Crossing the Drake Passage: Lake or Shake

by Vanessa Wanders Miles

When you sign up for Antarctica, the only big hurdle you need to cross is the roughest sea in the world known as the Drake Passage. Many travellers will feel nervous about the 48-hour crossing, not knowing whether they will be on the receiving end of the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake!

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Why is the Drake Passage so rough?

The Drake Passage is the narrowest stretch of water in the Southern Ocean, spanning approximately 800 km between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) flows west to east around Antarctica and is the largest ocean current in the world. The vast volume of water travelling through this bottleneck as well as the fact there is no land surrounding the latitudes of the Drake Passage to break its flow, combined with strong winds and unpredictable weather – all contribute to the rough ride.

Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Convergence

Did you know Antarctica used to be attached to South America? Well, it was over 40 million years ago when it broke away over a long period creating a large oceanic current that soon encircled Antarctica which is known as Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), or the West Wind Drift. This forms a divide between the warm waters of the sub-Antarctic and the cold currents near the Antarctic Continent. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is largely responsible for the low temperatures that maintain Antarctica’s massive ice sheets.

Associated with the Circumpolar Current is the Antarctic Convergence, where the cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the subantarctic, creating a zone of upwelling nutrients and forming a significant biological boundary. The actual line is not fixed but you will experience a drop in temperature when crossing it.


So we got lucky on the way to Antarctica and experienced a Drake Lake. We left Ushuaia armed with ginger, sea sickness pills and a belly full of excitement. We started to navigate through the Beagle Channel and those phenomenal skies were just the start of the beauty we can expect from this Antarctic adventure.

Navigating through the Beagle Channel, heading for the Drake Passage

Navigating through the Beagle Channel, heading for the Drake Passage.

Safety and precautions on the Drake Passage

Although I’m referring to our experience as the Drake Lake, there was still enough movement for passengers to be reaching for the sickbags strategically placed behind the handrails around the ship. Portholes had been closed on the lower decks in case of unpredictable seas. In the dining area, food was served at the table to avoid problems walking to the buffet table. Precautionary medication should be taken but don’t underestimate the power of Malbec as an additional aid (not sure that is medically approved).

There were many preparation activities going on whilst making the Drake Passage crossing. Starting with the Mandatory IAATO briefing and Zodiac briefing and those who were too sick to sit through this talk were given their individual chat after they emerged from their cabin.  There was the phase of biosecurity (hoovering old clothing to remove any pests from previous trips), boot and zodiac life jacket handout. Briefings were given on snowshoeing, kayaking, camping and mountaineering.

With many knowledgeable academics and conservationists onboard the ship, we passed the additional free time listening to fascinating lectures on Astronomy, Seabirds of the Southern Ocean, Photography and Marine Mammals of Antarctica. The mountaineering team recounted the gripping tale of climbing Mt Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica.

Wildlife in the Drake Passage

You’d think the inhospitable conditions of the Drake Passage would not lend itself well to wildlife, but quite the opposite! The high levels of phytoplankton attract krill in their masses which is really the kingpin of the food chain in Antarctica supporting fish, birds and mammals alike!

We saw an exquisite display of birds gliding and swooping as we sailed. We spotted many kinds of Albatross (Wandering, Black-browed, Southern Royal, Grey-headed, Light-mantled), Petrel (Antarctic, Giant Southern, Wilson’s Storm)… and not to mention the whales (Blue, Fin and Humpback).

Albatross flying in the Drake Passage. © Photo by Wanders Miles

Albatross flying in the Drake Passage

Passing through the Antarctic Convergence

The snow started falling on deck, the fog came in heavier and we knew we had hit the Antarctic Convergence. The excitement was immense. Not only had we made it through the Drake Passage unscathed but our big adventure to Antarctica can now begin.

After a couple of hours, the sky cleared, the icebergs started to appear and we got our first sighting of penguins… yippee, we had arrived! My next stop was watching wildlife in Orne Harbour and hanging out with Gentoo Penguins on Cuverville Island.

Penguins on a big glacier in the Drake Passage

Penguins on a big glacier in the Drake Passage

Happy woman on ship in the Drake Passage

Happy to see snow in Drake Passage



After a relatively easy journey on the way to Antarctica, I was hoping to experience the Drake Shake as we made the crossing back through the Drake Passage. Be careful what you wish for!

We were lulled into a false sense of security as we sailed through the start of the Drake Passage but all that changed after lunch. The waves became more prolific and the movement more powerful, the corridors of the ship appeared a little more deserted, and only the strong prevailed. We headed up to the Bridge to watch the gigantic waves crashing against the bow of the vessel.

Trying to get into my cabin bed that evening I was thrown straight into a friend and may have unintentionally put my hand out towards her face, so my advice is to hang on to anything you can to avoid bumps and bruises for you or your fellow passengers. Once in bed, expect a little body levitation. It seems strange that your stomach seems to move at a different pace from the rest of your body. Thank goodness, I wasn’t sick and managed to enjoy the fun and camaraderie with other passengers on board.

Whether you have a Drake Lake or a Drake Shake experience, remember the ultimate reward! Antarctica is one of the most extraordinary adventures you could ever have. Ride the wave to the seventh continent, you won’t regret it! 

Drake Shake at the front of the ship crossing the Drake Passage

Drake Shake. Experience


Who discovered the Drake Passage?

Francisco de Hoces, a Spanish navigator, on his expedition in 1525 was pushed by a gale south from the entrance of the Strait of Magellan where they saw a land’s end. On this basis, Spanish and Latin American sources will refer to this sea as Mar de Hoces (Sea of Hoces).

In comes Sir Francis Drake in September 1578 who had a similar situation with being blown south and discovering these waters. To this day, it is called the Drake Passage.

The first recorded voyage through the Drake Passage was captained by the Dutch navigator William Schouten in 1616 who he also named Cape Horn in the process.

The “Impossible Row”

After crossing the Drake Passage in an expedition ship, I was in disbelief when I heard Fiann Paul and his team were attempting to row from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula across Drake Passage in December 2019. The crew of six men battled their way through 40ft waves taking 90 minutes shifts in rowing for 12 days, 1 hour and 45 minutes. You won’t be surprised to hear they bagged themselves a Guinness Book of Records as the first ever team to row across the Drake Passage! Mind-blowing, go boys!


Recommended expedition company

I travelled on the expedition ship, Ortelius, with Oceanwide Expeditions booked with World Expeditions.

Travel Insurance is a must!

With any holiday adventure, travel insurance should be a top priority! World Nomads is my go-to guys, I’ve learnt this from experience. You can buy and claim online even when you’ve left home.  I love that they give a little back too and support community development projects in various countries.

Useful links for Ushuaia

Antarctica tours set off from the windy city of Ushuaia so you will need to book accommodation before and after your expedition. It’s a fab place to explore so I’d factor in a few days if you can!

Useful links for Antarctica


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Danik 26th January 2020 - 12:08 am

This part of the world has escaped me and I am so detemined to do it. Shake or no shake, bring it on, just need the $$$ (as I live in the UK and costs a bit to get down there). I love visiting colder places, I done a lot in the Arctic but nothing in that part of the world and so want to tick this off. Wonder if those cruises/boat trips ever had visitors on deck just wearing t-shirts and shorts. Always wondered that. 😀

Vanessa 26th January 2020 - 2:29 am

Love your spirit! Antarctica is an experience I totally recommend. We had people on our boat wearing shorts and T-shirts, we had a few days of really lovely weather although I wasn’t ready for short I must say 😉

Linda (LD Holland) 26th January 2020 - 2:15 am

Antarctica is so on our travel wish list. I have been watching your photos and wishing we would get it booked. So happy to hear on your Drake Passage crossing you got the Drake Lake. At least to start. Good to know Malbec worked to help with a queasy stomach. That first sighting of icebergs and penguins would have me dancing too. I can’t wait to read more about your trip.

Vanessa 26th January 2020 - 2:31 am

Being a couple that loves cruises and adventure, I’ve no doubt that Antarctica will be a trip that is on its way to you. The Drake Passage is just something you need to go through, good or bad, but the reward is worth it!

Debra Schroeder 26th January 2020 - 11:10 pm

Antarctica! I can not even imagine. My dad was there many, many years ago so I would love to visit. But that 48 hour crossing over Drake Passage sounds like it could be rough. LOL, never underestimate the power of a good wine. 🙂

Vanessa 26th January 2020 - 11:44 pm

As they say, you need to take the rough with the smooth. Antarctica was worth it!

Agnes 27th January 2020 - 12:24 am

I am impressed with your trip! It is an incredible adventure. I love penguins; I would like to see them in Antarctica. I love wildlife, so your photos are amazing to me. But I am not sure I could tolerate this cold on the ship 🙂

Vanessa 27th January 2020 - 12:27 am

You would surely change your mind when you got to Antarctica, it wasn’t as cold as I thought either, think we got lucky!

Val 27th January 2020 - 1:27 pm

Now, this sounds like the Adventure! Wow! I need to start saving because I want to do this same trip now!
PS Great shots, too!

Vanessa 27th January 2020 - 3:02 pm

You won’t regret it if you do make it to Antarctica!

Shreya Saha 27th January 2020 - 7:44 pm

Antarctica is in my list since many years, and I cannot get more excited. I wasn’t aware of Drake Passage before. After reading your blog, I am more charged up. I need to experience the Drake Shake though it actually sounds very risky but extremely adventurous. I am surely going to visit it some day.

Vanessa 27th January 2020 - 7:50 pm

Glad I haven’t put you off with the tales of the Drake Shake and hope you get to fulfil your dream of visiting Antarctica!

Laura Pedlar 28th January 2020 - 11:21 am

I’d love to do an expedition cruise to Antarctica but won’t be looking forward to enduring the Drake Shake! I take Dramamine for sea sickness so would need to stock up on it for sure. The reward for getting through the passage is stunning though, your photos look incredible so in real life I know it will be mind-blowing. What an amazing experience!

Vanessa 28th January 2020 - 8:37 pm

It’s a lottery what conditions you will get on the Drake Passage. Thank you for your compliments on the photos, and you’re right, it’s mind-blowing!

Yukti Agrawal 29th January 2020 - 10:00 am

Antarctica is always a dream destination for travel lovers. I too want to visit this place but good to know that for the trip to Antarctica, the biggest hurdle is to cross is the roughest sea in the world known as the Drake Passage. I too fell nervous by reading your blog post like many travellers also feel nervous about the 48 hour crossing. Wild life across Drake Shake looks very exotic and unique. You have taken stunning photos of glaciers. To visit this 7th continent must be really a beautiful adventure.

alex stevenson 17th June 2020 - 4:55 pm

Antarctica definitely sits a little higher on my bucket list after reading this! Loved the photos and hearing about all of the wildlife… and can’t believe “the impossible row”!

Vanessa 21st June 2020 - 5:00 pm

I know I can’t imagine attempting the “impossible row”… I was happier doing the Drake Passage from an expedition ship for sure. I hope you make it to antarctica one day 🙂


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