High waves fill your field of vision, your palms start to sweat and your stomach turns.
The boat is getting tossed around. Crew struggle to stay up against the swells.
Hold on, take a breath. You’re not on Antarctica’s Drake Passage, or out on the Pacific Ocean — wait a minute, you’re not even a sailor. You’re on NorthSeaTok, a corner of TikTok where videos about gales on the midsize body of water between Denmark, England, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Norway are set to scary music and aim to terrify.
The North Sea is a shallow and often turbulent body of water, but one that hundreds of thousands of ships traverse each year mostly without incident.
“Waves can be high in the North Sea, but they are not the highest,” said Sofia Caires, an expert in wave conditions at the Dutch research institute Deltares. Waves are generally higher in the North Atlantic or off the coast of Iceland, she said. Other rougher seas can be found south of South Africa and south of Australia.
Waves in the North Sea can be around 65 feet high, Dr. Caires said. On very rare occasions, it can produce rogue (or freak) waves, which are waves that are much higher than the ones surrounding it.
There’s a lot going on in the North Sea: shipping, fishing, energy production, tourism and more.
But that doesn’t seem to be why TikTok is interested.
Slow-motion videos of unruly waves, bobbing container ships, wind and other rough open-water scenes have been racking up millions of views on the platform. The soundtrack to most of them is a remix of the ominous sea shanty “Hoist the Colors,” made famous by one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, a version of which has been used for more than 36,000 videos.
It’s not the first time the open sea has enchanted and terrified TikTok users: In 2021, SeaShantyTok brought the sailor’s working songs of the 1850s into the modern era. There have been cartel boat chases and daring rescues, as well as reunions at sea. And recently, videos of boats traversing the dramatic-looking Drake Passage en route to Antarctica have captivated viewers.
“I was quite blown back by how popular the videos became,” said James Cullen, who posted one of the early North Sea TikToks on the account @ukdestinations. He said much of the audience for those videos came from far beyond the surrounding region, including Indonesia and the U.S.
Many viewers have expressed a combination of horror and confusion. Reactions included a sense of fright (“My biggest fear is being in the North Sea and this song playing in the background,” one commenter wrote), confusion (“Is anyone else’s TikTok just FULL of North Sea videos,” said another) and fascination (“I’m addicted to watching the North Sea now”).
Many of the captions are the opposite of calming: “Life here is lonely and the North Sea is infamous for its savagery, with wild storms and foggy winters,” one of them reads. Others call the North Sea “the most treacherous sea in the world.” (Yet others refer to it as an ocean, which it is not.)
That’s not quite the full picture.
The North Sea is very busy, with the most ships (about 260,000 a year) passing through the Dutch portion of it, according to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. (There are also multiple websites that track the sea’s traffic.) In the Dutch part, there were 55 shipping accidents in 2022, but no fatalities, according to government numbers.
While modern navigation equipment has made collisions rare, they do happen. In October, two cargo ships collided off the German coast, leaving at least one mariner dead. In 2012, two container ships collided, causing one that was carrying cars and oil to sink off the Dutch coast, killing 11 people.
As you scroll through the endless videos in the app, fantasizing about what it would be like to work on a North Sea oil rig, almost feeling the cold water and harsh wind across your face, try not to worry too much.
Much of the hype of these videos is classic TikTok behavior, said Dave Byrne, head of creative services at the youth marketing and advertising agency Thinkhouse. People are imagining their worst fears — in this case thalassophobia, a fear of open water — and engaging with it through their screens.
TikTok is perfect for short, intense fixations. But like many other trends, Mr. Byrne said, NorthSeaTok’s popularity is probably limited.
“The algorithm will move on,” he said. “Give it another week.”