Drake Passage & Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands

Jan 19, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer


In the wee hours of the night we travelled far enough south to become true Antarctic visitors, passing both the physical and artificial boundaries of the Antarctic region. The continent and surrounding Southern Ocean are physically separated from more northerly climes in a zone called the Polar Front, where the Antarctic Convergence is formed by the collision and downwelling of the cold Antarctic Circumpolar current as it meets the warmer subantarctic waters to the north. In our case, as we crossed from 58 to 59 degrees South Latitude the sea surface temperature dropped from 4.9 to 1.3 degrees Celsius. We were gradually entering into a cooler, mistier atmosphere. The geopolitical boundary for entry into the Antarctic is 60 degrees South Latitude, a convenient line around the globe, for sure, but more rooted as a bureaucratic simplicity, rather than any real distinction in the natural world.

The first visual evidence of our travels, though, was the appearance of our first iceberg at 0840, along with albatross and petrels, and soon thereafter the rocks and islets of the South Shetland Islands. Humpback whales were actively feeding as we transited around the larger islands to Half Moon Island for our first landing on Antarctic terra firma. Some of us hiked to the island’s high point, in and out of the clouds, while others went straight to a large colony of chinstrap penguins, which are for many, one of the iconic species of the south. We also saw Weddell and Antarctic fur seals, blue-eyed shags, skuas, terns, and snowy sheathbills.

Finally, an after-dinner ship cruise into Whaler’s Bay in Port Foster, Deception Island provided the unique experience of sailing into a drowned caldera, with the stark contrast of recent volcanic eruptions and the remains of two centuries of human activity in the region; a sobering vision of exploitation, industry, and the range of human activities, overlain by the face of powerful natural forces.

It was an almost overwhelming introduction to the seas surrounding the White Continent, full of new visions, textures, smells, and experiences. Trying to absorb both the dramatic and the sublime, we can only guess how far we will stretch our senses and memories in the days to come.

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About the Author

Robert Edwards

Naturalist

Growing up in the Appalachian foothills of the Garden State, Rob instinctively knew it made a lot more sense to head over the hill into the fields, forests, lakes, and streams behind his house, rather than down the road to the shopping mall in front of it. The natural world piqued the inherent curiosity in all of us and set his life course based on these questions: how does the world work, and how do we as humans fit into it?  

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