Antarctica Update #1: The Drake Passage, From Killer Waves to Killer Whales

MS Expedition - Our Home for the Next 11 Days
The MS Expedition, our ship to Antarctica, docked in Ushuaia, Argentina before departure.

As a teacup and breakfast plate sailed by Wednesday morning, followed by a fellow passenger or two, it again occurred to me that no story of a destination is complete without recounting the process of getting there.

A journey to Antarctica from Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of South America requires crossing the Drake Passage, an infamous body of water that serves as a rite of passage for those who seek the seventh continent. The seas are notoriously some of the roughest in the world.

To wit, one reader pointed out before we departed: “The Drake Passage can be brutal. I was bed-ridden for 4 days.”

Hard to believe, perhaps, until you experience it first-hand.

Sunset on the First Night - Boat to Antarctica
Leaving Argentina – Sunset on First Night En Route to Antarctica

Although we left Ushuaia, Argentina on Tuesday evening with the calm of a beautiful sunset, by the end of our first breakfast the next morning, circumstances had changed dramatically. Much of the service went upside-down. Chain-anchored chairs tipped, coffees once adhered to the non-slip table mats tipped over. Passengers held on to railings and tables to stable themselves as the boat swayed. A few bodies stumbled by in our peripheral vision; they hadn’t grabbed hold quickly enough.

Where did this suddenly come from?

The reality is that conditions can change instantly in the Drake Passage. That’s why Antarctica isn’t simply a walk-up, an ordinary luxury cruise. Our tour leader put Antarctica circumstances and planning in perspective: “You can’t really get weather reports down here. We get wind reports and some low resolution ice reports.” Despite all the commercialization and professionalism of Antarctic tours, this is still a serious venture prone to the unpredictable.

In fact, this adds to the excitement. You can’t just purchase a trip to Antarctica — you must earn it.

Of the 120 passengers aboard, only about 30 made it to the lecture after that first breakfast. Most were huddled in their cabins. Sea swells continued from the west. Passengers traversing the ship walked precariously, their ankles pivoting almost absurdly at an angle.

Our ship continued to rock violently. A look out the windows of the main lounge was a mixed blessing: while a visual of the horizon helped mitigate seasickness, we found ourselves penned in by white-capped waves approaching on the starboard side and the ship kissing the water’s surface on port side. Swells reached 30-35 feet.

Despite all the “take a tour with a small ship” recommendations we had received, we are very thankful that this vessel is not one foot smaller than it is. We were both grateful for a serious crew of professionals and curious as to what it might take for a boat of this size (100+ meters) to capsize.

If you’ve never really appreciated the might of nature, take this trip. It will convince you. Even in this large mass of reinforced steel, it’s easy to feel tiny — if not entirely powerless — compared to the surrounding forces of nature.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Because of bad weather on the first day, our approach to Antarctica has been slowed down a bit; we expect to arrive below the Antarctic Circle tonight (something most Antarctic tours don’t do). In the meantime, everyone has been on the lookout on deck and on the bridge (the captain’s control room) for sea birds, whales – and now icebergs.

In the vastness of the sea, an hour or two can pass without a sight of anything.

Then, all of sudden, you can be rewarded by an albatross or a storm petrel — or much more dramatically, a visit from a pod of 6-10 killer whales breaching right next to the boat. We are told by the cetacean expert (i.e., whale and dolphin guy) on board that they are a rare and newly identified sub-species D. We were excited to see whales – killer whales! — regardless of their type.

Killer Whales Along the Side of Boat - Antarctica Trip
Killer Whales Off the Side of our Boat – En Route to Antarctica

Weather permitting, we take our first zodiac rides and land expeditions tomorrow morning (Saturday) around the Crystal Sound and Detaille Island just below the Antarctic Circle.

Something tells me we are in for much more.

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Special thanks to Gap Adventures for providing us with internet access aboard the MS Expedition so that we can tweet, blog, update our Facebook fan page and upload Antarctica photos during this journey.

———————


G Adventures tours to Antarctica

The Antarctica tour we took with G Adventures was paid for by us and went south of the Antarctic Circle. We highlight this feature as most tours to Antarctica do not go this far south. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad to the left. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. says

    I went a few years ago and was blessed with a flat crossing both ways. I sometimes wonder if I missed an experience of the typical Drake Passage but in general was thankful that it was the Drake Lake and not the monstrous unrelenting rolling swells for a couple of days.

  2. says

    Love that line, “You must earn it.” That sentence could be applied to travel as a whole. First world folks are lucky to experience other countries, some in unfortunate situations. Maybe travelers should earn it instead of snapping a pic of the Louvre from a taxi and proclaiming ownership of the experience.

    I keep picturing the swells, upturned tables and all. Why does Antarctica feel like a bona fide unknown, but isn’t that what adventure should entail? Nothing short of exciting! :)

  3. says

    For lack of a better word, you guys ROCK! (no pun intended). I’ve been anticipating this post. This particular destination of yours is not one that I’d be up for (just can’t handle sea sickness), but reading about your adventurous parting for the bottom of the earth is a thrill in each sentence. Excellent photos as usual!

  4. says

    I am so jealous! As we left Ushuaia yesterday, there was another Antarctic cruse ship in port and we thought “one day”… Can’t wait to hear the rest of your adventure. All the best!

  5. says

    What an adventure! And oh, to see those killer whales in their native habitat. Just a bit of news from the US: about 2 weeks ago, a Sea World killer whale had dragged a trainer by her pony tail, and the trainer subsequently drowned. :( Anyway, may luck be on your side during this trip :)

  6. says

    Sounds a great trip with quite a bit of excitement, although I dare say you wouldn’t feel excited if you were in your cabin feeling like death through sea-sickness. But as you say this does make the trip unpredictable and unlike any other cruise you might take.

  7. says

    @Lisa: You are welcome. Glad you could join us…for this journey and hopefully others. That first evening on the way to Antarctica was exceptionally clear and peaceful. I guess it was the calm before the storm. Anyhow, things have settled down and we are indeed enjoying this journey.

    @Kirsten: Have a great trip. There’s wifi aboard ship, but be aware that it’s fairly expensive (and charged by the megabyte) and can often be quite slow and dependent on whims of the weather and the satellite.

    @Dave E: Excellent. Great to see you here. Stay tuned for more.

    @Keith: We asked one of the ice veterans on board to rate according to all of his experience on a scale of 1-10 (10 being most difficult). He rated our 2nd day an 8. Winds were “strong gale” force. Aside from being worth it, I actually appreciated having the opportunity to see and feel the Drake Passage at its most dramatic.

    @Mark H: I imagine most folks would prefer the easy passage of Drake Lake rather than what we experienced. But like I said to Keith above, I’m sort of glad that we got to experience the real adventure. Like the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) evaluator said, I’m glad that you’ve had the opportunity to experience the Drake Passage as I have known it. And although it was in some ways terrifying and uncomfortable (for many, including Audrey), I’m thankful to have that experience under my belt. It also gives me a much greater and deeper appreciation of all the expeditions and exploration done by truly intrepid types in the 1800s and early 1900s — to all our benefit.

    @Pete: It really depends on the wind. It can be anywhere from around 40 degrees to somewhere in the 30s, possibly high 20s. But the wind makes all the difference in making it feel even colder than that. I cannot even begin to imagine the temperature depths explorers (and for that matter, penguins) have to endure during the midst of the Antarctic winter, coming soon.

    @Jason: It has been amazing trip so far. And thanks for the kudos on the photos. I suspect this first batch is just the beginning. You can continue to follow our regular photo uploads here:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/tag/dna2antarctica/page1/

    @Nomadic Chick: It could be applied to travel as a whole I suppose, depending on how you go about that travel. At least they way we enjoy going about travel, we tend to “earn” the experience more often than not. But we wouldn’t swap that for 5-star hotels.

    To your point about the first-world fortunates, I totally agree. For those of us fortunate enough to travel, we have the opportunity to see the world from a vantage point not afforded to others.

    Regarding ownership of the experience, I’m inclined to agree. However, some people like snapping photos of the Louvre from a taxi. But for us, that doesn’t really cut it. And — this trip in particular aside — the difference between one experience and another may have little or nothing to do with money, but rather one’s goals, one’s outlook, and one’s approach.

    Antarctica is still a bit of an unknown. Even after we emerge, I think it will retain still a bit of its mystery and allure. An exciting adventure indeed!

    @rowena: Thank you very much for a wonderful compliment (blushing, really). Antarctica is one of those places that just seems to stir something in the blood for people.

    As for this trip, I hope we can deliver — in photos and words — something that can even live up to the shadow of this experience. This is a very difficult place and experience to capture.

    @Vaniah: Great to see you here. When the time is right, you’ll do it. And you won’t regret it. In the meantime, I hope our words and photos can do this place even half the justice it’s due.

    @Andy: Thank you for some very, very kind words. I’m not sure we’ve seen and done it all, but I certainly feel like we are fortunate to have seen and done a lot, and done it more uniquely than I could have ever imagined possible.

    In a bit of reflection over Day 2, we were talking with the crew on the bridge. The leader agreed the seas and circumstances were exceptional. And the IAATO evaluator (an ice veteran himself) described it as “gnarly.” And this guy is as cool as the ice he navigates.

    @jen: As I watched the whales around the boat, I wondered exactly how (and with what long-term success) killer whales have been trained. A sad story, but I’m not terribly surprised. They are, after all, killer whales. We’ll be sure to keep our distance.

    @Jeff: Audrey had a bit of seasickness. However, I think sea wristbands, and motion sickness medication taken *well in advance* of the motion definitely seemed to help me. Anyhow, my comment to Mark H still stands: I’m grateful for the entire experience and remain in awe of the expeditions and the men who were the first to attempt to understand this continent.

  8. says

    Wow, as others have said, how incredible! I agree that “Antarctica is one of those places that just seems to stir something in the blood for people.” I can’t wait to get there one day, but so far your relaying of the experience is fantastic. I can’t wait for more! I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip!

  9. says

    Oh wow, the views from and around the boat are incredible. And the whales!? I’m not sure I’d be able to hold the camera steady, I’d be jumping up and down with excitement. :) Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Such a great experience for you all!

  10. Dorothy Turpy says

    Found your article when browsing. We left the ship the morning you boarded – hope you are now having a brilliant time. It is all so amazing isn’t it? Good luck – and thanks for the article.

  11. Lisa Munro says

    Y’all take the best photos!

    It has been quite a pleasure to follow your journey from Guatemala to Antarctica! I look forward to reading about the rest of the adventure.

    Que les vaya bien siempre.

    Saludos.

    Lisa

  12. Joyce Bamford says

    Found your pics and blog when I needed to see if there was any updates from my trip to Antarctica aboard MS Expedition. You were the next group after my trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica Peninsula, I know I had a truly wonderful time but I will always wish I could have had a few more days. Antarctica is a very special place and I know that I have been very lucky to have visited, the memories can never be taken away. Enjoy the last leg of your trip however bumpy, it is all part of the experience.

  13. Stephanie Albers says

    1) Catchy article name – Killer waves to killer whales. very nice. :)
    2) I know I keep saying it, but WHAT an amazing adventure. Thanks for letting me live vicariously through you…

  14. says

    I really, really, really want to do this! Amazing photos and what an experience. I would love to work down there and spend a significant amount of time. I need to get a skill first though before I can do that with a varying degree of success.

  15. says

    Thanks everyone for your comments. If you’d like to see the next installment where we begin to share the experience of our actual Antarctic landings, check this out:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2010/03/honest-antarctica-gray-skies-blue-ice/
    And we’ll continue to upload the remainder of our Antarctica trip photos here:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/tag/dna2antarctica/page1/

    @Laura: Glad you enjoyed this piece. There’s more coming.
    @Lori: The views from just about everywhere were incredible. As for the whales, most of the passengers were in fact jumping up and down with excitement, or at least running to the windows and the decks when whales were sighted.
    @Dorothy: You are welcome. Glad you enjoyed the article and your experience. Our experience was truly amazing. We will be writing a multi-part series about it in the coming days.
    @Lisa: Muchas gracias!
    @Joyce: The entire trip — from start to finish — was an experience. Your trip through South Georgia must have been terrific. You know you’ve had a good time when you would like just a little bit more.
    @Stephanie: Glad you liked the title :) And of course, you’re welcome!
    @Earl: It wouldn’t be a bad move.
    @Mike: We can definitely recommend it.
    @Adriana: It was indeed amazing. We’ll be sharing our experience in our next few posts.

  16. Jo says

    I discovered your website accidentally and simply love the contents and the pictures. I am preparing for my RTW trip – thank you so much for sharing your wealth of experiences.
    Just booked an Antarctica trip with G Adventures by clicking the button above. I hope you get the commission you truly deserve.

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