3. Crossing Drake Passage

My fellow birders and I settled into life at sea, bound for Antarctica. Ahead of us lay Drake Passage, one of the most formidable and dangerous bodies of water, known for the worst storms on earth, and at times, icebergs. This tempestuous passage is located between Tierra del Fuego, Argentina and The Falkland Islands to the north, and the Antarctic Peninsula to the south.

I had reserved a cabin in the deepest part of the ship, which I figured would be the steadiest if the seas were rough. I based this decision on my sailing experience years earlier with my former husband on our twenty-five-foot sailboat, and then our sixty-five-foot schooner. We had experiences in rough seas on both boats, so I had firsthand knowledge of where to ride out violent storms in relative comfort. Lucky for me, the forecast predicted unusually mild weather for our passage, so I anticipated a pleasant cruise to Antarctica.

Geographers named Drake Passage after the English explorer Sir Francis Drake. However, some Spanish and Latin American historians call this same passage Mar de Hoces after Spain’s explorer, Francisco Hoces, whom South American historians credit with discovering this passage some 75 years before Drake.


Drake Passage

For years, this stretch of open water challenged sailing ships struggling to sail east or west against raging winds and tumultuous seas. Many ships sank with all hands aboard. Accounts written by explorers and shipping merchants who navigated these waters in square-rigged sailing ships, include horror stories about their struggles to get around the southern tip of South America and through Drake Passage. In one story, a ship made it around what sailors called “the Horn,” but unfriendly winds blew the ship all the way back to where it had started.

The potentially fierce challenges of Drake Passage caused many captains to take their chances sailing among the islands at the southern tip of South America, trading the danger of high seas for that of fluky winds. It wasn’t until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, that trading ships could avoid the treacherous seas of Cape Horn and Drake Passage.


Shipboard Birding

Our first crossing of Drake Passage did end up being a pleasant and uneventful journey. The captain steered for the Antarctic Peninsula, the furthest point north of the Antarctic continent, while we spent hours on the sunny stern deck, blissfully watching a cloud of sea birds drifting behind the ship. We did not need our binoculars since the birds hovered so closely. I listened eagerly while the more experienced birders easily identified the plethora of birds; Grey-headed AlbatrossSouthern Giant PetrelsCape Petrels, Antarctic Prion, Sooty Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and Grey-backed Storm-petrels. Dozens of birds soared astern, arriving and departing, dropping back, and then rushing up to the side of the ship again. The birders called out names so fast at times, I only hoped I could remember a few of them.

In spite of the sun, the wind chilled me after about an hour, so I retreated to the lounge to warm up with a hot drink—until someone ducked in the door to announce the arrival of a new species. Then I would rush back outside to enjoy another new bird. With an average noon temperature of 43° F, including one high of 52° F, even some of the crew appeared on deck with their cameras and broad smiles.

Shipboard food

Eight expedition staff members made themselves available to us on deck, and later, on shore, to answer our endless questions. Each one shared his expertise and personal stories during the lectures in the lounge. These inspiring talks, accompanied by amazing photos, fueled my excitement for our impending adventures. At the beginning of each lecture, Julio, the leader of the expedition staff and all our activities, introduced the speakers, listing their impressive and lengthy credits and years of experience in their respective fields. At one point, I wondered, With all they do, why do they want to come on this tame trip with us?

I soon realized that for at least some of them, this was a vacation. A lecture or two on topics they love, answer our questions, and hang out with fellow Antarctic experts. Fabulous!


Antarctic Convergence

Of course, we birders all attended the talk on “Birds of the South Atlantic” by Simon Cook, a well-known ornithologist who has traveled the world identifying and photographing birds, as well as leading birding tours. We knew we would see only a limited number of species relative to birding locations in other parts of the world, but there would be birds in Antarctica that we would find in astonishing numbers, in itself a rarity for many birders. I looked forward to seeing many new species since I had done so little traveling. Almost every bird would be new to me since I was a rank beginner. While Simon talked, I imagined beaches full of nesting penguins awaiting us, along with clouds of terns, prions, and gulls.

A member of the expedition staff, geologist David Dallmeyer, Ph.D, gave a fascinating lecture on what is called the Antarctic Convergence. It is not an easy concept, so I rely on the report given to us at the end of our voyage for the explanation.

The Antarctic Convergence is a line undulating between 50 and 60 degrees south running right around the continent, and well defined by water temperature readings. It is sometimes marked by a belt of fog or mist where warm, more saline currents coming south from the tropics meet cold, denser less saline currents moving north from Antarctica. These conflicting currents clash, converge and sink. The mixing waters provide a sympathetic environment for abundant plankton that nourish huge numbers of sea birds and mammals. However, few organisms cross this radical boundary, so it defines Antarctica physically and ecologically.

The Convergence is a zone about 20 to 30 miles wide, so when our ship entered the belt where the Convergence might occur, a crewmember kept an eye on the seawater temperature gauge to note the time when the temperature changed. On day four of the tour, about half way to the Antarctic continent and still in Drake Passage, the water temperature plunged from 52° F to 32° F and stayed there. This dramatic temperature drop indicated our ship had crossed the Antarctic Convergence.

The day before, the crew had organized a contest among the ship’s passengers to predict what time we would cross the Antarctic Convergence. I had just signed one of the empty lines on the scorecard without much thought. After we crossed the Convergence, I was in my cabin when Julio called my name over the speaker announcing that my guess was the closest. I won! My name appeared in the ship’s daily newsletter and at the next gathering in the lounge, Julio presented me with a small, spiral-bound book containing chapters assembled by the expedition staff on everything a curious tourist might want to know about Antarctica. The tiny gift shop carried the book, but mine was special—a prize. At that point in the tour, I felt stuffed with information from the lectures and all our activities, so I put the book in a drawer for later.

There were times after returning home when I wished I had paid more attention to the introductions and lectures, and taken a few notes, but I told myself, I’m on vacation. Taking notes would be too much like school.

Luckily, I not only had my little book for reference, but at the end of the cruise we all received a 24-page summary of our trip that included black and white photos. Both of these resources have been valuable over the years as I’ve talked about my Antarctic experiences, and now, as I write about it.

After lunch on our second day at sea, Thanksgiving Day back home, the captain announced that we were approaching the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I became jittery with excitement. So close!

The captain ordered the ship’s watertight doors to be closed for safety reasons, primarily the threat of icebergs. I soon discovered a closed door next to my cabin that I hadn’t noticed earlier. Since my cabin was on the lower deck, once the crew closed that door, I had to take a longer route to the public areas on the main deck. That night, the intermittent clanging from below told me of a corresponding door the engine crew used.  Whenever the crew changed shifts, a great metallic crashing and electronic beeping accompanied each crew member opening and shutting the door. Although annoying, I felt secure that if we hit an iceberg, we would not sink. However, I must admit that images of the great rip down the side of the Titanic did come to mind. I also realized safety clearly did not imply a good night’s sleep.

Drawn by birds and the mysterious continent, I looked forward to experiencing the deafening brays of a thousand penguins, the sparkle of icebergs, the sting of ice-chilled air, and the startling blue sky in a place few have visited.

Right before Thanksgiving dinner, we spotted the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island, 582 miles south of the Falkland Islands and 152 miles north of the mainland of Antarctica.


Shackleton’s Fateful Expedition

Shackleton’s men hauling their boat (photo by Hurley)

We enjoyed the mild, sunny weather that day while gazing at the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island thick with snow. Heavy clouds hung around the lofty peaks giving the island an ominous icy presence. The captain brought us as close as possible to the island while avoiding our first icebergs—thick slabs, sharp edged chunks, and softer, rounded icebergs, all with the potential to do damage to our small polar ship.

Immediately, I thought about Shackleton’s 1914-16 expedition and all they endured in Antarctica. The sight of the towering peaks of Elephant Island had cheered the stranded Shackleton crew a year and a half after leaving South Georgia Island for the Antarctic. During that time, all had gone well until their ship, Endurance, became frozen in place on January 18, 1915, about a hundred miles—one day’s sail—from their destination. Ice held Endurance fast for 281 days, while the ship drifted at least one thousand miles. The pressure of the ice on the ship’s hull slowly increased. The men unloaded their supplies from the trapped ship, along with the sled dogs, and on November 21, 1915 they watched as their ship sank into the sea.

After the demise of Endurance, the crew had to pull loaded auxiliary boats across rough and shifting ice to open water. They sailed the small boats with the prevailing winds to Elephant Island where they found relief from the treacherous ice floes. With no rescue possible, Shackleton and five men sailed and rowed a 22-foot boat across 800 miles of the tempestuous southern Atlantic to South Georgia Island to get help. The rest of the crew waited four more months on Elephant Island for a ship to finally reach them. The waiting men experienced wretched weather like the men in the boats, but they were able to construct a crude shelter. They supplemented their dwindling food supply with penguin and seal meat cooked on blubber-fueled stoves. Melted glacial ice provided fresh water as long as the blubber-fuel held out.

The rough sea prevented us from landing on Elephant Island, so I stood on the deck of our modern, comfortable ship and studied Cape Valentine, where Shackleton and his crew made their first landing. I thought, How relieved they must have felt to have found safe landing on solid ground after so many days living on dangerously deteriorating ice.

Approaching Elephant Island

A deep breath of polar air helped me to settle my profound awe for these men who survived four months in such a bleak place; and for the six who left that marginal security, launching their small boat in these massive uncertain waters. I had just crossed the southern Atlantic aboard the comfortable Clipper Adventurer, braced for the possibility of fierce storms and towering waves, which luckily never showed up. I marveled at the determination and courage that Shackleton and his five crewmen had to once again brave the high seas in their small boat, believing they could find a distant island, South Georgia Island, and get help for the rest of the crew that waited on Elephant Island.

Our ship’s log recorded a noon air temperature that day of 52° F. That would soon change.