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Crossing the Drake Passage

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Before we went to bed the night before, our Expedition Leader Lucho cautioned us to secure everything in our cabins as overnight the Explorer began its navigation across the fabled Drake Passage.

When we awoke to this glorious sunrise and calm seas just outside our cabin, we were a bit surprised.

And, if I'm honest, a tad bit disappointed.

 

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Google image

The Drake Passage is the stuff of nautical legends, the 500-mile stretch of ocean between South America's Cape Horn and  the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It is the roughest sea passage in the world, where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Sea converge, creating a wild mix of ocean currents. Add to that the fact that at this southern latitude, ocean currents meet no resistance from any landmass anywhere across the globe. Throw into the equation the area's constant high winds and it's the perfect recipe for some major rockin-and-rollin'.

On a ship (thankfully, built and stabilized for just this purpose) for 36-48 hours.

Having left civilization as we know it for the most desolate, spellbinding place on the planet.

It's intimidating, thrilling, scary, exhilarating, dangerous, and magical all mixed together.

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But the crazy thing about the Drake Passage is its unpredictability. One hour it can be eerily calm, like our first morning as we began the crossing. Seafarers refer to these conditions as the Drake Lake.

We experienced the Drake Lake for the first half of our southbound crossing. The wind was behind the ship, helping us make good time as we crossed the 500-mile Drake in about 36 hours. To pass all that time on the ship, the National Geographic naturalists aboard gave several entertaining and educational programs for us to enjoy.

The first program of the day was about the sea birds we would encounter on the Drake Passage. It would be our only opportunities to see the albatrosses and many of the petrels, as they live at sea. The professional photographers gave us pointers on photographing these birds, which glide in the wake of the ship, and those of us interested in photographing the birds joined them on the rear deck for an avian photo session.

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There were PLENTY of birds, gliding behind the ship. But photographing them was even more of a challenge than I bargained for.

Let me just say, I was very fortunate and thankful to get a few "keepers" among the 800+ photos I shot of birds that morning. While the Drake was not rough by any stretch of the imagination, there was still plenty of rolling as we were in the open sea. Add to that constant movement my heavy camera/lens combo (so I had enough zoom to capture the images) as well as swiftly-moving birds swooping unpredictably to and fro, it was very frustrating to acquire and maintain focus on the birds. I had oodles of photos where the ocean waves were sharp as a tack but the birds were just fuzzy blobs.

But I kept shooting and did finally get the hang of it (sorta) and was overall satisfied with the few keepers I got...

 

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I dreamed of getting to actually see the wandering albatross, the bird with the longest wingspan in the world.

 

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We saw dozens of them! Photographs are deceiving as it's impossible to show how immense these birds are! They have wingspans up to 11.5 feet...one outstretched wing is as tall as a man! Even the biggest NBA players can only "boast" armspans of 8.5 feet. When I say they are huge birds, they are HUGE!

 

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Wandering albatrosses can live up to 50 years and get whiter as they age (sound familiar?). This is an immature one...


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They are just fascinating to watch. In all the hours we spent watching them, we never once saw them flap their wings! They use the wind currents to just glide around the ship, banking and wheeling so gracefully that it's just mesmerizing.

But we saw lots of other seabird species too...

 

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White-cheeked petrel...

 

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Gray-headed albatrosses...

 

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Kim's favorite was the cape petrel, still a large bird but much smaller than the wandering albatross...


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...but look at the gorgeous pattern on the cape petrel's wings!


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This is a black-browed albatross. Our guide Javier always said it wears too much eye makeup...


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A southern albatross in front with a shearwater in back...

And yes, the water really is that color! See how smooth it looks? Drake Lake conditions.

 

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A southern royal albatross...

 

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More of Kim's faves, cape petrels...

 

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I'm so glad I got to photograph these birds on the southbound trip because it turned out to be my only opportunity.

After we left Antarctica a few days later to sail back northward across the passage, it was NOT Drake Lake.

We had the Drake SHAKE on the way back and there is NO WAY I could have taken a photo of anything. I'll tell you more about that later, but suffice it to say it's always an adventure...

...crossing the Drake Passage.

 

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