Lake Maracaibo - Lakes of the World

This salty South American body of water lies between the Catatumbo River and the Caribbean Gulf of Venezuela.

5. Description

This salty South American body of water lies between the Catatumbo River and the Caribbean Gulf of Venezuela. Some see Lake Maracaibo as a lagoon or bay instead of a lake because of its salty water and extension into the Caribbean. That said, in the past it was clearly a freshwater lake, as evidenced by its geological history, and geologists estimate its age to be 20 to 36 million years old. There is a dredged canal that connects the lake to the Gulf of Venezuela that opens into the Caribbean Sea. That canal enables ships to enter the lake. It has two settlements upon its shores, namely Maracaibo and Cabimas, which are also ports. A quarter of Venezuela's total population lives around the lake.

4. Historical Role

On August 24th, 1499, Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda became the first European to make landfall around Lake Maracaibo. The first thing that Ojeda encountered were the indigenous people's houses built on stilts over the waters of the lake. He described these houses as interconnected by wooden walkways. Recounting his discovery later, Ojeda said that it reminded him of Venice with its canals. Later, Lake Maracaibo was named after the Veneciuela tribe, which was also found by Ojeda. The Guajiros, an ancient people, were also already settled around the lake well before Ojeda sailed into the bay. In 1529, the Maracaibo port settlement was established close to its mouth.

3. Modern Significance

Today, the lake has two shipping ports and a 5.4-mile bridge that connects it to the bay's outlet into the sea. It is also home to several indigenous peoples of the area. The oil industry has been flourishing in the Maracaibo Basin area due to the discovery of large oil reserves around the lake. The proximate region also supports mining and agriculture. The lake also has a local fishing industry that supports over 20,000 fishermen and their families. There are nine islands of different sizes on the lake itself. Today, there are still palafitos, or stilt water villages, on the lake's southern and southwestern edges, just as they were seen by Ojeda in 1499.

2. Habitat and Biodiversity

The lake serves as a tourist destination for its 10-hour tropospheric ozone lightning storms that occur between 140 and 160 nights a year, with their three-mile-long lightning bolts. This "Catatumbo Lightning" is seen nowhere else in the world. The remaining forests of Maracaibo are the dry forests found along its northern coasts. There are also paramo forests, deciduous forests, moist forests, montane forests, and savannas in the surrounding region. Various flora species are indigenous to the area, and local native fauna includes the Vesper mouse and the opossum. Birds that are endemic here include several varieties of hummingbirds, swifts, spinetails, sparrows, and cardinals. The lakes and river regions share many fish species, of which 52% are endemic, though some of the other are found across much of South America. The endemic fish species are represented by certain catfish, knifefish, and tetrafish, as well as the Maracaibo Sucker-mouth catfish, a species of armored catfish which are noted for their bony external plates.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

Agricultural practices and cattle grazing have made a terrible dent in the ecosystems of Lake Maracaibo and its surrounding areas, damaging its forests in the process. The oil industry has also damaged much of the area surrounding the lake, with the huge oil production outputs having also resulted in subsiding ground that could result in soil liquefaction if an earthquake were to occur here. The dredging of the canal at the mouth of the lake has allowed salt water to mix with the freshwater, and consequently marine fish have invaded the area close to the lake's mouth from the bay, threatening the freshwater species. Oil slicks, raw sewage flows, littering of garbage, and other human impacts also each pose a real threat to the lake's ecosystems.

More in Environment