Facts About Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico

Whale shark and suckerfish, Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, North America
Pablo Cersosimo/Robert Harding World Image/Getty Images

Gulf of Mexico Facts

The Gulf of Mexico covers about 600,000 square miles, making it the 9th largest body of water in the world. It is bordered by the U.S. states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the Mexican coast to Cancun, and Cuba.

Human Uses of the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is an important area for commercial and recreational fishing and wildlife watching. It is also the location of offshore drilling, supporting about 4,000 oil and natural gas platforms.

The Gulf of Mexico has been in the news recently because of the explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. This has affected commercial fishing, recreation and the overall economy of the area, as well as threatening marine life.

Types of Habitat

The Gulf of Mexico is thought to have formed by subsidence, a slow sinking of the seafloor, about 300 million years ago. The Gulf has a variety of habitats, from shallow coastal areas and coral reefs to deep underwater areas. The Gulf's deepest area is Sigsbee Deep, which is estimated to be about 13,000 feet deep.

According to the EPA, about 40% of the Gulf of Mexico are shallow intertidal areas. About 20% are areas over 9,000 feet deep, allowing the Gulf to support deep-diving animals such as sperm and beaked whales.

Waters on the continental shelf and continental slope, between 600-9,000 feet deep, comprise about 60% of the Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore Platforms as Habitat

Although their presence is controversial, offshore oil and natural gas platforms provide habitats in themselves, attracting species as an artificial reef would. Fish, invertebrates and even sea turtles sometimes congregate on and around the platforms, and they provide a stopping point for birds (see this poster from the U.S. Minerals Management Service for more).

Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico supports a wide variety of marine life, including wide-ranging whales and dolphins, coastal-dwelling manatees, fish including tarpon and snapper, and invertebrates such as shellfish, corals, and worms.

Reptiles such as sea turtles (Kemp's ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill) and alligators also thrive here. The Gulf of Mexico also provides important habitat for both native and migrating birds.

Threats to the Gulf of Mexico

Although the number of large oil spills relative to the huge number of drilling rigs is small, spills can be disastrous when they occur, as evidenced by the impact of the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 on marine habitat, marine life, fishermen and the overall economy of the Gulf Coast states.

Other threats include overfishing, coastal development, discharge of fertilizers and other chemicals into the Gulf (forming a "Dead Zone," an area lacking oxygen).


  • Gulf of Mexico Foundation. Gulf of Mexico: Facts and Threats (Online) Accessed May 21, 2010.
  • Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Hypoxia In the Gulf of Mexico (Online) Accessed May 21, 2010.
  • Minerals Management Service Gulf of Mexico Region Environmental Information (Online) Accessed May 21, 2010.
  • US EPA. General Facts About the Gulf of Mexico. (Online) Accessed May 21, 2010.
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Kennedy, Jennifer. "Facts About Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/gulf-of-mexico-facts-2291771. Kennedy, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). Facts About Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gulf-of-mexico-facts-2291771 Kennedy, Jennifer. "Facts About Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gulf-of-mexico-facts-2291771 (accessed March 21, 2023).