Why are The Seas named Black, White, and Yellow?

Why is the Black Sea black?

The sea was first named by the ancient Greeks who called it "Inhospitable Sea." The sea got this reputation because it was difficult to navigate, and hostile tribes inhabited its shores. Later, after the successful development of the coast by Greek colonists, the sea was renamed "Hospitable Sea." 

The Black Sea has a depth of over 150 meters, and its waters are filled with hydrogen sulfide for almost two kilometers. Therefore, in the deepest layers of its water there are no living things except sulfur bacteria.

There are a number of hypotheses for why it was eventually called the Black Sea:

  • Metal objects from ships, dead plants, and animal matter that sunk deeper than 150 meters for a long period of time became covered with a black sludge due to the high concentration of hydrogen sulfide in the sea.
  • From the perspective of sailors, the sea was black due to severe storms in the winter, during which the water is so dark it looks black.

Why is the Red Sea red?

The Red Sea's name is a direct translation of its ancient Greek name, Erythra Thalassa. However, only European languages include any mention of "red." In Hebrew it is called Yam Suph, or Sea of Reeds, most likely due to the reeds of the Gulf of Suez, and in Egypt it is called "Green Space." 

The Red Sea is the saltiest sea of all the seas that connect to the ocean without even one river meeting the sea.

A popular hypotheses about the origins of the Red Sea's name is that it contains a cyanobacteria called Trichodesmium erythraeum, which turns the normally blue-green water a reddish-brown. 

Why is the White Sea white?

The White Sea is an inland sea in the north of the European part of Russia that belongs to the Arctic Ocean.

The White Sea is covered with ice for six to seven months every year.

Here some hypotheses about the White Sea's name:

  • One theory suggests that the name comes from the fact that the sea is covered with ice most of the year.
  • Others believe that the name originates from the whitish color of the water, reflecting the northern sky.

Why is the Yellow Sea yellow?

The Yellow Sea is a semi-enclosed marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean, off the east coast of Asia and to the west of the Korean Peninsula.

The Yellow Sea has high tides that can reach up to 10 meters.

A possible reason for its name may come from the distinctive brownish-yellow color of the water that flows in from the Yellow River, which carries huge amounts of silt from the upper plains.


About the Author

Irina Dreyvitser

Irina Dreyvitser is currently an Advancement Assistant with the SSEC, focusing on building awareness of science education among the leaders of corporations, foundations, and academic institutions and securing grants and private donor funding for numerous educational projects. Irina provides administrative and management support to all aspects of the advancement program, including research, data and gift processing, donor relations, and events management. She received the Smithsonian Unsung Hero Award in 2011 and the Smithsonian Certificate of Accomplishment for taking a leadership role to organize the Round Table discussions with the Smithsonian Leadership during the 2013 Mentorship Program. Before joining the Smithsonian in 2009, Irina worked as a travel and sales manager with several agencies in Washington, DC, and Virginia. In addition, she held Real Estate licenses for Virginia, Washington, DC, and Maryland and worked as a realtor for several years providing a full range of services. Irina graduated with a BA in Marine Biology from the State University in Kaliningrad, Russia, and worked as a scientist at the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas in Sevastopol.