Where Did Our Ocean Names Come From?

From Atlantic to Pacific, let’s get real specific

Do you ever look at a word so often it starts to look funny? At Ocean Conservancy, we talk about the ocean quite literally all the time. And so, it’s no wonder I found myself considering the origin of the name of each body of water. While there is only one global ocean, there are currently five named ocean bodies.


Most bodies of water are named for the areas they surround or the areas that surround them. For example, the Arctic Ocean was named because of its location in the Arctic Circle—which begs the question, how did the Arctic Circle get its name? The word “Arctic” comes from the Greek word “arktikos,” meaning “near the Bear.” This likely refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”. Two of the stars in Ursa Major can be used to help navigate towards Polaris, the northern star.


The first documented usage of the term “Atlantic” was in the sixth century BC by a Greek poet, Atlantikôi pelágei or the “Sea of Atlas.” In Greek mythology, Atlas is the Titan tasked with holding up the heavens for all eternity. Atlas also lends his name to the mountain range separating the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic Ocean. On some maps from the southern hemisphere, the Atlantic was also referred to as Aethiopian/Ethiopian Sea or Ethiopian Ocean as late as the mid-19th century. This references the fact that much of the African continent south and west of Egypt used to be known as Aethiopia.


The Indian Ocean has been known as such since at least 1515 and is another example of an ocean being named by the area that surrounds it. Earlier accounts named it the Eastern Ocean and Ancient Greece referred to the northwestern Indian ocean as the Erythraean Sea or the Red Sea, likely referring to seasonal blooms of cyanobacteria near the water’s surface turning the normal green-blue water a reddish brown.


The Pacific Ocean or Mare Pacificum, meaning “peaceful sea,” was dubbed so by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 after his treacherous journey to find the “Spice Islands”, now known as the Malaku Islands in eastern Indonesia. They were known as the “Spice Islands” because of their nutmeg and clove trees. After trekking his way through the rough waters now known as the Straits of Magellan in Chile, Magellan came upon the calm and peaceful waters of the Pacific Ocean.


The Southern Ocean is the youngest ocean and some may argue it’s not yet an ocean at all. Proposed by the International Hydrographic Organization in 2000, its boundaries have still not been accepted by all parties. Any guesses as to how it got its name?

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