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October 26, 2001

Fish Vacuums

Waterspouts are normally weaker than tornados.

Q: While fishing in the Gulf Stream between Florida and the Bahamas last summer, we watched several waterspouts descend from the clouds and, fortunately, soon disappear. What is the difference between a waterspout and a tornado? How strong are the winds in a waterspout? Is it true that waterspouts can suck fish out of the ocean and move them to other places? - Alvaro Garcia, Corpus Christi, Texas

A: A waterspout is a tornado that forms over water. The average waterspout is thin and weak, with winds of around 40 knots extending 20 to 30 feet from a nearly calm center - the equivalent of a "dust devil" on land - and poses little threat to boaters because it moves slowly and aimlessly, and lasts only about 10 minutes. However, stronger waterspouts also occur, which may spin at up to 200 knots over an area 100 yards or more in diameter. These "tornadic" waterspouts can last up to an hour, moving at speeds of 50 knots or more over the water, overtaking speedboats and even threatening ocean liners. The best way to tell a strong waterspout from a weak one is to watch for the thunder and lightning that accompany tornadic waterspouts.
There are a few reliable reports of small baitfish being showered onto land by waterspouts. The spray vortex at the base of a waterspout can pick up small objects on the water's surface and keep them whirling for short periods of time. When a waterspout moves over land, it loses some of its energy and drops whatever it has picked up.