• Frank DiGiovanni

Thalassophobia, say what?

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought we could take a few minutes to discuss a fear that some people have, Thalassophobia... Thalassa-what?

Do you know anyone who gets uneasy when heading out into the deep, open ocean (maybe on a cruise) or maybe a fear of the vast emptiness of the ocean? Perhaps they are uncomfortable with not being able to see the shoreline or the bottom of the water? If any of these thoughts make you uneasy or send your stomach into your shoes, it’s possible you’re dealing with a bit of Thalassophobia (Tha- LASS-a-pho-bia). Take a minute or two and watch this video on YouTube (from Feeling a bit like our feline friend below?

"WHAAT!?!" Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

It’s with good reason that many of us get the heebie jeebies seeing that video, or these pictures (some of pictures are fake, like the White Shark in the swimming pool or the dinosaur swimming underwater). Why is that? What is it about the idea of not seeing the bottom of a body of water or not knowing what that THING was that brushed past your leg while you were swimming in the ocean? (Chances are it was seaweed, but it must have been an octopus, right?!) The oceans are vast, empty spaces, often thousands of feet deep, lakes we swim in might only be 15 feet deep like Lake Ronkonkoma (in Suffolk County) but not being able to see the bottom simply freaks people out. This fear can happen for a few reasons.

Consider our far distance ancestors for a moment. These nomadic people were more alert of and weary about deep bodies of water. This fear and apprehension likely allowed them to pass along this fearful genetic code to their offspring. Also consider the past experiences you may have had. Maybe as a young child you had an experience in the ocean (or lake) that left you scared of not knowing what was below you. Now consider the people in your life as you were growing up, was there someone in your life that felt twitchy about being in the open ocean and told you about it? These factors, genetics, your own experiences and upbringing all have a profound impact on our fears. While I personally do not experience issues with deep ocean or not knowing what’s below my feet if I’m treading water, start talking about or consider putting me on a rollercoaster and my heart starts palpitating, my palms start sweating and fear kicks in. More information about Thalassophobia can be found at where a fascinating article can be found by Ms. Kendra Cherry, MS, an author, psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, educator, and speaker

Great Blue Hole, Belize. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To help ease any of these issues, let’s discuss what some of these things are, starting with something called a “blue hole”. The blue hole here is located off the country of Belize. This seemingly scary perfect circle of deep water is in fact, part of a cave that was formed and flooded between 153,000 and 15,000 years ago when sea level started to rise during the end of a glaciation period. (It is even part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!) If you were to swim into, down and through this blue hole, you’d find stalactites which only form from water dripping down over thousand of years. Blue holes are simply deep parts of the ocean in otherwise more shallow parts, and no monsters live in them, rather it is the stark contrast between the pale green-blue and the dark blue that inspires fear. Other blue holes exist around the world such as Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

Since knowledge is power and the key to confronting fears, let’s discuss rogue waves. These were long-thought to be sailors’ tales; waves so large that entire ships were swallowed and dragged under, never to be seen again. The large waves are open-ocean phenomenon and created from something called “constructive interference”. This is when ocean waves,

Rockall wave, 1943. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

typically whipped up because of wind, current and ocean floor topography combine to create a wave that can be three times as high as the “average” wave during a storm. The Rockall wave (below) in 1943 shows a large wave breaking over the islet of Rockall, in the North Atlantic Ocean. Rockall's peak is about 17 m (56 ft) above sea-level, and the height of the spray has been estimated at about 52 m (170 ft).

The first reports of these monster waves date back only to 1826 and the French naval officer and scientist Captain Jules Dumont d'Urville who reported waves of 108 feet (33 meters)! Although a naval offices and scientist, he was ridiculed for this as the prevailing thought at the time was no wave could exceed 30 feet (9m). It would be roughly 170 years before Captain d'Urville was proven correct, monstrous waves were real! Cast your mind to 1995 and the Draupner platform, which supplies natural gas to Norway. January 1st of 1995 was stormy, and the platform had an instrument that measured waves for local researchers. Throughout the storm waves pounded the platform with an average height of 39 feet until IT showed itself.

A wave measuring a staggering 84 feet crashed through the pilings and support structures of the platform; until that point, no wave had ever been recorded at such a height!

Draupner Wave chart via Wikimedia Commons. 3 1/4 feet per meter (m)

Since then, more instances of these mammoth waves have been documented and sadly, credited with death and destruction of cargo ships and passenger vessels. Knowledge of these waves and the tremendous forces (over 165,347 pounds per square inch for waves over 114 feet high) unleashed by them has created a class of ships that are stronger to cope with the mere possibility of encountering these waves. While there are no ways to make a ship unsinkable as some have claimed over the years, knowledge begets power and in this case the power to make the ocean seem less threatening. And the best part about rogue waves is the probability of you encountering one is very slim; research by Australian oceanographers suggest that in a storm every 1 out of 1,000-10,000 waves would qualify as a “rogue”. And the likelihood of you sailing through a severe storm are very, very small.

If you can confront that which scares you, it has less power over you. If you cannot find that strength, it is how you deal with that fear. I’ve tried rollercoasters in at least three states to try to alleviate my fear to no avail, so I don't go on them. Maybe some knowledge might help those with this fear breath a little better when they venture into the water.