Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

The seas can stir up our fears. Photo by fernandosamalot/RooM the Agency/Corbis

Fear Ocean

For some, the ocean is a mesmerizing wonderland; for others, it’s a terror-inducing cesspit of horrors. Here are just five of the many coastal-related phobias people are afflicted with.

Authored by

by Anne Casselman

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The ocean covers 70 percent of our planet’s surface, and yet 95 percent of it is unexplored, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With such vast and uncharted waters, it’s no wonder that potential fears abound. In the words of author H.P. Lovecraft, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” So to those unlucky souls besieged by the following five oceanic phobias, whatever you do, avoid these extreme embodiments of your worst nightmares.


If the thought of the ocean’s yawning depths makes your heart race, then Challenger Deep, the deepest point in all the world’s oceans, is your personal Hades. Avoid it by steering clear of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean and its southern end, where the slot-shaped Challenger Deep lies. It shouldn’t be difficult: at that point, to reach the seabed you’d have to travel straight down for nearly 11 kilometers, a vertical distance that could swallow Mount Everest with two kilometers to spare. Definitely don’t make friends with James Cameron, famed director of Titanic, who in 2012 traveled to the bottom in a $10-million submersible designed to withstand pressure 1,000 times that at sea level.


It’s easy to see why that opaque soup of condensation we call fog strikes fear in some. It obscures the view, disorients, and is impossible to fend off. So where does it get the worst? There is really no contest for the foggiest coastal spot in the world; that award goes to the murky area off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Here, the chilly Labrador Current sweeping down from the coast of Baffin Island in the north meets the much warmer Gulf Stream coming up from the south and begets fog—enough to fill some 206 days of the year, which might be 206 too many for fog-fearing folks.


If you fear being overwhelmed by gigantic waves, bad news: the waves, they appear to be getting bigger. Records for wave height keep getting broken—in 2005, Hurricane Ivan whipped up mega waves exceeding heights of 27 meters in the Gulf of Mexico, and in 2000, scientists measured waves close to 30 meters high west of Scotland. Winds over some parts of the ocean are getting faster (whether from global warming or cyclical changes no one’s sure yet), and faster winds often cause bigger waves. Australian researchers calculate that waves in the Southern Ocean have grown by nine percent over the past 30 years—off the southern coast of Australia, average wave height has increased from 5 to 5.5 meters in the same time frame.


Blame Herman Melville and his tale of Moby Dick, the leg-severing cetacean nemesis of Captain Ahab. Or blame captive killer whales at marine parks that attack their handlers. Whatever caused your fear of whales, if this is you, don’t look up the “super mega pod” of 100,000 common dolphins that gathered off the coast of San Diego in 2013 to feed. Such pods typically number in the hundreds, so the sight of them popping out of the water in numbers many times that is akin, in the words of one naturalist, to “dolphin popcorn.” It’s probably best to avoid the San Diego coast altogether: 1,000 dolphins returned this past May, suggesting that such super pods may now occur more regularly.


Shellfish-phobics typically fear the agony of food poisoning. They had good reason this year. The culprit behind some shellfish food poisoning—the algae Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates in shellfish—amassed this summer in Pacific waters from Santa Barbara up to Alaska in the largest Pseudo-nitzschia bloom ever seen by ocean scientists. However, if you fear the creature itself, behold The Giant Clam. The world’s largest clam can reach 1.2 meters in length and weigh more than 227 kilograms. One historical, third-hand account is the stuff of a shellfish-fearer’s worst nightmare: a Filipino diver is said to have drowned in 1939 after a giant clam clamped down on his hand. It was only after his body—and the clam—was brought back to his home village that the clam yielded up its fatal lure: a bowling-ball-sized pearl.