Fact check: Gulf of Alaska image does not show two oceans meeting that don’t touch

The claim: Photo shows where two oceans meet but do not touch in the Gulf of Alaska

A viral image posted to social media in 2016 that has recently resurfaced purports to show the meeting point of two different oceans that never touch in the Gulf of Alaska.

The Facebook post, shared on Jan. 10, 2016 with over 4,300 shares, features a photo of a light blue ocean merging with a darker one. 

A text above the photo reads: “This is the Gulf of Alaska where 2 oceans meet but do not mix. Tell me there is No God and I’ll ask you ‘Who commanded the mighty waves and told them they could go no further than this’ ! What an absolutely AMAZING God…..”

Some users on Facebook have shared other versions of the claim in the form of a video that similarly purports to show a phenomenon where the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean meet. 

One user who shared the video on Feb. 15 claimed it was taken on cruise ship at the tip of South America. 

“Why do these waters not mix? Because there is a huge difference in salinity between the clear water that comes from melting glaciers, which is cool and low in salt, while the water from the second ocean has a high salt concentration,” the user captioned the Feb. 15 video. “Therefore, the two oceans have different densities, which makes them almost impossible to mix.”

USA TODAY reached out to users who shared the image and video for comment. 

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Where did the image and video originate? 

The image of the dark and light blue ocean merging is authentic and was captured by Kent Smith, who shared the photo to Flickr on July 4, 2010, and tagged Alaska as the photo’s location.

Smith explains that his image first went viral on Tumblr in 2011. From there, it was shared by Yahoo! News’ “Snapshots of the Week”  and in an article by the Anchorage Daily News in 2013. 

“I thought this was the most unusual thing I saw on the Alaskan cruise in the water,” Smith captioned his photo. “These two bodies of water were merging in the middle of the Alaskan gulf and there was a foam developing only at their junction.” 

He adds that he is “pretty confident” that the image depicts the result of the melting glaciers being composed of fresh water, and the ocean has a higher percentage of salt, causing the two bodies of water to have different densities. He has posted similar photos of the phenomenon to confirm that they are not photoshopped. 

The video included in the posts that shows a similar phenomenon of seemingly merging oceans was captured by Steve Pearson in the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver, Canada on July 4, 2015, according to AFP. 

“The river water (Fraser River) flows into the ocean water (Strait of Georgia): a short video clip shot from the BC Ferries boat from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island (Duke Point) to Vancouver (Tsawwassen),” reads the video’s caption. 

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Photos don’t show two oceans that don’t touch

As Smith noted in his caption, the image shows what happens when fresh water from glaciers melts in close proximity to salt water from the ocean, making it difficult for the two bodies of water to mix due to the different densities.

Large eddies, known as moving currents, in the Gulf of Alaska carry large quantities of glacial sediment and heavy clay from different rivers throughout Alaska and those materials are lifted up and carried out into the gulf, according to Only In Your State. 

It is false to claim that the two bodies of water never touch. They eventually do mix and they only appear as separate where there are strong gradients coming out against the salt water. 

The video included in the posts shows a similar situation that takes place near Vancouver. 

According to a 2013 study by Ocean Networks Canada, the Fraser River reached the ocean near Vancouver and the fresh water it carries mixes with the ocean water to “form a thin plume of buoyant brackish water.” 

“In the early summer when the Fraser River carries high sediment loads, the plume is easy to distinguish from ocean water by its distinct light brown colour,” the authors of the study wrote. “It can be highly reflective and opaque to sunlight, and because it is a mixture of river and ocean water, it can be quite ‘fresh.'”

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Our rating: False

Images and videos claiming to show where two oceans meet but don’t touch are FALSE, based on our research. While the images and videos are authentic, they do not show where two oceans meet that never touch. Rather, the phenomenon is the result of fresh water from a glacier or river mixing with salt water from the ocean, causing the two bodies of water to appear separate due to different densities.

Our fact-check sources: 

  • Flickr, July 4, 2010, Merging Oceans
  • Yahoo! News, Nov. 4, 2011, Snapshots of the week
  • Anchorage Daily News, April 5, 2017, Mythbusting ‘the place where two oceans meet’ in the Gulf of Alaska
  • Flickr, July 4, 2010, Merging Oceans-The Other Images
  • YouTube, July 4, 2015, When the River Meets the Ocean (Fraser River water flows into the Strait of Georgia)
  • AFP Canada, Sept. 24, 2020, Photos and videos shared with false claims about oceans meeting in Gulf of Alaska
  • Only In Your State, Sept. 23, 2016, This Strange Phenomenon Happening In The Gulf Of Alaska Needs To Be Seen To Be Believed
  • Ocean Networks Canada, Aug. 6, 2013, Fraser River Plume

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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