The Drake Passage is both the gate and gatekeeper to the icy southern wilds for those who travel to Antarctica via expedition ship. Each crossing is different and may present a range of conditions: from eerily placid to uncomfortably turbulent. For that reason, it is often foremost in the minds of those who have yet to travel there—right behind asking if penguins deserve the hype (yes, they do). With the 2022/23 Antarctic season about to kick off, we answered a few of the most popular questions that will give potential travelers better insight into what lies ahead at the bottom of the world.
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What is the Drake Passage? Where is it?
To reach Antarctica you must cross the Southern Ocean that surrounds it. The shortest route to the frozen continent is from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to the Antarctica Peninsula. This approximately 500 mile “gap” between the two continents was created 50-35 million years ago by the small-but-tectonically-formidable Scotia Plate emerging from what we now call the Andes Mountain range.
Why is it called Drake's Passage?
This body of water is named for famed privateer, slave trader, pirate, and explorer Sir Francis Drake. The name is ill-fitting, as Drake did not see the area nor cross it—sticking to calmer waters in the Strait of Magellan. Some maps refer to the area as “Mar de Hoces,” for the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces who made note of a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific well before Francis Drake was born.
Why is (or why can) the Drake Passage (be) so rough?
Unfettered by any interposing landmass, winds and currents swirl in an endless surge of raw power around Antarctica. You may have heard the nautical phrase the “roaring forties” which alludes to the strong prevailing winds found at 40 degrees latitude. Antarctica is defined as land below 60 degrees latitude, which sailors called “the screaming sixties.” Storm systems whip up a building sea state that can reach 10 meters in height, conditions which would have been impossible to safely navigate 100 years ago.
What is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and what drives it?
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current, or ACC as the cool kids call it, is a massive and constantly moving barrier of water. Due to variables like ocean depth, topography above and below the surface, and prevailing winds, this current flows perpetually from west to east, transporting more water than any other current on the planet. This powerful current keeps the cooler polar water separate from the warmer waters to north; their juncture is known as the Antarctic Convergence, a zone of upwelling nutrients that attracts many species of sea life across trophic levels.
What is it like to be on a ship when the Passage is rough?
No amount of technology can keep these seas from being rough. Our team does their best—analyzing weather forecasts to pick a window through storms, deploying stabilizers that minimize side-to-side rolling motion, even constructing new ships such as the National Geographic Endurance or National Geographic Resolution with X-bows that reduce the slamming as the ship pitches up and down. But even then, every person handles motion differently; for all its simplicity, sea sickness varies widely from person to person. There are people who have never spent a day on the water that can happily stand next to the captain as waves crash over the bow, and there are those that have been on dozens of expeditions and take the tablets, wear the pressure bracelets, and stay miserably in bed. Upon reaching the peninsula, the ship is sheltered from storm systems and has access to the best cure for seasickness: terra firma.
Is it safe to cross the Drake Passage?
Short answer, yes. A slightly longer answer is yes but you must be aware of your own limitations. The ships are resilient and designed for heavy seas, they will be just fine. The unsteady humans and any precariously placed coffee cups on the inside of the reinforced steel hull are another matter. Incidents do occur from time to time where individuals who are especially unsteady on stairs—or walking in general—will take a fall. While an onboard doctor is available at all times, simply being in such a remote location can make something like a broken hip an even more serious injury as evacuation means turning the ship around and heading back to port. Handrails, sea sickness medication, and helpful crew are all constants on board that can help mitigate any discomfort.
How long does it take to cross and what can travelers expect on a crossing?
The voyage across takes approximately two full days, give or take half-day for good or bad weather. It would be a mistake to view this time simply as transit, however, as on any crossing one can see a multitude of seabirds using the winds to stay aloft for days without having to flap. Albatross, the largest of all flying birds, will regularly follow the ship, dynamically soaring to and fro on wings that can span over 11 feet. Various species of whales feed in this stretch of water as well; Naturalists will be keeping a keen eye out from the Bridge for fin whales in particular.
At what point in an expedition to Antarctica does a ship cross the Drake Passage?
Crossing the Drake Passage is the first step of an expedition, and a logistically minded reader will realize that every (successful) voyage to Antarctica entails a return trip on the tail end. It is my experience that it comes down to a coin toss if crossing the Drake will be mild or rough and playing the odds twice significantly increases your chance of experiencing the mighty waves of the Southern Ocean. Whether you are gleefully turning your face to the wind or monitoring the horizon comfortably prone, your crossing through these legendary waters (both directions) will be an essential part of the experience of Antarctica—memorable and worthwhile in its own right.