Without a coastline to help define its boundaries, other biological characteristics and oceanic conditions have been used over time to help define the sea’s location and extent. This extraordinary open-ocean ecosystem is bounded by currents circulating around the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre and is unique for supporting the center of distribution and abundance for a community of continuously pelagic drift algae, the Sargasso Sea provides habitats, spawning areas, migration pathways and feeding grounds to a diverse assortment of flora and fauna, including endemic, endangered, and commercially important species. The Sargasso Sea is named for Sargassum, a holopelagic, golden drift algae that can aggregate to form extensive floating mats on the surface of the ocean. Dr. Sylvia Earle has called it “the golden rainforest of the ocean.”
Columbus first documented encounters with Sargassum in his expedition diaries in 1492, and the Sargasso Sea has been documented in scientific publications since 1854. Early encounters with Sargassum revived myths about portions of the Atlantic Ocean thought to be overrun by ensnaring seaweeds. Columbus wrote of his sailors’ fears that the windless calms that his ships endured in the Sargasso Sea would prevent them from returning to Spain, and that the algal mats they encountered hid reefs on which they would run aground. Such fears became entrenched in Sargasso Sea lore for centuries afterward. Initial efforts by sea captains to determine the extent of the Sargasso Sea stemmed from a desire to avoid Sargassum by mapping shipping routes around its distribution. Much of the mythology surrounding Sargassum and the Sargasso Sea was debunked by the early 1940s following Parr’s decisive publication classifying Sargassum as holopelagic and Sargassum rafts as loose aggregations of plants.
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