Antarctica, Day 12: Drake Passage Toward Falkland Islands

December 31, 2019

Paul Kay

We’re traveling Antarctica on Silversea Cruises. Today, we sailed the Drake Passage on our way to the Falkland Islands. Since there’s not much to report, here’s a little information about the passage and surrounding seas.

Drake Passage

Map, Drake Passage, Antarctica

It takes nearly two days to sail from Elephant Island to the Falkland Islands though the Drake Passage or Mar de Hoces. This crossing will be our second. (our first was on day 2.) The Drake Passage spans between Cape Horn in Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the South Atlantic and the South Pacific.

The 600 miles of the Drake Passage are some of the most treacherous and unpredictable in the world. When the cold South Atlantic water mixes with the warm water of the South Pacific, it creates choppy seas of large currents and swells. And there is no land to slow the currents down.

Sir Francis Drake

 Sir Francis Drake

The passage gets its name from the 16th century English explorer, Sir Francis Drake. With only one ship left from his original fleet, he was blown south after passing through the Strait of Magellan in 1578. As a result, he was the first to suggest there was an open connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Francisco de Hoces

 Francisco de Hoces

Half a century earlier, the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces was pushed south from the Strait of Magellan. He surmised there might be safe passage between the oceans, but he had no factual base for it. Some Spanish and Latin American historians give Mr. Hoces the nod for being first to discover the passage. But today the most common name is the Drake Passage.

Willem Cornelisz Schouten

 Willem Cornelisz Schouten

Neither Francisco de Hoces nor Sir Frances Drake navigated all the way through the Drake Passage. In 1616, Dutch navigator Willem Cornelisz Schouten on the Eendracht recorded the first voyage through the passage. In the process he named Cape Horn after the other ship in his expedition, which sank earlier.

Map, Elephant Island to Cape Horn, Antarctica

The boundary between the South Atlantic and the South Pacific extends from Cape Horn to Snow Island in the South Shetland Islands. We sailed from Snow Island to Elephant Island, and now we’re headed to the Falkland Islands. It is a voyage of 800 miles taking two full sea days.

There are two other passages around Cape Horn, but they’re both more treacherous. The narrow Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel easily entrap large ships in ice. For more about being icebound, read up on Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance.

Antarctic Circumpolar Current

Map of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, Antarctica

No significant land masses impede the currents in the Drake Passage. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is an ocean current that flows unimpeded by land clockwise, from west to east, around Antarctica. The ACC keeps warm waters away from Antarctica, enabling the continent to maintain its huge ice sheet.

The ACC is a massive flow of water that acts as a barrier separating the Southern Ocean from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The current extends from the sea surface to depths of more than 2.5 miles and is approximately 120 miles wide. The current is very cold ranging from slightly below freezing to just over freezing depending on the time of the year. The current is very strong and is constantly circulating.

The ACC carries an estimated 5.8 to 6.4 billion cubic feet of water every second. This is the equivalent of 43.3 to 47.8 billion gallons of water every second.

The mixed water moves onward to the other oceans through the Drake Passage. The AAC also moves around steep undersea mountains that restricts its path and steers it north and south across the Southern Ocean.

The AAC carries a huge volume of water around Antarctica. It flows at 600 times the Amazon River. So, it’s no wonder that the Drake Passage is so rough. Traveling north we haven’t seen any land or icebergs. With temperatures in the 40-degree range, it’s too warm for ice.

Sailing the Passage

The Drake Passage opened 41 million years ago. Scientists found fish teeth in sedimentary rock and dated it. Before the passage, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were separate. Back then, Antarctica was much warmer, and there was no ice cap. When the passage opened, the two oceans joined and started the AAC, which has provided air conditioning for the Antarctic region ever since.

The Silver Cloud has large stabilizers and usually cruises at 15 knots. But the side-to-side motion of the ship brings motion sickness to many. Madeline suffered during our first time across the Drake Passage, going from Ushuaia to Antarctica. And she suffered worse sailing back to the Falklands. And she’s not alone. The previously well attended science and history lectures now seated far fewer passengers. Since passengers can watch lectures from their suites, many stayed in their cabins—and near the bathroom.

Paul Enjoying Room Service, Silver Cloud, Silversea Cruises, Antarctica

 Hanging out in our cabin 

We’re eating regularly from room service until the seas calm down. Room service on the Silver Cloud is easy and tasty. Richard, our butler, and Rebecca, our suite attendant, showed concern for us and tried their best to help. Thank you, guys!

Boot Drying Racks and Disinfectant, Mud Room, Silver Cloud, Silversea Cruises, Antarctica

 ...and you dry your boots

Brush and Boot Cleaner Washing Hoses, Mud Room, Silver Cloud, Silversea Cruises, Antarctica

 You wash your boots...

I roamed the Silver Cloud without difficulty. I left the room this morning to ready our equipment for arrival in the Falklands. It’s a biological safety check to ensure we aren’t bringing onboard foreign material like plants, seeds and animal excrement. Silversea’s expert expedition staff check out boots, poles, gloves, parkas and hats. I did this solo because Madeline wasn’t moving beyond the couch.

Some people have no trouble with choppy water. The ones that do try remedies like scopolamine, ginger, pressure bands, Dramamine and others. The best advice we have is to go to a lower deck in the ship. The lower you go, the less you feel the wave movement.

Last night, I went to a Venetian Society cocktail party on the 8th deck. Compared to our suite on the 5th deck (lower), the rocking was more noticeable. Even staff were leaning against something for support!

The Drake Passage is a must to experience Antarctica; you’ll get two opportunities to experience it. But afterward, you’ll carry your Drake Passage badge of honor with pride.

I heard staff say that the megaships and tankers can’t go through the Panama Canal to avoid the Drake Passage. They must run the gauntlet, just like we did. But those that crew one of those tankers are happy to do so. They want to experience one of the most notorious sea crossings in the world. Those of us on the Silver Cloud have no choice. Our terrific captain and crew minimizing the waves as much as they can and are safely getting us to our next destination.

We thank them and all the service staff looking after us every day.

In tomorrow’s post I'll talk about the Falkland Islands, where we hear it's warm, sunny and calm.

That's it for Day 12 of our trip to Antarctica. More tomorrow!

Tips: You can learn how we planned our trip by reading Planning Our Antarctica Trip. Learn what we read to prepare at Reading Antarctica. And you can find out what we packed at Packing for Cruising Antarctica on Silversea.

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Read More

Searching for Shackleton in the Undiscovered Continent of Antarctica
Planning Our Antarctica Trip
Cruising Antarctica 101
Reading: Antarctica
Packing for Cruising Antarctica on Silversea
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