Freak Out! Huge Waves Are Out in the Ocean

Watch that wave:: This historical photo gives a little feel for what a freak wave might be able to do to a ship. An actual freak wave would be taller, ranging in height from 90 to 140 feet high.
Watch that wave:: This historical photo gives a little feel for what a freak wave might be able to do to a ship. An actual freak wave would be taller, ranging in height from 90 to 140 feet high.
The term “Freak of Nature” gets inappropriately thrown around a lot these days. But meteorologists and oceanographers are using the term very appropriately as they learn more about huge ocean waves.

Once thought to be just the old sea tales from the alcohol-induced memories of sailors, more and more credible scientific evidence is being pinpointed about “freak waves,” huge walls of water that sweep across the ocean under just the right oceanic conditions.

I stumbled into learning about freak waves the other night while watching a PBS show called “When Nature Strikes Back: Freak Waves.” The hour-long program documented some pretty interesting things about freak waves. So if you’ve read “A Perfect Storm” or seen the movie of the same name, you probably know something about this already.

To qualify as a freak wave, the wall of water needs to be at least 90 feet (about 30 meters) high. The largest documented freak wave actually measured in at 140 feet high. Back in the days of wind-powered ocean travel, seafarers called freak waves “holes in the ocean” due to the large depression in the water level in advance of the freak wave.

So what’s going on to make a freak wave? It could be the result of a couple factors.

First, it might be the result of high winds pushing along the tops of already high ocean swells. If the wind direction and speed match up to a wave just right, it can push the wave faster so it catches up with another wave ahead of it. Those waves combine their size and if this happens a few times, you suddenly have a very large wave.

Second, two or more wave or storm systems can merge and basically create the same effect. Waves piggybacking on top of each other will add to their size and can lead to a huge wall of water.

Years ago without the aid of modern electronic communication technology, ships that were wiped out by freak waves were simply lost. There was no record of what had happened. Likewise, with better weather tracking technology today, ships can usually avoid the dangerous conditions of freak waves. But researchers are still finding out their impacts.

An offshore oil rig in the North Atlantic was toppled by a freak wave several years ago. And the television show also recreated the tragic tale of an amateur wave photographer who was swept away to sea off the coast of Ireland trying to get photos of freak wave activity. He was positioned on a cliff 90 feet above sea level when a freak wave came and swept him away.

Living here in the middle of the North American continent, I feel pretty insulated from the impact of freak waves. Hummm…..now, if I could just figure out how to create one in the Science Museum’s wave tank

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

mdr's picture
mdr says:

I don't know that living in the middle of North America offers as much insulation as you hope. Having grown up on Lake Superior I can tell that storms there can churn up some very large and powerful waves. One theory regarding the famed wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is that the ship was sunk by series of rogue waves sailors call Three Sisters. These Extreme Storm Waves often appear suddenly and from out of nowhere, sometimes accompanied by a deep trough that can swallow a doomed vessel. The first two waves batter the strickened ship, full force, followed by a third more powerful wave that sends it to Davy Jones' Locker.

More on waves

posted on Sat, 07/15/2006 - 9:23pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Other than living around the Great Lakes though you would be insulated from any storm that needs a large body of water to sustain itself. for instance hurricanes need very warm water to keep itself going and Lake Superior for example is never very warm, even in the summer

posted on Sun, 07/16/2006 - 12:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

ever heard of a white hurricane?

posted on Mon, 09/21/2009 - 9:55am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

hello ur site is quiet good! i would like to learn more about freak waves but there is not much info around about them! where would you go to get info about them? i would also, if possible like to see pictures of them too.

posted on Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:48am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Deadliest Catch on Discoveryy channel has a few good clips of huge waves during the show that are somewhat usual to the Bering Seaa

posted on Mon, 07/09/2007 - 4:15pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

My thought on big waves varies with the amount of methane available. With alot of methane it provides huge gaseous clouds which can in turn fabricate an outstanding aroma. Sometimes this causes big waves...sometimes it just smells.

posted on Thu, 08/09/2007 - 7:04pm
Max Young's picture
Max Young says:

In the last 50 years and thousands of ocean hours and miles I have seen three rough waves. The first was about 50 years ago off the northern California Coast while commerical fishing and it did break. The other two happen 850 miles do west of Mazaian, Mexico on our way to Hawaii about May 18, 2000. The were two monsterous waves, truly something you would have seen on Perfect Storm, how high easy 80 to 100 feet but lucky for us they were not breaking, They took my 50 feet, 20 ton boat striaght up, like being in an elevator, great view from the top on the wave. Never want to see another.

posted on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 6:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

My comment on these waves are.....i never want to go into the open ocean!

posted on Tue, 10/07/2008 - 12:24am
Jackie Rabideau's picture
Jackie Rabideau says:

I wonder how these freak waves size in comparison to a Tsunami. This is what concerns me about boating in the ocean. First, you have large whales that can come to the surface at any time. Then, you may just get capsized by a freakishly large wave! I'll stick to the lakes. The ocean is to big and complex for me.

posted on Sun, 11/23/2008 - 8:44pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

Tsunami waves move mostly under water. When they approach land and the ocean bed gets shallow, they emerge at the surface and then crash on to land. That's why the tsunami in Indonesia a few years ago was so bad. People couldn't see it coming until the last moments.

posted on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 6:08pm
Irish Al's picture
Irish Al says:


Don't think of tsunamis as huge breaking waves - they're not. They might only be a few feet or metres of water vertically, but the problem is not the height, it's that the water keeps coming and coming - like a surge.

The freak waves discussed here are mid-ocean waves in the classic sense.

posted on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 5:01pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Ironically in September 1996 Hurricane Huron occured over Lake Huron. A cold core store stalled over Lake Huron and due to the relatively warm water in Lake Huron the cold core storm became a warm core cyclone. No ships sank, but several large commercial vessels were thrown onto beaches in southern Lake Huron. Also in the case of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Another ship called the Anderson was following the Fitzgerald and maintaing radio contact with the Fitz. Just before the Fitz disappeared off the radar the Anderson reported being hit by two huge waves that went over the cabin of the ship. This means those two waves had to be at least 35 feet tall.

posted on Wed, 11/18/2009 - 11:10am

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