Off Gibraltar. Photograph : Captain Charles Kingon

Straits of Gibraltar link the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. This means also that shipping routes between Europe or the east coast of North America or the east coast of South America and the Suez Canal pass through these straits. Thousands of ships pass through the straits each year. The importance of the straits has been realised by many powers over the years, and Gibraltar itself was ceded (given) to Britain in 1713. Later the British established a major naval base there. The harbour and anchorage at Gibraltar are also popular with shipowners to bunker their ships. Its importance as a bunker stop increased since the once-popular bunkering port of Aden (near Bab-el-Mandeb) has become unreliable and even dangerous owing to the civil war in Yemen.

Important cargoes that pass through these straits – Containers, oil, oil products; grain; minerals, steel.

Times when the Straits were in the News: When German forces invaded North Africa during World War 2, the straits became extremely important to the Allied forces in their campaign to liberate the North African states from German occupation. Ships carrying troops, military equipment and supplies moved through the straits, and because of the concentration of shipping in the straits and in the approaches to the straits, German and Italian submarines operated successfully against these ships. Flying from bases in France, North Africa and Italy, German and Italian bombers were also successful in attacking Allied ships near Gibraltar. Only after Allied forces (including large numbers of South African troops and aircraft) had driven the Germans and Italians out of North Africa and had entered Italy could Allied ships move through the straits in relative safety.

During the closures of the Suez Canal (1956-1957 and 1967-1975), traffic through the Straits of Gibraltar declined as thousands of ships moving between Europe or the east coast of North America and Asia or Australia were diverted to the Cape route. Once the canal reopened, normal volumes of shipping resumed through the straits.

Because it considers Gibraltar to be its territory, Spain has laid claim to Gibraltar and diplomatic disagreements between Spain and Britain occur frequently.