Most people who visit Antarctica get there by boat, and the shortest route to Antarctica by boat is across the Drake Passage.
For those of you who don’t remember your grade school history and geography lessons, the Drake Passage is the treacherous stretch of ocean between the southern tip of South America (at Cape Horn) and the northernmost reaches of Antarctica. There, the otherwise unimpeded waves of the vast Southern Ocean squeeze through the relatively narrow and shallow bottleneck of the Drake Passage, and in the process, generate complicated, unpredictable and often brutal weather. (Map of the Southern Ocean.)
In the middle of the Drake Passage, near the Antarctic Convergence, the boundary between
the warmer subantarctic water in the north, and the frigid Antarctic waters to the south.
In the past, the passage around Cape Horn was an important trade route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It was also considered the most dangerous ship passage in the world. Sailing vessels could take weeks just to round the Horn. For a fascinating view into the world of the square-rigged sailing vessels, check out the astounding footage taken in 1929 by the optimistic Midwesterner turned able seaman, Irving Johnson, who dangled from the rigging as he shot a movie narrating the rounding of Cape Horn by the commercial sailing bark “Peking” (sadly not available on Netflix). Today, most commercial traffic motors through the Panama Canal, but rounding Cape Horn is still considered a major accomplishment by today’s sailors.
Violent, chaotic, notorious: these are common words used to describe the weather in the Drake Passage. Unpredictable is another. Because in the two days that it takes to navigate a large, motorized ship through the passage, one might manage to avoid bad weather all together. This condition is commonly referred to by Antarctic-bound passengers as “The Drake Lake”.
Not the Drake Lake
On our outbound passage to Antarctica, we experienced fairly mild weather. By mild, I mean manageable. The boat still rolled (with an occasional huge roller that knocked over coffee cups, chairs, and people). Passengers still got seasick. But it was a one-Dramamine kind of day.
On the way back however, we got just a taste of what the Drake can throw at you. It was the kind of bronco-bucking movement that threatened to toss you out of bed and fling you out of doors. The kind of weather where you decide to stay safely prone, but unable to read, watch videos, or concentrate on anything except your gratitude that someone else is steering the boat. Luckily for us, the worst weather hit us in the middle of the night, and we only experienced “gale-force” winds (about an 8 on the Beaufort Wind Force Scale). Despite the twenty-five foot waves, the weather wasn’t even technically a “storm”, which is a 10 or above on the Beaufort Scale. (Click here for a complete description of the Beaufort Scale, along with pictures, wave heights and wind speeds.)
This is a short video of the weather on our trip:
Besides the weather, which was the primary topic of speculation and conversation during our crossings, the other major factor in our comfort during our trip was our ship, the handsome M/V Plancius, a 293-foot expedition vessel with ice-strengthened hull owned by Oceanwide Expeditions. Because of the strict environmental regulations laid out in The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, there are no overnight facilities for visitors to Antarctica (unless they are part of Antarctica’s many scientific stations). This means if you’re a “tourist” in Antarctica, your ship becomes your mode of transport and your place of residence during your entire stay on the continent. Our ship carried about 100 passengers, plus crew. It contained a variety of cabins, a window-walled observation deck and lounge stocked with piles of cookies and a coffee/tea & cocoa machine, a small library with reference books and Antarctica-themed stories, a dining room that was sometimes used as a lecture hall, and a vast amount of storage area for things like zodiacs, kayaking gear, tons of fresh fruit, and the champagne for our New Year’s toast. (If you ever consider a trip to the Arctic or Antarctic, the Plancius and her crew were outstanding. I couldn’t recommend them more highly.)
Inside the Plancius
So what did we do on the two day journey to Antarctica, and the two day journey back? Well . . . I ate a lot of cookies and drank a lot of cocoa. I also learned more about our destination. During the days at sea, the visiting biologists on the ship provided lectures on their areas of expertise, and our expedition leader provided daily briefings. We talked a lot about the weather and looked out the window at the horizon to avoid getting sick. During calm weather, we watched the albatross circling the ship and shot hundreds of photos of them that mostly turned out blurry. I read no books, despite bringing a Kindle stuffed with them (the ship was too bumpy to read comfortably). Our days were also scheduled much like camp, so there were a lot of mandatory activities that we had to attend, like picking up our boots, learning about the environmental protocols for our shore landings, and vacuuming our outer clothing and equipment to prevent spreading any invasive species. But most importantly, we gained both physical and psychological distance from “civilization”.
Masters of flight: The wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird species (up to 11.5 feet)
Antarctica is out there, and you can’t really appreciate that unless you sit on a long, bumpy, uncomfortable boat ride with nothing to look at but the gray rolling waves from horizon to horizon. And that makes it all the more wondrous when you spot your first iceberg . . . and your first glimpse of frozen land!
First ice, Antarctica!
Stay tuned for the next entry: Penguins I have Known. And for a complete set of Drake Passage photos, including detailed ship photos and way too many albatross shots, check out my Drake Passage Flickr Set.