Skiers understand that chairlift conversations can be interesting, informative and…arcane.  One day while riding up on Chair 11, a mother and her daughter from West Virginia, joined me.  Almost immediately after lowering the safety bar and exchanging the usual “chairlift amenities,” the young lady, who I estimated to be about thirteen years-old, asked her mother to name the world’s seven oceans.

I deduced the youngster had been working on some type of geography project for school, but the instant I heard the question I was certain the mother wouldn’t answer it satisfactorily.  After listing the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, the mother said, “OK, I give up, what are the others?” to which her daughter replied, “the Artic, Antarctic, Caribbean and Mediterranean.”

Without making a value judgment about the youngster’s geography class, it occurred to me that like most of us, the youngster and her mother were probably a little confused regarding some of the earth’s natural features.

What I believe the young lady was referring to were the “Seven Seas,” which is a colloquialism relating not to “seas” per se, but to an arbitrary division of the world’s oceans—the Artic, Indian, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and the Antarctic—even though the Antarctic isn’t really an ocean, but rather an extension of the South Pacific and Indian.

As we exited the chair I began thinking about how geography isn’t always tidy and how contiguous landmasses and large bodies of water aren’t easily categorized.  (E.g., why do we have North, South and Central America, while only two of those are “official” continents?)

Nevertheless, as a practical matter there is really only one ocean—and it covers approximately 72% of the planet.  But for purposes of geographic classification, we can safely say there are four: the Pacific, the largest at 70 million square miles, the Atlantic, a little less than half that size, the Indian, (once called the Erythraean Sea) which covers 28 million square miles, and finally the Artic Ocean, with a surface area of about 6 million square miles.

But what about the “seas” and how did they come to be classified?  Earth scientists classify seas as “large bodies of saltwater partially enclosed by land and subdivisions of the worlds oceans.”

The earth has eleven (11) principal seas:  1) The Mediterranean Sea, the world’s largest sea, whose name means “Middle of the Earth.  2) The Caribbean Sea named for the Carib Indians but made famous by Johnny Depp’s 2003 movie release, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  3) The Bering Sea, which lies between Siberia and Alaska and may once have supported a land-bridge between continents.  4) The Sea of Okhotsk, another large body of water in the northern Pacific few people except sailors and Russian fishermen are aware of and 5) The South China Sea—an arm of western Pacific, bordered by such exotic places as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia

Then of course there’s the East China Sea, which lies between China and Southern Japan; number seven is the Sea of Japan, located between the Japanese islands and Korea; number eight is the North Sea and where the Brits get most of their oil and nine is the Baltic Sea, which lies between Scandinavia and north-central Europe.

But didn’t I just indicate there were eleven principal seas, what about the other two?  Well, the last two seas aren’t even called seas.  One is the Gulf of Mexico (a gulf is an extensive ocean inlet penetrating far into land) and the other is Hudson Bay, the massive “inland sea” in north-central Canada that merges seamlessly with the Atlantic and Artic Oceans.

Of course there are the Black, Red and Yellow Seas, as well as the lesser-known Java, Sultawesi, Chukohi, Arafura and Timor Seas amongst numerous others, but it’s the Aral, Dead and Caspian Seas that lead to geographic confusion because these three aren’t really seas at all—they’re lakes with misleading names.  In the strictest of geographical terms a lake is any large body of water surrounded by land.

The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake with 144,000 square miles of surface area.  (It also lies 90 feet below sea level—but let’s not go there just yet.)  And for those of us who would prefer to focus our attention closer to home, there’s Lake Superior, one of the five “Great Lakes,” located in the upper Midwest between the U.S. and Canada that represents the largest body of fresh water on earth (32,000 square miles.)

Nevertheless, it is Lake Baikal in southern Siberia that to my mind represents the most fascinating of the world’s “great” lakes (that’s great with a small “g.”)  Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake on earth.  And while it constitutes less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the earth’s surface water, it contains almost a fourth of the world’s fresh water.

Codifying the earth’s features isn’t always as simple as it appears, so perhaps our thirteen-year old geography student and her mother can be forgiven for their misconceptions.

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