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A maelstrom is a very powerful whirlpool; a large, swirling body of water. A free vortex, it has considerable downdraft.

The Scandinavian word (malström or malstrøm) was introduced into English by Allen Poe Edgar Allan Poe in his story "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841). In turn, the Nordic word derives from the Dutch, modern spelling maalstroom, from malen (to grind) and strom (stream), to form the meaning grinding current.[1]

Notable maelstroms

  • Moskstraumen

The original Maelstrom (described by Poe and others) is the Moskstraumen, a powerful tidal current in the Lofoten Islands off the Norwegian coast.[2] The Maelstrom is formed by the conjunction of the current forts that cross the Straits (Moskenstraumen) between the mentioned islands and the great amplitude of the tides. The Maelstrom’s name comes from the Dutch words malen, to crush and stroom, meaning current.

In Norwegian the most frequently used name is Moskstraumen or Moskenstraumen (current of [island] Mosken).

The fictional depictions of the Maelstrom by Edgar Allan Poe and Verne Jules Verne describe it as a gigantic circular vortex that reaches the bottom of the ocean, when in fact it is a set of currents and crosscurrents with a rate of 18 km.[3]

  • Saltstraumen

Saltstraumen is the world's strongest maelstrom and is located east of the city of Bodø, Norway.

  • Corryvreckan

The Corryvreckan is the third largest whirlpool in the world, and is on the northern side of the Gulf of Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba off the coast of Scotland. Flood tides and inflow from the Firth of Lorne to the west can drive the waters of Corryvreckan to waves of over 30 feet (9 m), and the roar of the resulting maelstrom can be heard ten miles (16 km) away.

A documentary team from Scottish independent producers Northlight Productions once threw a mannequin into the Corryvreckan ("the Hag") with a life jacket and depth gauge. The mannequin was swallowed and spat up far down current with a depth gauge reading of 262 feet with evidence of being dragged along the bottom for a great distance. The programme was transmitted in the UK by Channel 4 under the title "Lethal Seas", while in the US on the Discovery Channel (the co-production partner) it was known as "Sea Twister!"[4]

Other notable maelstroms and whirlpools

  • Old Sow whirlpool is located between Deer Island, New Brunswick, Canada, and Moose Island, Eastport, Maine, USA.
  • Naruto whirlpool is located in the Naruto Strait near Awaji Island in Japan.
  • Skookumchuck Narrows is a tidal rapids that develops whirlpools, on the Sunshine Coast (British Columbia), Canada.

In popular culture

Two of the most notable literary references to the Lofoten Maelstrom date from the nineteenth century. The first is the Edgar Allan Poe story "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841). The second is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869), the famous novel by Jules Verne. At the end of this novel, Captain Nemo seems to commit suicide, sending his Nautilus submarine into the Maelstrom (although in Verne's sequel Nemo and Nautilus survived).

In Spanish and other languages, Maelstrom is used as a synonym for whirlpool. Hence, the word "Maelstrom" appears in diverse contexts metaphorically to make reference to different subjects or objects that suggest great chaotic or sinister forces. The word maelstrom is used to denote powerful, inescapable destructive forces.


  1. The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1991. p. 300. ISBN 9780877796039.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958 edition.
  3. B. Gjevik, H. Moe and A Ommundseb, "Strong Topographic Enhancement of Tidal Currents: Tales of the Maelstrom", University of Oslo, working paper, 5 Sep 1997 (a condensed version published as "Sources of the Maelstrom" in Nature, Vol 388 pp 837-838, 28 Aug 1997.
  4. "Equinox: Lethal Seas".