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!
HOW THE DRAKE PASSAGE WAS FORMED
Why is the Drake Passage so rough?
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 it’s flow, combined with strong winds and unpredictable weather – this all contributes 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 forms a significant biological boundary. The actual line is not fixed but you will experience a drop in temperature when crossing it.
CALMNESS OF THE DRAKE LAKE
So we got lucky on the way to Antarctica and experienced a Drake Lake. We left Ushuaia armed with ginger, sea sickness pills and 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.
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 hand out. 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 of Mt Vinson, the highest mountain of Antarctica.
Wildlife in the Drake Passage
You’d think the inhospitable conditions of the Drake Passage would not lend itself well to wildlife, quite the opposite! The high levels of phytoplankton attracts 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).
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! Next stop was watching wildlife in Orne Harbour and hanging out with Gentoo Penguins on Cuverville Island.
WILD SIDE OF THE DRAKE SHAKE
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, 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 friend and may have unintentionally put my hand out towards her face, so my advice is hang on to anything you can to avoid bumps and bruises of 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 to the rest of your body. Thank goodness, I wasn’t sick and managed to enjoy the fun and camaraderie with other passengers onboard.
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!
HISTORY OF THE DRAKE PASSAGE
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 Drake Passage.
The first recorded voyage through the Drake Passage was captained by the Dutch navigator William Schouten in 1616 where 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!
BOOKING AN ANTARCTICA EXPEDITION
Recommended expedition company
Travel Insurance is a must!
With any holiday adventures, 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.
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