Of the ebb and flow of the Mediterranean Sea and the Ocean Sea; where it ebbs and flows, as in the Mediterranean; and on which coasts the sea rises higher.

Translated by Isabel Bielat ‘20

Since our discussion has addressed navigational practices and the seas on this side of the world, I will turn now to a subject we should not disregard, as it is a thing of no little wonder: what I have seen of the Ocean Sea’s flux and reflux, ebb and flow. Until now, neither cosmographer nor astrologer, nor expert in matters of the sea, nor any native of the many I have asked, has satisfied me or offered a persuasive explanation for the true reasons behind the effects that my eyes have seen many times, and it is this mystery.

A very celebrated thing is the famous Strait of Gibraltar, where there are those two peaks that the Greek fabulists said were parted by Heracles the Theban, called Calpe and Abila, leaving one in Africa and the other in Europe, so that the Mediterranean Sea could communicate with the Ocean. From that gate, following the Levant through the Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic, and the Aegean (and the other bodies of salt water that are part of the sea extending from Gibraltar to the Levant, between Africa, Asia, and Europe, encompassing the Mediterranean), the seas do not commonly ebb or flow more or less in Valencia than in Barcelona or Italy; and when it rises more than usual, it is not by much and often because of a significant storm. But after the storms, they return to their usual winter and summer seasonal levels. Outside the Gibraltar Strait, however, this Ocean Sea rises and falls more significantly along the coasts of Africa and Europe, as has been observed or is observed each day by those who look at the sea from the coast of Andalusia, Portugal, Galicia, Asturias and the Mountains, Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Normandy, Britain, England, and Flanders, and all that is farthest to the North; such that there is no comparison between what I have said about the Mediterranean and the level to which the Ocean rises. I will say more, that should one depart on a vessel from the parts I have mentioned, where the same Ocean Sea rises the highest, and reach the Canary Islands, there—as in the islands that I have mentioned of these Indies, insofar as I have described them until the present chapter, and of this part of the Mainland of which I have made mention, and all the coastline facing the north, through more than three thousand leagues—the sea water ebbs or flows no higher or lower than it does in Barcelona and inside the narrow Mediterranean Sea. And it works in the same way in this island of Hispaniola and in Cuba, and in all the others in these seas, as it does in the sea of Italy, where the sea rises very little in comparison to how much this great Ocean Sea rises along the coastlines of Spain, England and Flanders, etc.

Note well, readers, all that that has been said so as to better understand what follows. Notwithstanding what was said before, I say that along the Mainland coast facing the south, by the city of Panama and from there to the east or west of the city and of the Pearl Islands (which the Indians call Terarequi), along the islands of Taboga or Toque (and all the others that are named after Saint Paul and along the rest of that coastline from south to west), along the more than three hundred leagues that I have navigated on those coasts, this same Ocean Sea rises and falls so deeply that in some parts when it retreats it appears to be lost from sight. But without a doubt it retreats two leagues or more in some places, as from the city of Panama and its western coast. This I have seen thousands of times.

Another notable wonder, and one at which men should marvel most, is related to the same rising and falling of the tides. From the Northern Sea to the South Sea, where there is such a great difference in the rise and fall of the sea, the distance from coast to coast is short; traversing the land from the city of Nombre de Dios, which is in the part of the Mainland facing north, to the city of Panama, which is on the opposite side of the Mainland facing south, there are no more than eighteen or twenty leagues across, and as the crow flies there should not be more than twelve, for the land is very uneven and mountainous. So, since all I have said about both coasts of the Mainland pertains to the same Ocean Sea, this is a matter for contemplation and consideration to those inclined to explore such secrets and wishing to understand such astonishing matters and mysteries.

I have discussed all this with a number of persons of great knowledge—they have not satisfied me, either because they did not grasp it or because I have not known how to convey it and they have not seen it as I have. But for my part, I satisfy myself with remembering that He who sanctions these astonishing things knows how to create these and other unfathomable miracles that do not readily open themselves to human understanding without special grace. I have posed this question here as an eyewitness—of understanding its resolution I have not been worthy until now; yet in truth I would be very pleased to see it resolved. I have seen what Pliny declares,[1] that in many ways the sea rises and falls because of the sun and the moon. And he offers various arguments about the movements of those two planets, and he also says that the ebbs and flows of the Ocean Sea are greater than those of the Mediterranean; he also says that the reason may be that the ocean could be more energetic in the whole than in the part, and because its expanse is greater it feels the force of the planet more intensely and can spread this force more broadly. He brings other reasons to bear as well. And in the same second book of his Natural History[2] he says that in some places the sea rises and falls beyond reason because the planets do not rise at the same time over all lands; therefore, the flowing of the sea is not the same everywhere. Moreover, he says that the difference is in the time and form, because in some parts there is a special nature or movement—as in the island of Euboea, where the sea ebbs and flows seven times a day, and it is calms three days a month, during the seventh, eighth and ninth days of the moon cycle.

The things said by Pliny, which have been recalled here, and further information regarding this subject that he details, are very notable indeed. But I do not have for certain that the sun and the moon are the cause of the great difference between the rising and falling of the sea in the city of Nombre de Dios and the north coast of the Mainland with respect to how it rises and falls in the city of Panama and the southern coast of the same land, the distance between them being so short. Nor does it satisfy me that Pliny says that the flows of the Ocean Sea are greater than those of the Mediterranean Sea, because he did not specify one specific part but generalizes about the entire Ocean Sea, for the reasons he claims; the great ebb and flow of the Ocean Sea in Spain and the lower rise and fall in the Indies, among these islands, and on the north coast of the Mainland all happen in one and the same sea, the very same ocean as that of Panama and its coasts, where it ebbs and flows sharply as I have described. Nor does it satisfy me that he says that the cause is the planets not rising at the same time in every country or land, nor do I concede that the difference is in the time. I rather think that the answer lies in the form, and in there being in these places a special nature or movement, not as he presumes that happens in the Island of Euboea, because I consider that of which he writes to be likewise incomprehensible to human ingenuity, and I think he who will come to understand this secret must be enlightened from above. If, as he says, there the sea rises and falls seven times a day, and that on three days of the month it is calm—that is a marvelous thing! This Island of Euboea is in the Mediterranean Sea and Archipelago, of which it is written that it was detached or divided by the sea from Boeotia; he also says that the island of Sicily was detached by the sea and divided from Italy.[3] But because I said before that I believe that the answer is in the form, and that there is in some places or parts of the world a special nature, I do not understand it like Pliny did. I will say what I think or suspect about this secret, and it is this.

From the strait discovered by Captain Ferdinand Magellan in the Mainland (of which there will be more particular mention in its place), there are from its mouth to its tip, called the Cabo Deseado Archipelago, up to Panama, by the southern part (measured by a straight ruler or a thread), more than a thousand leagues, which will be many more than that once the coast is explored in detail, because of the capes and coves that the sea and the earth will necessarily form, where the grandest secrets wait to be discovered and explored. This strait measures one hundred and ten leagues in longitude, and its latitude is of two or three leagues or up to six, more or less, in some parts; so that through a canal so grand and narrow, standing between very high lands, as there are said to be along both coasts of this strait, it is believed that the waters entering into the southern sea through there flow with extreme speed and force. I have heard it said by Captain Juan Sebastián Elcano, who entered through this strait with the carrack Victoria and went to the Spice Islands, sailing to the west and returning through the east. So that vessel traversed all that the sun touched in that parallel, as will be said in its place; I have heard the same account from Fernando de Bustamante and of other noblemen who came and went in the same vessel.

Those were the first Spaniards and men who have hitherto been known to have made such a journey and circumnavigated the world. I have understood it a little more particularly from a cleric, an ordained priest, who later made the voyage in a different fleet and passed through the same strait, whose name is Don Juan de Areyzaga. This strait is fifty-two and a half degrees beyond the equinoctial line, on the other Antarctic pole, opposite our hemisphere, and the city of Panama is eight and a half degrees from this part of the equinox, on the side of our Arctic pole. And along the coast of Panama to the west there are many islands, all along the coastline (some close to the Mainland and some a little farther); I think the great currents are caused by their position and their form and that of the Mainland, and that the disposition of the sea and the land is the cause of such great ebbs and flows of the tides.

To this can be added that when coming from Spain to these Indies we come across the first islands, Marie Galante, La Désiderade and the others in that region, which are numerous in the space of fifty leagues from north to south (and run from those called the Virgins until the gulf of Boca del Dragón and the Mainland coast); no such large currents and ebbs are caused there, as in this southern coast. This has a beautiful and natural answer. All these islands of this part of the Mainland that I describe lie north to south and are crossed by the Ocean Sea, with the waters moving with less resistance between them, and there is more place for exhalation or expiring, without so much contrast in its course. Whereas the islands of the southern sea lie in the opposite direction, east to west in relation to Panama, so naturally they resist the escape and impetus of the waters that must come, necessarily, from the Strait of Magellan. And in this way among those islands and the Mainland it seems to me that for this reason the currents are greater, and consequently the rising and falling of the seas there is so extreme, as was said before. This is because of the form and position of the land; so it appears to me that this is the cause of the special nature that results in the higher tides, or better said (if that is not the reason for it) that it will be that cause of causes, which is God himself, whom it pleased to make it so. The less I know in this instance, the more I feel released by Aristotle’s death, in which I do not intend to imitate him while exploring these secrets—Johannes Valensis writes that in Greece, along with Negroponte, Aristotle was investigating the cause of the rise and fall of the sea and was not able to consider nor understand sufficiently the causes of what he was observing: Ex indignatione alloquens aquam, ait: Quia non possum capere te, capias me; et se precipitavit et submersit. It means that he was angry and threw himself into the sea, saying: Well, I can’t understand you, then understand me, and so he drowned. Thus concludes St. Gregory Nazianzen: quod sapienta mundi, stultitia est apud Deum.[4] According to these authorities, no wise man should be angered by what he cannot understand, but rather should take from it what it pleases God to communicate to him and making him capable of understanding, and for that and for everything always give Him praise and believe that everything is possible, as He knows what He does and for what reason. But because earlier those who hold that Aristotle came to such an end were  mentioned, I say that others write that it was not he who threw himself into the sea for not understanding the rise and fall of it, but Euripides the philosopher; whoever it was, erred, and in this way will err those who wish to investigate the wonders of God and reach them through their intellect without the aid of their maker’s special grace.

[1] Book II, Chapter XCIX. [GFO]

[2] Chapter C. [GFO]

[3] Book III, Chapter VII. [GFO]

[4] That the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. [EE]