The Gulf Stream
If you happen to catch a daybreak ride over the Bonner Bridge that spans across Oregon Inlet, or a North Carolina Ferry at sunrise that skims across Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlets, chances are you will encounter a fleet of charter boats, single file, making their way west into the ocean. These charter boats have the same destination and goal in mind - the Gulf Stream - for some of the best deep sea fishing along the East Coast.
The coast of North Carolina is one of the best launching points for Gulf Stream access, located just 12-15 miles off the beaches of the Outer Banks, and the prospect of reeling in the big one attracts countless fishermen year after year.
But what is the Gulf Stream and why are its waters so significantly different from the cool breakers just off the beach? Why is it a harbor for countless species of fish and ocean life that would otherwise have no business being located off the coast of North Carolina?
The Gulf Stream is, essentially, a 40-50 mile wide current that runs through the Atlantic Ocean, but its breadth and speed can categorize it more accurately as a river. Like all other currents throughout the world, the Gulf Stream is formed by the sun, the wind, and the water.
Light and heat beams from the sun and hits the earth more directly at the equator than at the poles. Naturally, this means the air temperature along the equator is significantly higher.
Because heat moves from warmer to cooler bodies, this hot tropical air moves towards the poles in large currents that force the cold air at the poles back towards the equator. The process also causes winds, which blow across vast areas of ocean and pull the surface water in the same direction, especially where waves increase the friction between wind and water. The Earth rotates from west to east and moves under the atmosphere at the same time the warm air moves north and south towards the poles.
This makes the pole-heading currents appear to curve to their right in the Northern Hemisphere and to their left in the Southern Hemisphere. Off the eastern coast of the United States, warm winds and water sweep up from the equator toward the pole, curves to the right, and moves into a clockwise circular pattern over the Atlantic Ocean in its journey to bring cool polar air back to the equator. This warm rushing current is the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream begins off the Coast of Africa where the river of ocean water, called the North Equatorial Current, flows west to the coast of South America. Once there, the shape of the continent forces the North Equatorial Current to fork into two branches: one passes into the Caribbean, while the other flows northeast towards the West Indies. Eventually, the two separate "rivers" rejoin and flow through the Straights of Florida at an incredibly fast pace.
The Mississippi River and the Amazon River move water at roughly 0.6 million cubic meters per second. By comparison, the Gulf Stream, as it flows and forms off of Florida, moves at approximately 30 million cubic meters per second.
From this starting point, the Gulf Stream flows parallel to the East Coast of the United States, increasing speed and picking up more water as it approaches the Carolinas. Off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream reaches an estimated 80 million cubic meters per second. An east-blowing wind separates the Gulf Stream from the continental margin at Cape Hatteras. Here the Gulf Stream creates a countercurrent that flows south and west, but the main part of the Gulf Stream current continues north and slightly east, passes near the Grand Banks (internationally known fishing waters,) goes south of Newfoundland, and continues onward towards the British Isles.
Carrying the original tropical waters the Gulf Stream begins with, the current loses temperature as it moves north, picking up cooler water and encountering colder air temperature and wind, but it still maintains a relatively high temperature. The initial Gulf Stream water is 75 degrees Fahrenheit off the coast of Florida. By the time the Gulf Stream has moved about 1800 miles north up the U.S. coast to Newfoundland, its temperature has only dropped to 64 degrees. This is why when viewing the Atlantic Ocean with an infrared screen to identify warmer and cooler waters, the Gulf Stream stands out as a wide line that borders the East Coast.