carriacou (Lesser Antilles)
Union Island (Lesser Antilles)

The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea contain some of the most divers and spectacular wild life in the World. Besides the rare manatees, the playful bottlenose dolphins and the large whale sharks, also sea turtles, alligators and migrating cranes are abundant species. Particularly the Gulf of Mexico has rich fish species including trout, red fish, flounder, mackerel, tuna and others.


Unfortunately, the region also has some environment problems. Tourism, game fishing and commercial fishing already destroyed different small reef islands. Local shrimpers clash with turtle-savers, and environmentalists worry about by-catch of different fish species. However, in the past years the decline of the pelicans and the cranes could be turned around and many coral reefs now have careful monitors and restorers.


Oil and gas, iron ore, bauxite, sugar, coffee, and bananas are the main local products traded on the American Mediterranean Sea. Onshore refineries and thousands of offshore drilling platforms are sited in the sea, however, spills and platform fires are often not under control. Economically, the region depends additionally on U.S./European trade relationships and on a large tourism industry.


Probably the first European, who entered the Caribbean Sea, was the Italian seafarer Christopher Columbus. He touched land for the Spanish crown in the Bahamas in 1492 and he was convinced that he had discovered a new sea route to Asia. He continued south and founded a Spanish colony on the island of Hispaniola. Although Spain controlled most of the sea in the following, UK, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark established colonies on the islands along the eastern island fringe. The 1800s brought U.S. ships into the Caribbean, especially after 1848, when many gold-seekers crossed the sea to reach California. Since World War II, several Caribbean islands host U.S. military bases, which were established as support bases to protect the Panama Canal. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (established in 1899) is the oldest U.S. Caribbean base.


Main islands and island groups

Numerous US American and Mexican coastal islands (e.g. Dernieres and Timbalier Islands)


Major tributaries

Usamacinta, Aalabama, Mississippi, Brazos, Nueces, Rio Grande, Sabine



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