Abstract The paper examines dense water formation in the South Adriatic by analysing temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen data collected during six along-Adriatic cruises carried out from the Jabuka Pit to the Otranto Strait. The least-squares tracer analysis method is applied to distinguish the fractions of the four characteristic deep, dense water masses of the Adriatic Sea. Two types of dense water generation are considered: (1) shelf type occurring during cold and dry winters in the North Adriatic and resulting in the North Adriatic dense water (NAdDW) which partially transforms to the Middle Adriatic dense water (MAdDW) on its way along the Italian shelf to the Bari Canyon, where it interacts with topography, violently mixes and sinks; and (2) deep-convection type occurring in the centre of the South Adriatic Pit, generating dense water which reaches down to 800 m, fills the bottom and enters the Ionian Sea through the Otranto Strait. Both processes are visible in the July 1976 data, as the previous winter was cold (February) and relatively dry over the whole Adriatic basin. Both types of processes can influence the bottom layer of the Otranto Strait, where the fraction of shelf-type dense water generated in the North and Middle Adriatic was occasionally observed along with the fraction of water generated by deep convection in the South Adriatic. During the non-generative period, the cyclonic South Adriatic Gyre moved more to the northwest in general, as the Levantine intermediate water (LIW) occupied southeastern part of the South Adriatic Pit. However, such behaviour was not observed in January 1980, when LIW filled much of the Adriatic, thus diminishing density gradients in the South Adriatic. By applying a simple box model of water masses, it is estimated that the decay time of the Adriatic water masses equals 26 months, whereas transport of the Adriatic deep water (ADW) in the Otranto Strait amounted to 0.34 Sv during summer 1975. In the winter 1974/75 the ratio between the NAdDW+MAdDW and ADW transports in the Otranto Strait equalled 0.04, whereas during the winter 1975/76 it rose to 0.06. Conversion rates of NAdDW+MAdDW and LIW into ADW at that time are estimated at about 0.02 and 0.4–0.5 Sv, respectively.