The Gulf Stream: Turtles and Eddies

The Gulf Stream is unique in and of itself as the largest and fastest warm water current to span the Atlantic Ocean, but it's also unique as its very nature makes it a home for countless species of fish and wildlife, specifically off of Cape Hatteras and the surrounding waters of the Carolina Coast.

Migration plays a large role in attracting varying species to the Gulf Stream. Many species use the quickly paced waters as taxis from one feeding source to another, or to different locations throughout the globe, depending on the time of year. Because of this constant movement, while many species will pass through the Gulf Stream, not all of them will stay there permanently.

A remarkable example of this migration at work, and an example that can be found on the North Carolina Coast's own backyard, is the journey of the sea turtle. In early summer, dozens of mature sea turtles hoist themselves onto the beach, where they pick a perfect spot to lay eggs, leaving them behind as they return to the ocean.

Take a long walk along the beaches of the Outer Banks in the peak of summer, and it's a safe bet that you'll encounter one of these turtle nests, protectively marked off by the National Park Service.

By late summer and fall, the eggs will hatch, typically at night, and the hatchlings will make a mad dash to the ocean, following the lights coming from the moon and sky's reflection on the water. Once they have hit the ocean, theses 2"-3" turtles will swim 12-15 miles, living on a small sack of sustenance that's leftover from their egg, until they frantically reach the safety of the Gulf Stream. In the Gulf Stream, they can hide themselves in a patch of sea grass, which provides ample food as well as protection and cover from predators, as they begin to grow.

Another aspect of the Gulf Stream that attracts fish and other ocean species is the presence and formation of eddies. Eddies are sections of moving water that swirl off from the main Gulf Stream current and loop back on themselves, forming large whirlpool-like bodies of water.

Eddies form and consist of water that is a different temperature than the waters surrounding it. The Gulf Stream and the border of colder water around it provides ample breeding grounds for eddies, as does colder water mingling with the warmer water of the Sargasso Sea, a large warm body of water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The area off of Cape Hatteras, where a portion of the current meanders away from the Gulf Stream, is especially conducive to forming eddies.

On the surface, eddies are usually about 100-300 kilometers in diameter. However, they are not just surface features. They are large cylinders of water that can reach to depths of almost 4,000 meters. Eddies travel very slowly, often towards the equator, and can last anywhere from a few months to several years.

With the mixing of warmer and cooler waters, eddies attract a variety of wildlife. The plankton and grass that linger along the edges of the eddies, usually a token from warmer water bodies like the Sargasso Sea, is home to a multitude of baitfish. These baitfish attract larger species, which in turn attract predators of their own. In addition, because of the depth of the eddies, they can easily accommodate larger deep sea species.

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The Gulf Stream: Turtles and Eddies

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