Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'

The "Straits of Gibraltar," the narrowest point between Africa and Europe, is one of the most strategically and logistically important waterways in the world.
Christopher McFadden
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An aerial view of the Straits of Gibraltar from the air.

Raphael Comber/iStock 

  • Located at the mouth of the Meditteranean Sea, the "Straits of Gibraltar" has seen its fair share of history.
  • From human beings' earliest days, this region has seen the rise and fall of many of Europe's empires.
  • Today, it is one of the world's most culturally mixed and beautiful places.

The gateway to the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, the straits of Gibraltar are one of the busiest waterways in the world. It is also the closest point between the continents of Europe and Africa.

Because of this, the most powerful nations have fought for control of this small body of water over the course of millennia. It is one of the most fascinating, multicultural, and biologically diverse locations on the planet for a variety of reasons, among others.

Let's find out more about this incredible place.

Where is the "Strait of Gibraltar"?

The Strait of Gibraltar, also known as the Straits of Gibraltar, is a narrow body of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and divides Morocco and Africa from the Iberian Peninsula in Europe.

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
The Strait of Gibraltar provides a natural physical barrier between the countries of Spain (north) and Morocco (south).

The strait is located in the territorial waters of Spain, Morocco, and Gibraltar, a British overseas possession. Foreign ships and aircraft are permitted to freely navigate and overfly the Strait of Gibraltar in the event of continuous transit under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The name Gibraltar is derived from the Arabic Jabal al Tariq. In Arabic, the word "Jabal" or "Jebel" means mountain. Tariq refers to a Berber commander named Tariq ibn Ziyad, who led a large military expedition to the straits in the early 8th century AD. In naval usage, it is also referred to as the STROG (Strait of Gibraltar), the Gut of Gibraltar, and the Straits of Gibraltar.

In Arabic, the Straits are also referred to as Bab al-maghrib, which translates as "Gate of the West," "Gate of the Sunset," and "Gate of the Maghreb. Its medieval names include Az-Zuqq (Arabic for "the Passage"). and the ancient Romans referred to it as Fretum Gaditanum ("Straits of Cadiz").

The ancient Romans and Greeks also referred to the mountains flanking the Strait as the "Pillars of Hercules" or "Fretum Herculeum" in Latin.

The Strait of Gibraltar is around seven nautical miles (13 kilometers) at its narrowest point, between the Spanish Point of Marroque and the Moroccan Point of Cires.

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
Aerial view of the strait. Europe (left) and Africa (right).

Ferries take as little as 35 minutes to travel between the two continents daily. The Strait's depth varies between 980 feet (300 meters) and 2,950 feet (900 meters), which may have interacted with the last major glaciation 20,000 years ago when the sea level was thought to have been 360–390 feet (110-120 meters).

Easterly or westerly winds are very common in the strait. A levanter (a low-level, swift easterly wind) often blows through the western Mediterranean as shallow cold-air masses invade it from the north. The strait also facilitates a considerable exchange of water.

Except when affected by easterly winds, a surface current travels through the channel's middle in an easterly direction. This surface movement is greater than the heavier, colder, and saltier water flowing westward, which occurs at a depth of roughly 400 feet (120 meters). Thus, the flow of water through the strait plays an important role in keeping the Mediterranean from turning into a drying salt lake.

What is the history of the Strait of Gibraltar?

Neanderthals may have been the first humans to live in the region, according to evidence from 125,000 years ago. Proof of Neanderthal occupancy there as recently as 24,000 years ago suggests that the Rock of Gibraltar may have been one of that species' final outposts on the planet.

The settlement of the region by Homo sapiens dates back to 40,000 years, according to archaeological findings.

Throughout history, a variety of peoples and civilizations have used the relatively close distance between the two shores as a quick crossing point, including Carthaginians fighting for Rome, Romans moving between the provinces of Hispania and Mauritania, Vandals raiding south from Germania through Western Rome and into North Africa in the fifth century, Moors and Berbers in the eighth and eleventh centuries, and Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth.

The Strait started also played a specific cultural role beginning in 1492 when it started to operate as a barrier against cross-channel conquest and a way to staunch the flow of culture and language from Africa into Spain. Spanish troops attacked and overthrew the last Muslim administration north of the Strait the same year.

After serving to facilitate the movement of culture for more than 500 years, from the early eighth century to the middle of the thirteenth century, after the Spanish Reconquista, the Strait served more as a demarcation point for the development of two very different and diversified cultures on either side of it.

While Muslim-Arabic/Mediterranean culture has dominated on the southern side since the expansion of Islam into North Africa in the 700s, along with the Arabic language, the northern side has been dominated by Christian-European culture since the expulsion of the last Muslim state in 1492.

More than the minor transit barrier that the Strait presents, religious and cultural intolerance has, over the past 500 years, served as a potent enforcer of the cultural divide between these two communities.

The small British outpost of the city of Gibraltar represents a third cultural group in the Strait. Since its founding in 1704, Britain exploited this enclave to ensure its control over the vital water passages leading into and out of the Mediterranean.

The Spanish Republican Navy attempted to blockade the Strait of Gibraltar after the July 1936 coup in Spain, to prevent Army of Africa troops from being transported from Spanish Morocco to Peninsular Spain. The republican blockade was broken on August 5, 1936, when the so-called Convoy de la Victoria was able to transport at least 2,500 soldiers across the Strait.

It remains a very contentious geopolitical issue, as you are about to find out.

What country owns the Strait of Gibraltar?

To put it simply, no single country owns the straits. But, as you might expect, it is a little more complicated than that.

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Maritime chokepoints, where ships must navigate constrained spaces, are frequently disputed locations of geopolitical advantage. Portuguese and British sea-based empires, particularly in the 1500s and 1800s, conquered and garrisoned cities and forts at the entry to marine chokepoints dispersed over great distances.

Several of these passages still have traces of prior imperial shenanigans on their maps today. For instance, Oman, a once-powerful naval force, still has an exclave on the southern bank of the Strait of Hormuz; and Singapore, at one time, referred to as the "Gibraltar of the East" lies at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca.

Perhaps the most important maritime chokepoint in the world is the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It is also one of the most geopolitically contentious.

Spain to the north and Morocco to the south effectively control the strait itself, as one might anticipate. But its entrance to the Mediterranean is defined by two promontories known historically as the "Pillars of Hercules" - the northern pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar, while the southern pillar has been disputed and is either Monte Hacho in Ceuta or Jebel Musa in Morocco.

Spain controls the "Moroccan" side, while the United Kingdom controls the "Spanish" side. Morocco has often vied for control of Ceuta, which Spain wants to keep, and Britain has fought to retain possession of Gibraltar.

During the height of their naval power, Spain and Britain acquired these lands. Portugal took control of Ceuta first in 1415, which some people date as the beginning of the Portuguese Empire.

After a catastrophic Portuguese defeat in Morocco in 1578, in which almost the entire Portuguese nobility perished (including the childless king), the Portuguese empire was conquered by Spain and folded into the Spanish crown.

Portugal regained its independence in 1640, but Spain held on to Ceuta. During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was taken by an English-Dutch naval operation; Spain formally lost sovereignty of the area to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

Spain and Morocco have occasionally attempted to reclaim Gibraltar, and the reclamation of Ceuta has also been attempted by Morocco on occasion, although neither nation has been successful.

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
The stretch of water is incredibly busy.

The Spanish government claims that Britain's continued rule over Gibraltar is an inexcusable geopolitical anachronism and the last vestige of the colonization of Spanish territory.

The peninsula is kept on the United Nations' list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, considered colonial relics, thanks to Spanish pressure. In response, Britain claims that Gibraltarians truly have British citizenship and democratic self-governance through their parliament.

A proposal for shared sovereignty was worked out between Britain and Spain in the 1990s, but the "Gibraltarians" overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum in 2002. The Spanish government asserts that their wishes are irrelevant because of the conflict between the independent nations of Britain and Spain.

But in 2006, Spain consented to negotiations with the government of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom to promote cross-border connections. Making progress has not been simple. To make up for lost revenue due to Spain's budgetary crisis, the mayor of the nearby Spanish town of La Linea announced plans for new tolls on transportation between the peninsula and the mainland in August 2010.

The conflict between Spain and Morocco regarding Ceuta and other Spanish territories is much more heated. Spain's cross-straits holdings came under increasing Moroccan pressure at the beginning of 2010. Madrid replied by asserting its sovereignty over the disputed exclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and several nearby islands.

Later, Morocco accused Spanish officials of abusing Moroccan residents in and around the regions, which aggravated the conflict. Massive Moroccan demonstrations in August 2010 momentarily halted overland travel into the two Spanish colonies, endangering both nations' economies.

Spain's demand for Gibraltar's return may seem contradictory given that it regularly rejects Moroccan demands for the same territory in North Africa. However, its government is adamant that the two scenarios are distinct. It contends that Ceuta and Melilla are genuine Spanish possessions rather than colonial outposts.

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
3D rendering of the Strait of Gibraltar.

In addition to having Spanish citizenship, the people living in Spain's exclaves are also entitled to all other privileges and obligations of EU membership, including the opportunity to vote in Spanish elections and pay Spanish taxes (albeit at a reduced rate). The Spanish government claims that Gibraltar is a colony rather than an exclave because the peninsula is a British Overseas Territory governed by British law but not a part of the United Kingdom.

Gibraltar has its own money, the Gibraltar Pound, which is not accepted as legal tender in the U.K. The fact that Spain never legally ceded the isthmus, which is still governed by British-Gibraltarian forces, further complicates the conflict.

So, it is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Is the Strait of Gibraltar artificially made?

It is an entirely natural geographical feature, but the coastline of the area in Spain and Morocco has been subject to human modification over the millennia.

Synorogenic clayey flysch (sedimentary rock layers that progress from deep-water and to shallow-water shales) and Pliocene and Quaternary calcareous (rocks high in calcium carbonate) deposits from robust cold-water coral ecosystems make up the seafloor of the Strait. Exposed bedrock surfaces, coarse sediments, and nearby dunes attest to the current bottom solid current conditions.

In what is known as the Messinian salinity crisis, the Mediterranean Sea's salinity rose periodically within the range of gypsum and salt deposition approximately 5.9 million years ago due to the gradual restriction of the corridor's access to the Atlantic Ocean until its complete closure. This effectively turned what is now the Mediterranean into an enormous inland lake.

The dissolved mineral concentrations, temperature, and stilled water currents all worked together to precipitate several mineral salts in layers on the seafloor. This period is directly responsible for the development of numerous large salt and mineral deposits throughout the Mediterranean basin.

It is thought that this process took between 500,000 and 600,000 years to complete.

According to estimates, most of the Mediterranean basin's water would likely evaporate within a thousand years if the Strait were closed, even at today's higher sea levels. This event would likely leave behind mineral deposits similar to the salt deposits found beneath the Mediterranean's sea floor.

The Atlantic-Mediterranean connection was wholly restored through the Strait of Gibraltar by the Zanclean flood approximately 5.33 million years ago and has since remained open, following a protracted period of restricted intermittent or no water exchange between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean basin.

Interestingly enough, it is believed that the Strait will once again close up in the future. On geological rather than human timeframes, the Strait is anticipated to close once more as the African Plate shifts about the Eurasian Plate to the north.

Why is Gibraltar so strategically important?

Mainly for one crucial reason, its location!

It occupies a unique strategic position due to its location at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The Strait connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean and provides a means of transit for shipping between the Atlantic and Mediterranean and, via the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean and beyond. For more than a millennium, it has served as a significant naval base and a military outpost for Britain and its allies. For instance, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters during the Second World War were at Gibraltar when he organized the invasion of North Africa.

It is also a prominent shipping hub, which reflects its location. Around one-third of the world's oil and gas and half of all global trade passes through the Strait.

Gibraltar itself is also one of the most prosperous centers for online gaming in the entire world. Because it is a UK-whitelisted gambling jurisdiction with a 1% gaming tax with a limit of £425,000, Gibraltar is one of the world's largest online casino and gaming hubs.

What are some interesting facts about The Straits Of Gibraltar?

We've already covered a lot of information about the Strait of Gibraltar above, but if you are hungry for more, here are some quick-fire facts about them for your delectation.

1. The Straits of Gibraltar would be a great place for energy generation

One interesting fact about the Straits is that they could be used as a potential source for electrical generation. For example, electricity could, in theory, be produced using the tidal energy of the strait.

For this concept of producing power, numerous projects have been presented. The plan is to build tidal power-producing facilities within the strait to produce electricity.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Atlantropa project aimed to build a dam along the strait to produce significant energy and lower the Mediterranean sea's water level.

This project would have increased the amount of land available for habitation while lowering the water level in the Mediterranean. Because they will hurt the climate and ecology, these ideas have not yet been implemented.

It can also alter the physical characteristics of the Western African Monsoon.

2. The Straits have Europe's most southern point

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
"Europa Point" has some interesting landmarks.

Gibraltar's southernmost point is called "Europa Point."

It is the location where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean seas converge. Located near the end of the "Rock of Gibraltar," it is a flat area with various buildings and playgrounds today.

On a clear day, it is possible to see North Africa across Gibraltar's Strait. The lighthouse, a mosque called the "Mosque of The Custodian of the Holy Mosques," a shrine called "Nuestra Seora de Europa" or the "Shrine of Our Lady of Europe," fortifications, and cannons are some of its most interesting characteristics.

"Harding Battery," the "Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Europe," the "Nun's well," the "Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque," and the "Europa Point Lighthouse" are some of the significant structures at this point.

The "Europa Point" also has a cricket ground where the Gibraltar national cricket team plays.

3. The Strait is a popular tourist location

Gibraltar has many tourist attractions, and the locations along the strait are also popular travel destinations. "Europa Point" is a well-known tourist destination since it contains numerous prominent buildings and is a lovely setting to take in natural beauty.

Additionally, it is home to the Sikorski Memorial, which was erected in honor of the Polish army's supreme commander, and exiled prime minister, who perished in an airplane disaster in 1943. Gibraltar is also home to various monkeys, including the well-known Barbary Macaques, originally from Morocco.

They can be seen in Gibraltar Nature Reserve's Apes' Den.

The area's natural wildlife and birdlife beauties can be explored at this reserve. This area is an important stopover for migratory birds traveling from Africa to Europe.

Other attractions in the Gibraltar Nature Reserve include Forbes' Quarry, where one of the first female Neanderthal skulls was discovered in 1848, and St. Michael's Cave. Anyone can participate in dolphin watching through the viewing vessel designed for marine animal excursions.

These dolphins are swimming through the strait while we watch. Tourists frequently visit the beaches close to the strait. Beaches are the ideal destination to visit because of their subtropical weather. There are numerous more tourist attractions in Gibraltar and areas near the Strait of Gibraltar that can be visited, such as the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, museums, etc.

4. They are one of the busiest seaways in the world

The straits are one of the busiest in the world because many international cargo container ships can easily sail through the straits. This means it is a significant commercial route and one of the world's busiest straits.

According to Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC), 71,000 ships cross the strait in any given year! And all that shipping moves through a relatively narrow body of water.

But, it has been busier. Being a crucial route, in 2014, around 110,000 vessels used it to go from Southeast Asia, China, and the Middle East to Africa, the US, and the European Atlantic coast.

A large number of oil and gas shipments take place through the Straits too. Every year, more than 60,000 ships in total and around 300 ships each day pass across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The Gibraltar Strait was the only oceanic entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea before the construction of the Suez Canal.

Algeciras, Tangier, and Gibraltar are significant ports situated along the strait. Due to their plans for growth, Spain and Morocco's ports are expanding their terminals, which has increased port capacity. The Strait of Gibraltar is used for the majority of the oil transportation in Spain. Tanker traffic bringing oil for European nations also used the strait as their primary route.

5. There is talk of building a connecting tunnel across the straits

In the 1980s, Spain and Morocco started talking about building a tunnel across the strait. Both nations decided to look into the possibility of building an underwater rail tunnel to link their respective rail networks across the Strait in December 2003.

The projected construction and conversion of substantial portions of the current broad gauge system to standard gauge would require rail with a gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1.4 meters).

Officials from Spain and Morocco occasionally met to discuss the project when it was still developing, notably in 2012. There was little progress made despite the discussions. Still, in April 2021, ministers from the two nations agreed to hold a combined intergovernmental summit in Casablanca.

However, when the Spanish government recruited engineers, they found that the material beneath the Strait was rugged rock, making tunneling impractical with the present equipment. One engineering approach involved cables anchoring a prefabricated concrete tunnel to the Strait's bottom.

The Spanish-Moroccan tunnel project, which had been in the works for more than 40 years but had not yet shown any results, was to be replaced with plans for a tunnel connecting Gibraltar and Tangiers, according to designs considered by the UK government earlier in January 2021.

The latest update on this project is that work could begin in 2030, but we wouldn't hold our breath given the delays.

6. But no bridges, as yet

Several engineers have created designs for bridges with diverse structural arrangements and alignments. A crossover between Point Oliveros and Point Cires suggested by Professor T.Y. Lin included deep piers, a length of 14 kilometers (9 miles), towers that were 910 meters tall (3,000 feet), and a span that was more than twice as long as the longest bridge currently in use.

One idea, proposed by architect Eugene Tsui in 2004, included the construction of a three-mile wide island in the Mediterranean Sea to connect a floating bridge. The idea included wind-powered and underwater turbines to provide power to Morocco and southern Spain.

7. The strait is also pretty biodiverse

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
Trinity Lighthouse Europa Point at Strait of Gibraltar.

The strait is an essential habitat for birds, especially migratory birds, due to its location between the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Throughout the migratory season, thousands of birds flock here.

Therefore, birdlife is something to be aware of. Scopoli's shearwater, Balearic shearwater, Audouin's gull, smaller black-bucked gulls, Atlantic puffins, and razorbills are among the bird species found here.

Additionally, the strait is home to killer whale pods, which are becoming endangered owing to long-term PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) pollution and are extremely scarce in western European waters.

8. The straits have had a fascinating history

As we previously discussed, the "Rock of Gibraltar" is believed to have been home to Neanderthals. According to archaeological assessments, it may be the final location where traces of their encampment can still be observed.

There was evidence of their presence here 125,000 years ago. Evidence of Homo sapiens' past occupancy has also been discovered, dating back 40,000 years. Several civilizations have been found here.

The Vandals invaded North Africa in the fifth century, and Carthaginians engaged the Romans in battle. From the eighth to eleventh centuries, Moorish and Berber cultures were still evident in 16th-century Spain and Portugal.

In 1492, the Spanish violently overthrew the last Muslim authority in the north, which is why Christian-European culture predominates there while Muslim or Arabic culture does in the south. The city of Gibraltar, a small British colony, was founded on the strait in 1704. The British took these actions to ensure that marine passages for transportation through the Mediterranean Sea were under their control.

9. The entrance to the strait is steeped in mythology

Everything you need to know about the 'Straits of Gibraltar'
View of the Pillars of Hercules monument. The African coast is visible behind strait.

"The Pillar of Hercules" was the name given in antiquity to the promontories that flank the Straits. They comprise the northern pillar, or Caple Mons (the Rock of Gibraltar) in the north, and the southern pillar, Abila Mons, which is either Monte Hacho in Ceuta or Jebel Musa in Morocco.

According to Roman mythology, the strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, was created by Hercules' superhuman strength to smash through the mountain of Atlas rather than ascending it.

The mountain was then divided into two pieces, one of which is Gibraltar and the other of which is one of the Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa mountains.

Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Greek historian, claimed that Hercules burst through an already-existing strait and constricted it. According to some traditions, Hercules constructed the two mountains and the Pillar of Hercules to keep the sky separate from the earth so that he could save Atlas from an eternity in hell.

10. The strait also has an exciting diversity of languages

English is the official language in Gibraltar because it is British territory. Both the government and the schools use it, and the region speaks English with a Gibraltarian accent. But English is not the only language spoken, as you'd expect.

Due to the growth of the Muslim community in Gibraltar, Arabic is also spoken there. Spanish is also widely spoken in addition to English because it is close to Spain.

Due to the lengthy history of the area, many different ethnic groups have lived close to the "Strait of Gibraltar." These populations speak Moroccan Arabic, Hindi, and Moroccan Berber. Gibraltar also has a unique dialect called Llanito ("little plain"), which is primarily a dialect of Andalusian Spanish laced with English, Genoese, Maltese, and Portuguese.

Considering that the strait is close to Morocco, Berber and Maghrebi are also spoken by Moroccans. The Sephardic Jewish community speaks Ladino, whereas communities of Indians who live close to the strait generally speak Sindhi or Hindi.

11. It also has a great mix of foods

The cuisine is as diverse as the languages that are spoken here. British and Mediterranean cuisines are combined to create Gibraltar's unique cuisine.

Some of the most magnificent dishes were created due to this lovely mix. Calentita, an oven-baked dish made from chickpea flour and olive oil that resembles a dark-colored pizza without the toppings, is Gibraltar's national food.

Both famous African cuisine, like tapas and kebabs, and well-known English dishes, like fish and chips, are available.

The Strait of Gibraltar has a long and colorful history. Owing to its strategic importance, control of the strait has changed hands many times throughout history. This is why, today, it is one of the most culturally mixed regions of the world. But, if that is not enough reason to visit, it is also a place of outstanding natural beauty.