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Crossing the Drake Passage

How does one get to Antarctica? What’s it like to cross the Drake Passage? On this week's episode of Safari Stories, we talk about what travelling down to Antarctica entails, from getting to Ushuaia, to heading out through the Beagle Channel, and into the famously turbulent Drake Passage. We also introduce some of the wildlife you might encounter at the start of an expedition to the southern-most continent. Wandering albatrosses, humpback whales, and…you guessed it…penguins!

 

Most trips to the white continent depart from the quaint port town of Ushuaia. Ushuaia is a 3-hour flight from Buenos Aires, and flying over the southern part of the Andes is a dramatic introduction to the beginning of any Antarctic adventure. The mountains that form the backdrop of Ushuaia are beautiful and anyone who has more than half an afternoon here should go for a little (or long) hike to shake the jet lag and to admire the spectacular scenery. There’s decent birdlife in the mountains here and in the port itself. Ushuaia has the feel of a ski-town that has really retained its south Argentinian roots.


Welcome to Ushuaia

Ushuaia Mountains

Above: The mountains surrounding Ushuaia

After boarding the ship in Ushuaia’s port, guests normally go through a couple of mandatory safety briefings that include a lifeboat drill before the ship sets sail into the Beagle Channel.


Ship

Above: Time to board the ship and head into the Beagle Channel


Once in the Beagle, the wildlife starts showing up quite quickly. Black-browed albatrosses and giant petrels breed in Tierra del Fuego to the south and are regularly encountered. The channel is relatively narrow in most parts and, at one point, the ship goes past a Magellanic penguin colony. These little penguins breed in south America but are not seen down in Antarctica. They belong to the tuxedo or jackass penguin family and are also seen in the waters of the Beagle. 


Beagle Channel

Above: Scenery alongside the Beagle Channel, heading out to open sea


Magellanic Penguin Colony Michelle Sole

Above: A Magellanic penguin colony. Photo by Michelle Sole @awildsole

 

After several hours of sailing, the Beagle begins to widen and this often means that a variety of other species can be encountered, including inquisitive dusky dolphins, which use the ships to bow ride. Watching this only builds the anticipation for what awaits on the open ocean. The ships normally leave the lee of Cape Horn during the night, and it is then that the motion of the ocean starts to really be felt. 

 

Entering the Drake Passage

The Drake passage is of course the notorious body of water that separates the south American continent and Antarctic peninsula. Though it has the reputation for being a turbulent body of water, this is not always the case. Most passengers get away with not becoming truly seasick. Drowsiness is the most common symptom, and this is a known side-effect of the anti-seasickness medicines. Severity of swell ranges widely from one crossing to the next, but the average wave height is probably between 3-4 meters (or 9-12 feet) and this means that it’s easy enough to walk around and go out onto the outer decks to view pelagic bird species.

 

Above: Pelagics! Soft plumaged petrels, Giant petrels, wandering albatross


Upon waking up at sea on the first full day of a trip, it’s so great to go straight outside to have a good look around. There’s nothing quite like the vastness of the open ocean and if lucky, various different pelagic bird species can be seen flying around the ship. The great albatrosses, which include the Southern Royal and Wandering Albatross, are often encountered as they effortlessly soar above the waves. Their 11+ foot wingspan can be easily appreciated and their ability to fly without so much as moving their wings is riveting to observe.


Wandering Albatross

Above: Wandering Albatross

 

The further south you sail, the colder it naturally gets but there is a really marked drop in temperature when crossing the Antarctic convergence or polar front, which indicates the ecological boundary of Antarctica and is the point where the cooler Southern Ocean meets the slightly warmer subantarctic seas. This is often accompanied by massive fog banks that make wildlife spotting reasonably tricky. If conditions allow for it however, the convergence is a great area to start seeing larger marine animals and whales, penguins, and seals of different species become far more abundant. 

Antarctic Convergance Map

 

It was in the middle of the Drake on one crossing last year that Jomi encountered a truly enormous congregation of feeding humpback and fin whales. Jomi conservatively guesstimated there to have been between 50-100 individual whales, identifiable at a distance because of the whale blows or geyser-like spouts that they omit into the air from the water. Some of the largest creatures ever to have existed on our planet, whales are remarkable creatures. The larger filter-feeding whales come down to Antarctica to take advantage of the high krill densities of the Southern Ocean. High krill populations are possible because of the cooler ocean temperatures which allow for large phytoplankton blooms. In these cooler seas south of the Antarctic convergence, it is possible to start seeing icebergs, which are results of calving glaciers and broken off pieces of ice shelfs. These icebergs can sometimes be seen many miles from land but they are generally an indication that the Antarctic mainland is not too far off!

 

Join us next time as we discuss what leaving the ship and going on excursions down in Antarctica actually entails -Land Ho!


You can listen to the Safari Stories podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, our website, or wherever you listen to your podcasts! Links below.

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