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As part of your Antarctic expedition, you’ll be crossing the Drake Passage, a stretch of water that has great significance to the history of polar exploration. Stretching from the bottom tip of South America to just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, this is one of the most dramatic, unforgettable crossings you could hope to experience.

However, this journey is not one to be underestimated, which is why we’re here to help you learn a little more about the Drake Passage as well as our top tips to survive it.

A unique part of the ocean

First Land on the Drake Passage

Read more: Should I do a Fly/Sail voyage to Antarctica?

The Drake Passage is about 1,000 kilometres wide, starting at the southernmost tip of Chile, Cape Horn, and bridging the gap to the South Shetland Islands. It’s the meeting point of the icy polar conditions of Antarctica and the slightly warmer and humid Tierra del Fuego climate.

It has an average depth of about 3,400 metres, and experiences strong winds from the west, especially around Cape Horn. In addition, the passage is part of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current – the world’s most voluminous current, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. This means water flows through the Drake Passage at an estimated of between 95 and 150 million cubic metres per second.

Keen for one less Drake crossing? Choose one of our Fly/Sail voyages!

 

Key Facts about the Drake Passage

  • Location and Size: The Drake Passage lies between the southern tip of South America (Cape Horn, Chile) and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It spans approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) wide.
  • Depth: The average depth of the Drake Passage is around 3,400 metres (11,155 feet), with some areas reaching depths of up to 4,800 metres (15,748 feet).
  • Water Flow: It is part of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the planet’s largest ocean current, which flows west to east around Antarctica. The water flow through the Drake Passage is estimated to be between 95 and 150 million cubic metres per second.
  • Wind and Waves: The area is known for its strong westerly winds, often referred to as the “Roaring Forties,” “Furious Fifties,” and “Screaming Sixties,” depending on the latitude. Waves in the Drake Passage can reach heights of over 12 metres (40 feet) during storms, contributing to its reputation as one of the most treacherous sea routes.
  • Safety and Shipwrecks: Throughout history, the Drake Passage has been the site of numerous shipwrecks and maritime incidents due to its challenging conditions. Modern navigation technology and improved ship design have significantly increased safety for vessels crossing the passage today.

     

The history of the Drake Passage

The fastest way to reach Antarctica by sea, crossing this particular stretch of ocean has become a rite of passage for many a polar explorer.

The Drake Passage not only serves as a natural link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but also holds a deep historical significance that spans centuries of maritime exploration. Named after the English explorer Sir Francis Drake, who inadvertently discovered its existence in 1578, the passage has been the site of numerous expeditions, starting from the daring journey of Dutch explorer Willem Schouten in 1616, who was the first to navigate these treacherous waters. 

Despite its daunting reputation, the passage has continued to allure modern explorers and adventurers. Today, crossing the Drake Passage is a pivotal part of the Antarctic expedition experience, offering a unique blend of apprehension and excitement. With advancements in maritime technology and the construction of vessels specifically designed to withstand its turbulent conditions, sailors and adventurers now navigate these waters with a level of safety and comfort that the early explorers could hardly have imagined. The passage remains a testament to human curiosity and our relentless pursuit of adventure, connecting the past’s intrepid explorers with today’s tourists and scientists on their journey to one of the planet’s most remote frontiers.

 

The Drake Lake and the Drake Shake

The Drake Shake

Read more: Why adventure is good for your wellbeing

Seasoned sailors familiar with the passage will know that it can have two distinct conditions, nicknamed the Drake Lake and the Drake Shake. This refers to the two extremes you can experience – either incredibly calm, smooth conditions, or rippled with impressive waves.

Fortunately, our ships are designed to handle these types of waters, and our experienced crew have sailed the passage many times before, so you can rest assured you’re in the safest of hands.

However, if you do encounter the Drake Shake and you aren’t a seasoned polar sailor, there are a number of ways you can minimise the effects of sea sickness.

Dealing with Seasickness on the Drake Passage

Even if you don’t usually experience motion sickness, the conditions of the Drake Passage can still take some getting used to. Learn a little more about why we get seasick in our blog post here.

Prior to departure, consult with a healthcare provider to discuss effective medication options, as preemptive measures can greatly reduce the onset of symptoms.

You can help to minimise the effects of sea sickness with a few basic techniques:

  • Staying hydrated is key, as is avoiding drinking alcohol. Eat light, regular meals.
  • Stay active by going for a walk around the ship or venturing up to the deck. 
  • Getting fresh air can help. When you’re up on deck, keep one hand on the railing, and your gaze on the horizon to steady yourself. 
  • If you are feeling queasy, lie down flat in your bed or bunk with your eyes closed. 
  • If your symptoms persist, the Polar Pioneer’s doctor will be on-hand to provide assistance. 

Sea sickness medication can be useful for some passengers, but only if taken early enough. Our expedition teams have yet to find herbal sea sickness remedies, or pressure point bands an effective way of managing sea sickness alone. Please consult your GP before departure to determine what medication could work for you.

Staying busy on board

Bird watching on the Drake Passage

Another way to pass your time while crossing the Drake Passage is by attending one of our lectures on the fascinating history and wildlife of the Antarctic region. You’ll learn about anything from the old whaling stations on South Georgia, to the heroic exploits of Ernest Shackleton, as well as fun interesting facts about the whales, penguins and seals that inhabit these waters.

Spot the Wildlife in the Drake Passage

The voyage across the Drake Passage presents a unique opportunity to observe some of the planet’s most fascinating wildlife in their natural habitat. As the meeting point of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans, this stretch of water is teeming with life.

In addition to being a good way to relieve sea sickness symptoms, spending some time up on deck also gives you the chance to spot some of the local wildlife as well as snap a few photos – bird watching enthusiasts should keep an eye out for the Antarctic petrel, a chocolate and white bird that often flies alongside ships, as well as the skua and the mighty albatross, known for its impressive wingspan, gliding effortlessly above the waves. 

 

The calmer moments of the crossing, the ‘Drake Lake,’ provide the perfect backdrop for sighting whales breaching the ocean’s surface. Humpback, orca, and minke whales are commonly observed, alongside playful pods of hourglass dolphins. These encounters are not only a highlight for wildlife enthusiasts but also serve as a reminder of the fragile beauty of remote ecosystems.

We recommend a neck strap for any camera gear to keep your hands free to hold onto the railing and prevent expensive gear from flying overboard.

Choose an Expedition Team That’s Committed to Safety

Aurora Expeditions expedition team includes some of the most experienced and skilled members in polar navigation. This includes captains with decades of experience navigating icy waters and expedition leaders who are well-versed in the unique challenges presented by the polar regions.

Our crew implements comprehensive safety protocols on every voyage. This includes detailed safety briefings for all passengers, regular crew training drills, and the provision of essential safety equipment. Passengers are informed about what to expect during the crossing and how to act in various scenarios, ensuring everyone is prepared for any situation.

The team continuously monitors weather and ice conditions to navigate the safest and most efficient route. The use of satellite imagery and cooperation with international meteorological services allows the crew to anticipate changes and adjust the ship’s course as needed, avoiding heavy ice or severe storms.

Our ships are built to world-class polar standards and designed in close consultation with our expedition specialists, to ensure that every aspect of the ship’s design enriches your expedition experience.

 

To learn more about our Antarctica voyages, take a look at our brochures online.

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