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What to Expect When Crossing the Drake Passage

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Positioned between the southern tail of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula's north-sweeping arm is a lively little waterway known as the Drake Passage.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Highlights: Drake Passage

The Drake "rite of" Passage

Positioned between the southern tail of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula's north-sweeping arm is a lively little waterway known as the Drake Passage.

The Drake is considered by many polar travelers to be the gateway to the Antarctic, while others view it as the necessary rite of passage everyone must experience before enjoying the boundless natural wonders of Antarctica. 

In our opinion, it can easily be both - and a lot more.

Drake Passage water collisions

In the Drake Passage, layers of cold seawater from the south and relatively warm seawater from the north collide to form powerful eddies.

These eddies, when combined with the strong winds and sometimes violent storms common to this area, can make the Drake Passage richly earn its reputation as one of Earth's roughest waterways. But don't let this intimidate you.

After all, you'll still have Antarctica to look forward to. And your crossing may be quite calm.

Image by Esther Kokmeijer

The colossal currents of the Drake Passage

Through the Drake Passage flows the west-to-east Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), encircling Antarctica. The ACC stretches over 20,000 km (12,400 miles), forming the world’s largest ocean current.

The average water flow of the ACC is estimated to be around 135 million cubic metres (4.77 billion cubic feet) per second, about 600 times the volume of the Amazon.

Makes your last water bill seem kind of insignificant, right?

Drake Passage weather and waves

It takes the average cruise ship about 48 hours to sail from one end of the Drake Passage to the other. This depends on the exact embarkation and destination point, of course, but the conditions of the Drake are also highly relevant.

Passengers heading across the Drake Passage can expect temperatures ranging from about 5°C (41°F) in the north to -3°C (26°F) in the south.

Whether you get a storm during your Drake crossing is a bit of a gamble, as there is no real storm-less season. Some days the water will be surprisingly calm, others will present your Antarctica cruise with sizable swells.

Winds and low pressure fronts flying circles around Antarctica can coalesce into a wild ride on the Drake.

If you’re prone to seasickness, it's a good idea to see your doctor before you sail the Drake Passage. And even if you're the type who laughs at roller-coasters, there's a good chance the Drake's weather is going to test that cast-iron stomach of yours.

Image by John Carlson

The birds, whales, and other wildlife of the Drake Passage 

All this talk of surging currents, buffeting winds, and powerful sea swells might make the Drake sound a touch undesirable.

But keep in mind, your crossing may be tranquil as a Tibetan monastery.

Image by Céline Clément-Chastel

Also, it's not just Antarctica that makes the trip worthwhile. The wealth of Drake Passage wildlife will give you no shortage of animals to gaze at.

The Drake is densely populated with plankton, which allows for healthy populations of dolphins, whales, and seabirds.

Dolphins aren't terribly common on the Drake Passage, but there's always the possibility you'll see a few hourglass dolphins bounding over the water. Whales are slightly more common, with humpback, orca (killer whale), minke, and fin being the most likely to appear.

Image by Ali Liddle

As for seabirds, they are wildly abundant on the Drake. You'll likely spot many kinds of albatross (wandering, black-browed, southern royal), petrel (Antarctic, giant southern petrel), shags, skuas, and gulls.

Because of this, the Drake Passage is a good place to bring a quality camera and strong pair of binoculars. If nothing else, you'll certainly use them when you reach Antarctica.

Image by Bruce Robinson

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