Drake Passage

Jan 18, 2020 - National Geographic Orion

We spent the day sailing northward in the Drake Passage. It is named for Sir Francis Drake, the famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) English explorer and privateer, who was the first Englishman to sail around the world. During the first year of that expedition, which lasted from 1577 to 1580, Drake completed his transit of the Strait of Magellan and entered the Pacific Ocean. However, a severe storm immediately drove his vessel, Golden Hind, southward to 57° S and eastward to where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet, thus discovering the wide and often turbulent passage between South America and Antarctica. This proved beyond doubt that Tierra del Fuego was not part of mythical Terra Australis Incognita.

National Geographic Orion had an easy time of it, because for most of the day we experienced mild seas and didn’t even see whitecaps until late in the afternoon, when the wind began to pick up a bit.  Even so, our wonderful stabilizers kept the ship very stable during all this. It was fun to spend time on the bridge enjoying the ship’s movements and getting a chance to learn about some of the operations on board, examine the instruments, and talk with the bridge officers. Meanwhile, the albatrosses and petrels were having a great time following our vessel as they soared and glided back and forth just over the waves, banking and soaring with the wind, never needing to flap their wings. One could almost imagine them hollering with glee.

It was obvious that most guests favored the albatrosses. And who can blame them? These magnificent birds fly effortlessly for vast distances and are the epitome of grace and beauty. However, we should also give the giant petrels their due. Even though they are only half the size of a wandering albatross, giant petrels were much more numerous and were the ones that most often closely approached the vessel. We could admire their superb flying abilities while they gave us excellent views of their rather rough appearances and maybe not so pretty faces as compared to the albatrosses. In fact, they have a somewhat fearsome-looking, raptor-like hooked beak, which is made up of several heavy plates with sharp edges. They are powerful predators but are happy to scavenge even the foulest of remains.

Giant petrels really are amazing birds and are known by a multitude of names, including the poor man’s albatross, giant fulmars, nellies, stinkers, and others. The two species of giant petrels are both found in these southern waters and are quite similar in appearance, except the northern giant petrel has a distinctive reddish color on the end of the beak, while the southern giant petrel has a definite greenish tint on the end of the beak. We saw both species of giant petrels today. We anticipate a somewhat different avifauna tomorrow as we approach South America, so we have lots more with which to look forward.

  • Send

About the Author

Tom Ritchie


Tom is a professional naturalist and expedition leader who has worked in the field of expedition cruising almost since its inception by Lars Lindblad. Growing up near the Everglades allowed him to spend his youth exploring the swamps, marshes, forests, and reef systems of South Florida, a perfect training ground for his life with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.

About the Photographer

Jamie Coleman

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Jamie is from England. He grew up in Oxford, about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, yet somehow decided he would work in marine biology and conservation. Ever since he reached his teens, he has dedicated time to this passion, working and volunteering in various roles on nature reserves and in aquariums. It was no surprise that in 2007, he left home to study marine biology at the University of Newcastle.

Get our newsletter

Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.

Privacy Policy