Stan Ulanski


On his book The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic

Cover Interview of April 07, 2009

A close-up

I wrote The Gulf Stream for the science and history enthusiasts as much as for those wishing an introduction to one of the last vestiges of wilderness on Earth.

In pages 143-149 I discuss the Gulf Stream’s role as the sea highway for exploration and discovery throughout the Atlantic Ocean.  In particular, while Columbus discovered the route to the New World, the Spaniard Ponce de Leon discovered the way back.  As with most explorers of this period, Ponce de Leon was not averse to enriching himself in the wealth of the New World.  On March 3, 1513, he sailed from Puerto Rico in the company of Anton de Alaminos.  Ponce de Leon was an adventurer, not a pilot; he relied on Alaminos to be his navigator.  During de Leon’s reconnaissance along the Florida coast, he noted in his log “a current such that, although they had great wind, they could not proceed forward, but backward.”  This written account confirms that Ponce de Leon, aptly aided by Alaminos, had “discovered” the Gulf Stream.

The discovery of this powerful current would play a major role in the Spanish treasure fleets’ success at sailing back to Spain with their riches.  In contrast to de Leon’s, the stature of Anton de Alaminos as a skillful navigator would rise markedly over the years.  In 1519, outfitted with the fastest ship of the growing Spanish fleet, de Alaminos sailed from the port of Havana.  Upon entering the Straits of Florida, Alaminos’s ship was caught quickly in the pull of the Gulf Stream.  He must have felt that he was in the midst of an old friend, whom was to be his constant companion on his voyage along the east coast.  By the time his vessel had reached the latitude of North Carolina, Alaminos’s meticulous sightings and detailed plotting of the ship’s position must have told him that his heading was no longer due north but rather northeast.  The Gulf Stream was carrying him back home.  Upon de Alaminos’s arrival back in Spain, the Spanish were quick to recognize the significance of his feat; Anton de Alaminos had changed the course of transatlantic navigation forever.

With a lust for wealth and buoyed by the success of Alaminos, Spain developed a monopolistic economic system in the New World that was heavily dependent upon its treasure fleets, or flotas.  But these galleons, laden with the treasures of the Caribbean and Mexico, would often find the sea route homeward, via the Gulf Stream, a perilous one.  The current extracted a steep toll: shipwrecks were common where the Gulf Stream brushes against the reef-strewn Florida Keys, and bands of bandits, known as buccaneers and privateers, roamed the current in search of ships to plunder and loot.  Of these pirates, none was more famous than Black Bark, who captured more than four hundred ships in only three years.