Great Bitter Lake

The Great Bitter Lake (Arabic: البحيرة المرة الكبرى; transliterated: al-Buhayrah al-Murra al-Kubra) is a saltwater lake in Egypt, connected to the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. It is connected to the Small Bitter Lake (Arabic: البحيرة المرة الصغرى; transliterated: al-Buhayrah al-Murra as-Sughra), through which the canal also runs. Before the canal was built (1869), the site was a dry salt valley or basin.[1][2] References are made to the Great Bitter Lake in the ancient Pyramid Texts.[3] Ships traveling through the Suez Canal use the Great Bitter Lake as a "passing lane", where they can change their position in line or turn around.[1]

Great Bitter Lake
Coordinates30°20′N 32°23′E
Lake typesalt lake
Primary inflowsSuez Canal
Primary outflowsSuez Canal
Basin countriesEgypt
Surface elevation0 m (0 ft)


When the Suez Canal was closed for eight years, beginning during the Six-Day War, the salinity of the lake increased substantially. The salinity of the lake depends on how much seawater flows into it from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.[4] Even when the canal is open, the Great Bitter Lake has a salinity level "more than twice" the level of the sea, and while this makes it difficult for plant life to exist there, many species (of crabs, for example) migrate from the Red Sea through the area.[5]

As the canal has no locks, sea water flows freely into the lake from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. In general, north of the lakes the current reverses seasonally, being north-going in winter and south-going in summer.[6] South of the lakes, the current is tidal, reversing with the tides in the Red Sea.[7] Fish can migrate, generally in a northerly direction, through the canal and lakes in what is known as a Lessepsian migration. This means that some Red Sea species have come to colonize the eastern Mediterranean.[2][5]

The Quincy Agreement

On 14 February 1945, Great Bitter Lake was the site of the Quincy Agreement. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having flown directly from the Yalta Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, met on board the naval cruiser USS Quincy with Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz.[8] President Roosevelt's interpreter was U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Bill Eddy who recorded the men's conversation in his book FDR Meets Ibn Saud. The meeting is the subject of a BBC documentary by Adam Curtis, entitled Bitter Lake (2015).[9]

The Yellow Fleet

During the Six-Day War in 1967, the canal was closed, leaving 15 ships trapped in the lake until 1975. These ships became known as the "Yellow Fleet", because of the desert sands which soon covered their decks.[10][11][12] The crews of the ships would eventually organize, share resources, and later set up their own post office and stamp. Two German-flagged ships eventually sailed out of the canal on their own power. Stranded cargo included various perishables (like eggs and fruit), T-shirts, and a load of toys destined for Woolworth's.[13]


  1. "Great Bitter Lake, Egypt (Oct. 26, 2009)". Earth Observatory NASA. Archived from the original on 19 November 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  2. Madl, Pierre (1999). Essay about the phenomenon of Lessepsian Migration Archived 2016-07-31 at the Wayback Machine, Colloquial Meeting of Marine Biology I, Salzburg, April 1999 (revised in Nov. 2001).
  3. Jones, Greg (Apr 28, 2014). Waters of Death and Creation: Images of Water in the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. BookBaby. ISBN 9781483526362. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  4. El Baz, Farouk (January 1, 1984). The Geology of Egypt: An Annotated Bibliography. Brill Archive. p. 516. ISBN 9789004070196. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  5. Elton, Charles S. (June 15, 2000). The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. University of Chicago Press. p. 96. ISBN 9780226206387. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  6. Sears, M.; Merriman, D. (December 6, 2012). Oceanography: The Past. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 301. ISBN 9781461380900. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  7. The Red Sea Pilot. Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson. 1995. p. 266.
  8. "President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz". SUSRIS. 17 March 2005. Archived from the original on 11 November 2014. Retrieved 2014-11-10.
  9. MacInnes, Paul (January 24, 2015). "Adam Curtis: 'I try to make the complexity and chaos intelligible'". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 22 October 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  10. Blair, Jonathon (June 1975). "New Life for the Troubled Suez Canal". National Geographic. Archived from the original on April 20, 2012. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
  11. Pearson, John; Anderson, Ken (May 1975). "A 'new' Suez Canal shapes up for 1980s". Popular Mechanics. Hearst Magazines. 143 (5). Archived from the original on July 6, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
  12. Ian Russel. "Melampus in Suez (the tale of a soldier on the MS Melampus)". The Blue Funnel Line 1866 - 1986. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2011-04-30.
  13. Gregor, Karen. "The Yellow Fleet". BBC Radio. Archived from the original on 30 November 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
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