Floating Sargassum … characterises the Sargasso Sea, and its name is derived either from early Portuguese sailors who compared the weed and its air-filled clusters of bladders to grapes, or from the Spanish word “sargazzo” meaning kelp. Christopher Columbus is credited with the first written account when he encountered Sargassum in 1492, and it was his sailors who created the early myths and legends. Columbus’s ship the ‘Santa Maria’ became becalmed with her sister ships for three days, and because sailors recognised seaweed as a sign of shallow waters they became fearful of running aground, becoming entangled in the weed and being dragged down to the ocean floor. Columbus wrote that the windless calms (the doldrums) that they endured in the Sargasso Sea could even prevent them from returning to Spain. Such fears became entrenched in Sargasso Sea lore for centuries (Adams 1907, Deacon 1942).
In the late 19th century Jules Verne wrote in “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” (Verne and Miller 1966) “This second arm — it is rather a collar than an arm — surrounds with its circles of warm water that portion of the cold, quiet, immovable ocean called the Sargasso Sea, a perfect lake in the open Atlantic: it takes no less than three years for the great current to pass round it. Such was the region the ‘Nautilus’ was now visiting, a perfect meadow, a close carpet of seaweed, fucus, and tropical berries, so thick and so compact that the stem of a vessel could hardly tear its way through it. And Captain Nemo, not wishing to entangle his crew in this herbaceous mass, kept some yards beneath the surface of the waves.”
“The Sargasso Sea is… an area of open ocean that has fascinated people for centuries and a key part of Bermuda’s rich cultural maritime history and heritage ranging from legends of the Sargasso Sea as a place of mystery (The Bermuda Triangle), frustrating challenges (the ‘doldrums’ becalming sailors for weeks), and unfounded fears (great mats of weed trapping ships); through to Sargassum sweeping up onto the beaches, and the productivity that the Sargasso Sea confers on Bermuda and surrounding countries.”
Further notoriety followed by association with the infamous Bermuda Triangle, the southwest area of the Sargasso Sea between Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico, where planes and ships apparently suddenly disappeared for no obvious reason. These rumours revived myths about portions of the Atlantic Ocean thought to be overrun by ensnaring seaweeds (Dixon 1925, Gordon 1941) and helped paint a vivid (and inaccurate!) picture of this part of the ocean. Disney somewhat redressed these fears with his adventures of Donald Duck in the “Secrets of the Sargasso Sea” in the 1960s, but the Sargasso Sea continues to engage and intrigue and has become synonymous with ocean mysteries and legends.
Ever since the ‘Sea Venture’ was wrecked on the shores of Bermuda by a hurricane in 1609, starting the settlement of Bermuda, the Sargasso Sea has shaped the lives of Bermudians. The presence of Sargassum, both near-shore and on the beaches, is a regular reminder of the close ties to the ocean and to the productivity that results from this.