What (and Where) Is the Black Sea?

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It’s definitely not black and it’s almost not even a sea at all. For more than two thousand years, the Black Sea has puzzled those who live beside or near it. The Ancient Greeks couldn’t decide whether they loved or feared the vast body of water, but today it lures millions of tourists to its shores with the promise of warm sunshine and affordable accommodations. The Black Sea is one of the world’s most fascinating bodies of water — here’s what you need to know.

What Exactly Is It?

Amasra town on the Black sea coast, Turkey.
Credit: Boris Stroujko/ Shutterstock

The Black Sea is a large body of water that people often refer to as an inland sea. It is surrounded by land except for a narrow stretch of water known as the Bosphorus Strait. At the other end of the Black Sea, you’ll find Istanbul, and at Istanbul’s “Golden Horn,” the city’s major urban waterway, water from the Black Sea meets the Sea of Marmara, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea. The presence of this waterway means the Black Sea isn’t completely landlocked, which is why it can’t be categorized as a lake.

A number of major rivers empty into it, including the Danube, Dnieper, Southern Bug, Dniester, Don, and Rioni. At its widest point, the Black Sea measures about 730 miles; in all, it covers an area of approximately 163,000 square miles. Today, the water level is high enough to flow into to the Mediterranean and receive some of its water in return, though that hasn’t always been the case.

Location

Bulk cargo ship under port crane bridge, Odessa, Ukraine.
Credit: Unkas Photo/ Shutterstock

Six nations border the Black Sea, which is located where Europe meets Asia. Clockwise from the west, the countries bordering the Black Sea include: Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey.

Ukraine’s stretch of shoreline on the Black Sea is the longest, at around 1,728 miles. The country is also home to the Black Sea’s largest port, Odessa. Turkey ranks second in terms of shoreline, with 825 miles of Black Sea coast. Russia is next, with 497 miles — most famously in Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. And to round off the list, Bulgaria  features 219 miles of coastline, Georgia has 192 miles, and Romania has 139.

Some would argue there’s a seventh nation with Black Sea coastline — a small group of people who identify as Abkhazian. When the Russian Federation began to break apart in the early 1990s, Abkhazia was part of Georgia. Ethnic tensions led to the 1992-1993 War in Abkhazia, which ended with the expulsion of Georgians from the territory and self-proclaimed independence still unrecognized by the U.N. and most of its member states. The capital, Sukhumi, doubles as a beach resort and attracts visitors from across the border in Russia.

Why Is It Called the Black Sea?

Rocky coast of Black sea near Sevastopol city.
Credit: a_v_d/ Shutterstock

Spoiler alert: The Black Sea isn’t actually black. There are a few conflicting theories as to how it got this this name. The sea may have appeared darker to ancient sailors during the violent winter storms that were frequent in the area. Objects thrown into the water could have been covered in black silt when retrieved, due to the high concentration of hydrogen sulfide at its depths.

The Ancient Greek geographer Strabo initially named the sea as Axine, or “the Inhospitable Sea,” as it was tricky to navigate, and those who lived on its shores didn’t exactly welcome the Greeks with open arms. The Greeks, a superstitious bunch, later gave the body of water an alternative name — the Euxine Sea, which translates to “the Hospitable Sea.”

The Anatolians (a people who lived in present-day Turkey) referred to north as "black" and south as "white," which may explain the name for the Black Sea, with its location north of Turkey. However, there are earlier Hungarian and Icelandic sources that refer to a Black Sea, which indicates that Anatolians were merely using an existing name.

Myths

Sozopol coastline at Black Sea in Bulgaria.
Credit: Slawomir Kruz/ Shutterstock

Popular myths that link the Black Sea to the presence of dirty water are unfounded, but the truth is even more unusual. The sea contains what scientists call anoxic water, which occurs when there is an absence of oxygen in the water. The Black Sea also happens to be a meromictic basin (the world’s largest). In layman’s terms, this means there’s pretty much no movement or mixing of water between its lower and upper layers. The bottom layer wouldn’t be able to support marine life if it weren’t for the water on top, which is carried into the Black Sea by rivers.

Marine Life

Fishing boat trawling in the Black Sea surrounded by a mass of seagulfs.
Credit: Alexandra Golubtsova/ Shutterstock

About 180 species call the Black Sea home, including jellyfish, spiny dogfish, and sprats and mackerels, which are both fished commercially. Another important fish is the Black Sea anchovy, locally known as khamsa or hamsi. Each summer, these anchovies travel north along the narrow Strait of Kerch between Crimea and Russia to feed and breed in the warmer waters of the Azov Sea.

As the air temperature falls, schools of anchovies travel back to the Black Sea, where the water is warmer. They’re easily spotted as a result of the presence of the gulls that hunt them. Dolphins also find them pretty tasty. There are three species of dolphins in the Black Sea — namely, the short-beaked common dolphin, the harbour porpoise, and the common bottlenose dolphin. But the biggest predator of anchovies in the Black Sea is humanity. From October to February, anchovies are a delicious staple of the local diet; they are sometimes grilled or baked, but mostly served coated in flour, fried, and eaten whole.

What Else Lurks Underwater?

The Old Shipwreck Near The Black Sea Beach, Romania.
Credit: Bogdan Vacarciuc/ Shutterstock

Remember that anoxic water? Well, it’s a pretty good preservative. As a result, a number of shipwrecks can be found in reasonable condition in the Black Sea. In 2018, archaeologists working for the Maritime Archaeology Project discovered what could possibly be the world’s oldest shipwreck. The 2,400-year-old vessel, measuring 75 feet long, is almost as intact as it was on the day it went down — complete with mast, rudders, and rowing benches. It was the most impressive find among a group of 60 boats discovered in the Black Sea by the same team during a productive, three-year mission. Who knows what secrets of the deep will be revealed in years to come?

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