At Sea | Drake Passage

Jan 28, 2020 - National Geographic Orion

We awoke to a long, easy swell within the infamous Drake Passage. Although the ship’s movement was enough to make people walk a little bit like drunken sailors as they moved about the vessel, most adjusted fairly quickly. Morning conditions were foggy, with little wind – so it was pretty remarkable that the sea birds were able to find us and follow the ship’s wake. Actually, it was probably quite easy for them to do so. As the naturalists explained, these particular far-wandering sea birds have a keen sense of smell. (Perhaps they caught wind of our breakfast buffet.)

The fog is typical in this area of the Antarctic Convergence, or Polar Front, because there is a significant difference in the surface water’s temperature on either side of it. To the south of the convergence, which is the true Antarctic environment, the surface water is cooler and was measured at about 1º C (34º F). Just north of the convergence, however, the surface water is warmer, and we measured it close to 4º C (almost 40º F). This may not seem like much difference, but along with the currents associated with it, the convergence zone forms a biogeographic boundary. The micro-plankton to the south is dominated by diatoms with glass-like external skeletons, while the waters to the north are dominated by planktonic organisms with calcareous shells.

We lost the fog by lunchtime and settled into a light drizzle for the rest of the day. There was very little wind early on and then it dropped down to almost windless conditions in the early afternoon. There were no white caps to be seen anywhere. This is not good for albatrosses and giant petrels, because these large birds prefer winds that make it easier for them to glide effortlessly in their constant search for food. The swell system was simply a residual wave patterned by yesterday’s wind front. However, this is Drake Passage, and a west wind started to build in the evening and began ruffling the water surface.

Even though we did not have masses of birds escorting us today, we did see many species. This list included wandering, black-browed, gray-headed, and light-mantled albatross as well as northern giant petrel, southern giant petrel, white-chinned petrel, Wilson’s storm-petrel, black-bellied storm-petrel, blue petrel, and thin-billed prion. One must be patient, quick, and perhaps a bit lucky to capture close-ups of these birds. And – having a modern, sophisticated camera certainly helps. The fourth image here is typical of a northern giant petrel; it was obtained by the author, who possesses none of the above-mentioned qualities.

On days at sea, like this one, it is always a pleasure to spend time on the bridge. One can admire all the instruments and paraphernalia that controls our wondrous vessel, and the officers are happy to engage in nautical discussion.

  • 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.

Get our newsletter

Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.

Privacy Policy