Lake Maracaibo is a large brackish lake and an inlet of the Caribbean Sea situated in the Maracaibo basin in the northwestern part of Venezuela. It covers an area of 13,210 km2 and is considered one of the largest natural lakes in the continent of South America. Lake Maracaibo is linked with the Gulf of Venezuela by the 5.5 km-wide Tablazo Strait.
Geological studies have estimated that Lake Maracaibo is one of the oldest water bodies on the planet, formed between 20 and 35 million years ago. This brackish water body has a length of 159 km and a maximum width of about 108 km. Lake Maracaibo is relatively shallow and reaches a maximum depth of 60 m. Numerous rivers flow into the lake, among which the Catatumbo River is the most significant. The Tablazo Strait is spanned by the 8.7 km-long General En Jefe Rafael Urdaneta Bridge.
The southern part of the lake contains freshwater while its northern part contains brackish water. The average surface water temperature of the lake ranges between 28 and 31 °C throughout the year. Located at the mouth of the Catatumbo River in the southern portion of Lake Maracaibo is the world’s famous lightning hotspot. Here, nocturnal thunderstorms occur at an average of 232.52 lightning flashes per km2 per year. This atmospheric phenomenon is colloquially known as “Relámpago del Catatumbo.”
The Indigenous Guajiros were the earliest people to settle around the lake areas. The Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda and the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to discover the bay on August 24, 1499. It is believed that when Ojeda’s expedition entered the lake, they found several indigenous huts that were built on stilts (Palafitos) over the water. It is said that these stilt houses reminded Vespucci of the Italian city of Venice (Venezia). Therefore, he named the area “Venezuela” which in Spanish meant “the Little Venice.” The port city of Maracaibo was established on the western part of the lake in 1529. During the Venezuelan War of Independence, the bay served as the location for the famous Battle of Lake Maracaibo in 1823.
The Maracaibo Basin has heavy deposits of crude oil and therefore Lake Maracaibo is one of the world’s richest oil-producing regions. The first significant oil well was drilled in 1917, and currently, the most productive area of the lake is a 105 km long strip that is situated along the eastern shores of the lake and extends about 32 km into it. Numerous derricks protrude out of the lake along with several others that are located along the shores of the lake. Many pipelines run underwater and help to transport the crude oil to storage tanks. It is estimated that about two-thirds of the total petroleum produced in Venezuela is supplied by the lake’s basin. The Venezuelan crude oil is then shipped through the port of Maracaibo to different oil-requiring nations. Lake Maracaibo also serves as a major fishing ground that supports more than 20,000 fishers.
Lake Maracaibo suffers from a duckweed infestation and it has been reported that as of 2004, more than 18% of the lake has been covered with duckweed. The Government of Venezuela spends $2 million per month to clean up the lake and the Petroleos de Venezuela Oil company has also created a fund of over $750 million for cleaning the lake. Duckweed can double its size in 48 hours and the only way to manage it is to physically remove it from the lake, as no treatments have been found to be effective against the weed. It is not toxic to fish but experts are concerned that its prevalence in the water can lead to a lack of oxygen in the lake, which would suffocate marine life.