What Are the World's Largest Bodies of Water?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The world’s largest bodies of water include oceans, seas, gulfs, bays, and lakes. While there is not agreement on the precise size, because the boundaries of bodies of water are not clear, the following charts include some of the biggest. Also of note are the changes in size due to natural and unnatural causes. Lake Chad is worth mentioning in this regard. With an area of over 9,653 sq. mi (25,000 sq. km) in the 1960s — about the size of Lake Erie — Lake Chad was the fourth largest lake in Africa. By the late 1990s, this lake had an area of only 521 sq. mi (1350 sq. km), about 1/3 the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

The Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, was recognized in 2000.
The Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, was recognized in 2000.

The first chart is restricted to bodies of salt water. It includes the Southern Ocean, which was recognized in 2000 by the International Hydrographic Organization as a fifth world ocean, joining the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. As the chart shows, it is the fourth largest of these five oceans.

North America's Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake.
North America's Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake.
Order Name Area in sq mi (sq km)
1. Pacific Ocean 60,060,893 (155,557,000)
2. Atlantic Ocean 29,637,974 (76,762,000)
3. Indian Ocean 26,469,620 (68,556,000)
4. Southern Ocean 7,848,299 (20,327,000)
5. Arctic Ocean 5,427,052 (14,056,000)
6. South China Sea 1,148,500 (2,974,600)
7. Caribbean Sea 971,394 (2,515,900)
8. Mediterranean Sea 969,116 (2,510,000)
9. Bering Sea 872,977 (2,261,000)
10. Gulf of Mexico 582,088 (1,507,600)
11. Sea of Okhotsk 537,493 (1,392,100)
12. Sea of Japan/East Sea 391,083 (1,012,900)
13. Hudson Bay 281,893 (730,100)
14. East China Sea 256,372 (664,000)
15. Andaman Sea 218,109 (564,900)
16. Black Sea 196,101 (507,900)
17. Red Sea 174,904 (453,000)
18. Caspian Sea 143,000 (371,000)
19. Baltic Sea 76,762 (415,000)
The Mediterranean Sea is one of the 10 largest bodies of water.
The Mediterranean Sea is one of the 10 largest bodies of water.

Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes, is the biggest freshwater lake. The other Great Lakes are also among the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The Caspian Sea, while technically a lake, contains saltwater. It is interesting to note that most of these lakes are in the Northern Hemisphere, and the majority are in North America.

The Caspian Sea is a large body of water, although it's technically a lake.
The Caspian Sea is a large body of water, although it's technically a lake.
Order Name and location Area in sq mi (sq km)
1. Lake Superior, US/Canada 31,820 (82,413)
2. Lake Victoria, Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya 26,828 (69,484)
3. Lake Huron, US/Canada 23,010 (59,596)
4. Lake Michigan, US 22,400 (58,016)
5. Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania 12,355 (31,999)
6. Lake Baikal, Russia 12,162 (31,499)
7. Great Bear Lake, Canada 12,000 (31,080)
8. Great Slave Lake, Canada 11,170 (28,930)
9. Lake Nyasa, Tanzania/Mozambique/Malawi 10,900 (28,231)
10. Lake Erie, US/Canada 9,940 (25,744)
11. Winnipeg Lake, Canada 9,094 (23,553)
12. Lake Ontario, US/Canada 7,540 (19,529)
Salt companies extract salt for sale from the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Salt companies extract salt for sale from the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@Perdido – If the winds are strong enough, the Great Lakes can make waves that are high enough to surf. I've actually seen people out there in winter in diving suits with surfboards!

The wind across that much water makes big waves. Even though they do look nearly identical to ocean waves, they come closer together since the lakes are not as big as the ocean, so it is actually more dangerous to surf there than in the ocean. Also, it's harder to float in freshwater than it is in saltwater.

There are lots of rip currents, especially around sandbars, harbors, or decks of some sort. Anything jutting out in the ocean that messes with the current can make it really dangerous to swim in that area.


I've heard that the Great Lakes have waves that look and act just like ocean waves. Is this true?

It just seems so strange that a freshwater lake could have waves and rip currents. I've heard that lots of people have died there from the undertow, but I have a hard time picturing strong waves and currents in a lake.


@OeKc05 – That's the way it goes all up and down the Atlantic coast, too. After the oil spill in the spring of 2010, my husband and I decided to switch our vacation destination that year to somewhere other than the Gulf of Mexico while cleanup was being done. Since the Atlantic Ocean is so vast, we had plenty of destinations to choose from across many states, but we chose Georgia because it was close to us.

The water there was much murkier than I expected, and this was because it was so close to the Savannah River. The waves weren't terribly rough, though, which I appreciated.

One year, I went to Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic coast of Florida, far away from this beach in Georgia. The waves there were seriously high and strong, and the water wasn't quite as muddy.


The Gulf of Mexico is huge. I've vacationed on its shores at beaches that were many miles away from each other and in different states.

If you go to the Mississippi coast, the waters of the Gulf there are rather brown and murky. This is because a river dumps into the ocean nearby.

If you travel over toward Alabama, the waters become a bit more clear. By the time you reach the boundary of Alabama and Florida, you will see pretty blue-green water, and the further down Florida's coastline you go, the clearer it will get.


@anon136870 -- That's true, but I think that generally speaking on maps and in geography books and things like that, they're considered to be distinct bodies of water. I'm assuming that's why they're listed in the table as they are.


How come the Philippine Sea (2 million sq miles), the Coral Sea (1,850,000 sq m), the Arabian Sea (1,491,000 sq m), the Weddell Sea (1,080,000 sq m ) and the Tasman Sea (900,000) are not included in the list of largest bodies of water in the world? In order, the Philippines, the Coral, the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea are actually the largest seas in the world. And the Philippine Sea or the Coral Sea are the deepest.


Lake Erie is actually shared by both the US and Canada. I mean, Canada does deserve the entire lake because the US gets all of Lake Michigan, but no one ever said life was fair.


Lake Michigan and Huron are actually a single body of water and make up the largest lake in the world (in area, not volume).


I'm confused. When talking about depth or area, everyone leaves out the Labrador Sea. It would be the eighth deepest body of water, and the 10th largest in area. Does it not count as a sea for some reason?


It's interesting, the list of largest lakes varies depending on what you are considering when you consider size: volume or surface area. In coming to this realization I also learned an acronym to remember the great lakes -- HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.


When the area of the Black Sea does not include the Sea of Azov its something like 436,400 sq km. But sometimes people include the Sea of Azov when they give the Black Sea's total area.

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