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What is a Whirlpool?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A whirlpool is a rotating current of water which creates a characteristic vortex. Many myths and legends of the sea have featured whirlpools, typically in situations involving great peril to shipping, and there are a number of famous whirlpools around the world which form consistently and frequently. An especially powerful whirlpool is known as a maelstrom; one of the more notable maelstroms is the Moskstraumen, an immense network of eddies and whirlpools off the coast of Norway.

Several things can lead to the formation of a whirlpool. Most commonly, whirlpools are caused by the meeting of opposing currents. When the currents are strong enough, they can start to wrap around each other, creating a spiral of rapidly swirling water. Whirlpools can also be caused by winds, which may cause surface currents to switch direction, and consistent whirlpools are sometimes caused by geographical features which determine the flow of water currents in a region.

When people hear the term “whirlpool,” they usually visualize a swirling vortex of water which is powerful enough to swallow up ships. In fact, most whirlpools are not nearly powerful enough to destroy ships, and many appear almost invisible, with the currents in the whirlpool moving below the surface of the water. In order for a ship to be damaged in a whirlpool, the flow must be especially strong, and the ship unusually small or flimsy.

Some notable whirlpools around the world can be found in places like Scotland, where the Gulf of Corryvreckan often develops a whirlpool, along with Japan, where visitors can see the famous Naruto Whirlpool. A number of smaller whirlpools come and go along the coastlines of the world, and occasionally emerge in rivers, lakes, and streams as well.

Because any change in current can influence navigation, many mariners like to avoid whirlpools, especially if they are in charge of small boats. While large ships can often pass through a whirlpool without major issue, small boats may find themselves buffeted about in the whirlpool, and they could suffer damage or be thrown off course. Major recurrent whirlpools are typically marked in navigational charts for this reason.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon994905 — On Mar 16, 2016

Very well written and simplified. I'm using this for school and it's helping me a lot. The information is simple enough to understand, but has enough detail so you gain a lot of information.

By geronimo8 — On Mar 21, 2011

If there are whirlpools that are large enough to do damage to a small boat, are they visible on the surface of the water? Or do you just need to know where they are in advance?

If they are visible, I would love to see one. Without getting too close, of course!

By claire24 — On Mar 19, 2011

I knew that there were some recurring whirlpools, like the one off of Scotland, but I didn't realize that they could occur in rivers, lakes, and streams too! How exactly do these whirlpools form?

Could they be a danger to swimmers? It seems like they could. Is there a way to identify where these whirlpools are so that you don't accidentally swim into one?

By elizabeth2 — On Mar 17, 2011

I didn't know that there were actually natural occurring whirlpools! I thought it was just the stuff of legends.

It's good to know that they don't actually swallow ships like in the stories! I would hate to encounter one in a small boat though. I get nervous enough out on the water. I can't imagine what it would be like to be knocked around by a whirlpool!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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