Geography of the Gulf of Mexico

Aerial View of Gulf of Mexico
Laura Jennings Photography / Getty Images

The Gulf of Mexico is a large ocean basin near the Southeastern United States. It is a part of the Atlantic Ocean and is bounded by Mexico to the southwest, Cuba to the southeast, and the Gulf Coast of the United States on the north, which includes the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas (map). The Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest body of water in the world at a width of 810 nautical miles (1,500 km). The entire basin is about 600,000 square miles (1.5 million sq km). Most of the basin consists of shallow intertidal areas, but its deepest point is called Sigsbee Deep and has an estimated depth of about 14,383 feet (4,384 m).

Gulf of Mexico Geographic Facts

The Gulf of Mexico itself and the regions surrounding it are highly biodiverse and feature large fishing economies. The economics of the area as well as the environment thus are sensitive to pollution. 

To learn more about the Gulf of Mexico, visit the Gulf of Mexico Program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Here are 11 facts about the geography of the region:

The Gulf of Mexico Formed from Sinking

The Gulf of Mexico likely formed as a result of seafloor subsidence (or the gradual sinking of the seafloor) about 300 million years ago.

Europeans Arrived in 1497

The first European exploration of the Gulf of Mexico occurred in 1497 when Amerigo Vespucci sailed along Central America and entered the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida (the strip of water between present-day Florida and Cuba).

The First European Settlement Was at Pensacola Bay

Further exploration of the Gulf of Mexico continued throughout the 1500s, and after numerous shipwrecks in the region, settlers and explorers decided to establish a settlement along the northern Gulf Coast. They said this would protect shipping, and in the event of an emergency, rescue would be nearby. Thus, in 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed at Pensacola Bay and established a settlement.

The Gulf is Fed by 33 Rivers

The Gulf of Mexico today is bordered by 1,680 miles (2,700 km) of U.S. coastline and is fed with water from 33 major rivers that flow out of the United States. The largest of these rivers is the Mississippi River. Along the south and southwest, the Gulf of Mexico is bordered by the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatán. This region consists of about 1,394 miles (2,243 km) of coastline. The southeast is bordered by the northwest portion of Cuba, which includes the capital, Havana.

The Gulf Stream

An important feature of the Gulf of Mexico is the Gulf Stream, which is a warm Atlantic current that begins in the region and flows north into the Atlantic Ocean. Because it is a warm current, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are normally also warm, which feeds Atlantic hurricanes and helps in giving them strength. Climate change that's warming waters further is also making them larger, as in increased intensity and amount of water. Hurricanes are common along the Gulf Coast, such as Katrina in 2005, Ike in 2008, Harvey in 2016, and Michael in 2018.

The Continental Shelf Is Rich in Oil

The Gulf of Mexico features a wide continental shelf, specifically around Florida and the Yucatán Peninsula. Because this continental shelf is easily accessible, the Gulf of Mexico is exploited for oil with offshore oil drilling rigs centered in the Bay of Campeche and the western Gulf region. Eighteen percent of the country's oil comes from offshore wells in the Gulf. There are 4,000 drilling platforms there. Natural gas is also extracted.

Fisheries Are All Over the Region

Fisheries are also extremely productive in the Gulf of Mexico, and many Gulf Coast states have economies centered on fishing in the area. In the United States, the Gulf of Mexico has four of the country's largest fishing ports, while in Mexico the region has eight of the top 20 largest. Shrimp and oysters are among the largest fish products that come from the Gulf.

Tourism Is Important to the Economy

Recreation and tourism are also a significant part of the economy of the lands surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational fishing is popular, as are water sports and tourism along the coastal regions.

The Region Has Amazing Biodiversity

The Gulf of Mexico is a highly biodiverse area and features many coastal wetlands and mangrove forests. The wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico cover around 5 million acres (2.02 million hectares). Seabirds, fish, and reptiles are abundant, as well as bottlenose dolphins, a large population of sperm whales, and sea turtles.

Over 60 Million Americans Live Along the Gulf

In the United States the population of the coastal regions surrounding the Gulf of Mexico is estimated to number more than 60 million people by 2025, as states such as Texas (the second most populous state) and Florida (the third most populous state) are growing quickly.

There Was a Large Oil Spill in 2010

The Gulf of Mexico was the site of a large oil spill that occurred on April 22, 2010, when an oil drilling platform, the Deepwater Horizon, suffered an explosion and sank into the Gulf about 50 miles (80 km) from Louisiana. Eleven people died in the explosion and an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from the 18,000-foot (5,486 m) well on the platform. Cleanup crews attempted to burn the oil off of the water, gather the oil and move it, and block it from hitting the coast. Cleanup and fines cost BP $65 billion.


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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of the Gulf of Mexico." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, September 8). Geography of the Gulf of Mexico. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of the Gulf of Mexico." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).