All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement inhabits here…The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Did he or didn’t he? After taking fourteen days in 1578 to head west through the Strait of Magellan into the open sea of the Pacific, Francis Drake encountered a savage storm. One of his ships simply disappeared, engulfed by the sea without a trace. Briefly retreating to the western entrance of the Strait after struggling for two more weeks, Drake’s two remaining ships attempted to regain the Pacific Ocean only to be battered further south by a renewed tempest. The third ship in Drake’s fleet turned tail and fled back to England, convinced that Drake had been lost and would never be seen again. This left Drake alone in the Golden Hind and blown far south of the Strait of Magellan “…towards the Pole Antarctic as a pelican alone in the wilderness” (Sir Francis Drake, the British Library Historic Lives). Here, he saw open water south of Tierra del Fuego and deduced that it would be possible to “round the horn” of South America.

Yet a map included in Francis Fletcher’s account of the voyage identified an island south of Cape Horn where none exists. Was he really south of the horn? It was on this island that Drake and crew recovered from their ordeal. But El Draco, as he was known to the Spanish, was famously deceptive and “…cooked the books and spread misinformation about his course to confuse the Spanish” (Forgotten Footprints, Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica). Drake, after all, was a pirate with a license to plunder the Spanish Main. Queen Elizabeth sent him on a mission, to be disavowed if captured, to wreak havoc along the west coast of South America. Having done so, and made his fortune in the process, he reckoned it was foolish to return through the Strait of Magellan. Every available Spanish ship would be looking for him there. So, given he was in his natural milieu, Drake exhibited characteristic daring and decided the route home was to the west across the Pacific. Why not circumnavigate the globe?

Truth and fiction inhabit the same space within the myth of Drake and are hard to untangle. This is the man who, upon the approach of the Spanish Armada during a game of bowls, allegedly remarked “…time enough to finish the game and beat the Spanish after.” Perhaps it is more correct to observe that Drake was “economical with the truth” as the Irish would say. So, it is fitting that one of the most violent and unpredictable bodies of water on the planet is named after him. Whatever the reality, Drake was correct about the existence of the passage that bears his name.

Would we or wouldn’t we? This was the question on our minds. Would it be the Drake Shake or the Drake Lake? Secretly, we were hoping for a bit of a tumble. Not quite the “there she blows,” furniture bouncing off cabin walls and no soup at dinner, but a good enough shake and roll to have a story to tell back home. This five-hundred mile passage between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula opened up some thirty-one million years ago as South America nudged away from the Antarctic Peninsula. This parting created the Antarctic Circumpolar Current – “the largest current system on Earth” (Antarctica, Global Science from a Frozen Continent) – and began the cooling process of Antarctica and the consequent growth of its continent-wide ice sheet. Since this current is unimpeded by land as it circulates the planet, waves are known to peak at twenty-five meters.

We are crossing the Drake Passage in the Russian flagged Akademik Ioffe. Built near the end of the Cold War in 1989, the ice-strengthened Ioffe and its sister ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, originally had something to do with tracking the acoustic waves generated by submarines. Both ships carry equipment that can detect very low frequency radio waves, and the Antarctic is a good place to listen for such waves, due to its “remoteness from anthropogenic electromagnetic noise sources.” In other words, it is a quiet place. Except when there is a blizzard…


The Ioffe awaits at the end of the pier.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard described the blizzard at Cape Crozier during the “winter journey” of July 1911 – “…it was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics. The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.” And then the tent blew away, leaving the winter party with just their sleeping bags. “They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…”

Cherry-Garrard’s book, The Worst Journey in the World, is at my bedside when we wake in Ushuaia on the morning of December 18. Dashing upstairs to take our breakfast, the mountains sparkle across the Beagle Channel as we take in the panoramic view of the city from the top floor of the Alto Andino Hotel. The Ioffe is docked at the pier waiting for us – a sleek white sliver set in blue sky and waters.

Boarding time is three-thirty, so we wander the streets thinking we spot fellow passengers doing the same. In the Café-Bar Tante, groups of travelers have that anxious look of anticipation in their eyes. But the time passes quickly, and we are soon treated to the indispensably marvelous hospitality of the One Ocean staff at our meeting place, the Hotel Albatros. From here, we are checked in and effortlessly transferred to the ship.

The traffic bustles along Avenue Maipu during the Ushuaia rush hour, and the docks are noisy with chaotic motion. Cargo is randomly moving on and off ships, and forklifts weave rhythmic paths through randomly stacked boxes. But the ninety passengers are efficiently boarded, and we are soon steaming east through the Beagle Channel.

Leaving the sounds of civilization behind, we begin to see the wonder of this remote land. Almost everyone is out on deck pointing cameras and admiring a landscape that predates human existence. There is excitement, of course, but also silent reverence and amazement. Ordinary life cannot compete with this experience.

Chad Gaetz, who in between polar seasons is an accomplished installation artist, is the expedition leader. In the dining room, we get the first of his many briefings. The crossing to the Peninsula will take two days. But they will be busy days in which we make sure that clothing and equipment are a proper fit, get instructed on marine safety, become familiar with the ship, learn about zodiac landings, are given a preview of possible landing sites and understand the importance of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic. It is a bit like being at camp.

Chad recommends that we “Drake proof” our cabins. That is, secure anything that might have a tendency to go mobile during the night as the ship rocks from side to side. The weather forecast for the moment is calm, but as the One Ocean literature cautions, “predictability is a word that has no relevance in this environment.” Nevertheless, we end up with the “Drake Lake” during our crossing.


Humpbacks swim next to the ship.

“There be whales” on the second day. More whales than I have seen in one place – Debbie and I can count at least twenty and several swim alongside the ship. It is here that the floor of the ocean rises from a depth of 4,000m to 500m. This upwelling of current provides a buffet of nutrients and is a favorite feeding ground. Whales undertake a three month commute from their breeding grounds near Colombia to reach this spot, so the food must be good (Antarctica, Secrets of the Southern Continent). Whale populations are only now recovering here after their near extinction one-century ago.


Profile of Drake Passage – Courtesy Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany.

Such a view is only surpassed by our first sighting of land. Smith Island belongs to the South Shetlands, and nothing has prepared us for the spectacle of a sheer mountain wall rising nearly 7,000 feet out of the ocean. Instantly, I wish I could remain awake and not sleep for the next five days. I do not want to miss a single moment. But as the Antarctic sun briefly sets, turning the icy cliffs shades of pink and purple for which no words exist, sleep we must. In the morning, we will wake in the magical Lemaire Channel.


First sighting of land.

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence” – Max Ehrmann

Previous installment – Ushuaia.

Read Part IV, Lemaire Channel

Antarctic links