The Drake Passage

This is the start of the Antarctic series, a sequence of long stories about the wildlife of Antarctica, as well as a personal account of my journey there.

The notorious Drake Passage, one of the most formidable body of water in the world, is the shortest route from Antarctica to any other part of the world. From Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, to the South Shetlands Islands, an oceanic gateway that spans about 850 kilometres of width stands in front of every traveler’s dream of reaching Antarctica. 

Our icebreaker, the “Ocean Endeavour,” departed the port of Ushuaia, Argentina at dusk on January 8th, 2020. It held about 200 avid travellers, and started its way across the Beagle Channel, which marked the border of Argentina and Chile. Shortly after our departure, mandatory evacuation drills were conducted, as well as the ship abandonment drill. Standing on the outer deck of this magnificent Ukrainian icebreaker, people remained undisturbed in the freezing wind as a mood of excitement and anticipation permeated the crowd. After the drill, a welcome dinner was served at the dining hall. It would be five hours later when the ship finally enters open ocean, and I’d be soundly asleep in my new residence by the time it starts to make its way across the Drake Passage.

The reason that Drake Passage is one of the roughest waters can be attributed to its unique geographic location. It sits at the converging point of the Atlantic ocean, the Pacific ocean, and the southern oceans. Completely devoid of a landmass that could reduce the current, the Drake Passage becomes unpredictable and volatile, and the crossing of this passage has posed serious challenges to polar explorers in history. Now, thanks to the nascent commercialization of Antarctic expeditions, travellers could be as comfortable as it can get during the crossing. I was more than grateful for that. 

Nevertheless, the Drake Passage remained a challenge to lots of travellers, especially to a rookie like myself. Although I was not prone to motion sickness, I had never been on open seas for more than a few hours. When I saw people around me using motion sickness patches on the night of departure, I started to grow increasingly worried about my performance under shaky conditions. According to the briefing, we were expected to be “spanked” by strong winds once we reached the Drake Passage. Given this information, I decided to take an anti-motion sickness pill with a mild sedative effect before I went to sleep, fearing that I would get shaken awake. 

It was around 2 or 3 am that my worst concerns came true. The irregular ups and downs, combined with movements from one side to another, created a dizzying effect that eventually disrupted my sleep. I resisted the immediate urge to throw up, and forced myself into cycles of deep inhales and exhales. Gradually, I grew more and more aware of my own movement and my surroundings. However, all I could hear is the monotonous sound of the furious waves. I felt hopeless after realizing that I could do nothing to get out of this enormous cradle that sways unstoppably. Thankfully, I started to feel sleepy despite the sickness in my stomach. Before I knew it, I fell into sleep again, which lasted for the rest of the night.

There was a direct correlation between the roughness of the sea and the number of people dining at the restaurant. On the second day, to my surprise, the restaurant was relatively full at breakfast. Curious, I asked an English gentleman how he rested last night after talking for a while. He replied casually that he slept well, referring to the fact that he coped with a cruising trip in Norway with much worse sea conditions. Well, either he was among a few who were adapted to the bad conditions, or maybe I was prone to motion sickness after all.

In retrospect, the Drake Passage was lenient to me: for the rest of my journey, I was able to adapt myself to the constant sway. The swell stayed at about 4 to 5 meters high, which did not necessitate any more medication on my part. Even though I did not take any pills to prevent motion sickness, never was I woken up again by the waves. 

For the rest of my second day, I devoted myself to the lectures and daily programs on board. I made several attempts to stay at the outer deck in hopes of finding some albatrosses, but I never managed to stay for more than half an hour, before being defeated by robust gusts. The ship was surrounded by thick fogs, and they reduced the visibility to a few nautical miles. Behind the ship, a gang of immature and adult Southern Giant Petrels were circling around. They are resilient seabirds that are famous for following fishing ships to pick fish out of nets. Although they were on to an arduous journey to follow this icebreaker, their efforts would end up in vain once they find out that it is not a fishing boat. 

Among the mist, two colossal seabirds with black upper wings and immaculate white bodies glided towards the starboard side of the ship. They glided with so much style and ease, and, their narrow and long wings acted as a precise instrument that empowered them to fly without flapping once. They knew how to make use of the wind in a way that remained mysterious to us. They knew how to fly. Confronting these two Southern Royal Albatrosses, I was awestruck by the birds of my dream. They were once, only a blurred figure coming from a science book, but now that I was able to spot them in reality, it appeared so dreamlike. 

Sighting my first albatross species also had another meaning to me. When I started bird watching four years ago, I chose “albatross” as my nickname. Of all the birds in the world, albatross represents a spirit of adventure and inspiration to me: they would fly thousands of miles in a single journey, and in the span of a year, they’d circumnavigate the globe for several times. Imagine the area that they must have covered, the adventure that they must have undertaken, the things that they must have experienced, no living being is a more quintessential example of an explorer. 

In the afternoon, I spotted some more royal albatrosses, and also the more common Black-browed Albatross. Compared to royal albatross, Black-browed Albatrosses are such smaller, with completely black upper wings and back. But disregarding their sizes, their gliding styles all clearly indicate that of an albatross. At the same time, I was able to find two tiny Blue Petrels at the port side of the ship, which perfected my day of discovery.

After some routine activities, I found myself lying in my bed, feeling enervated. The Ocean Endeavour, as I am falling soundly asleep in my comfortable cabin, silently crossed the polar front and was one step closer to Antarctic lands.

[Next chapter: The Polar Front]

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