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The Ocean's Dark Underbelly: The Drake Passage

This notorious body of water has tormented the dreams of many sailors and seafarers. Why is this place so perilous? What has revived the fear surrounding the Drake Passage? What are some first-hand accounts of this treacherous portion of the earth's oceans? Has its risk declined due to modern engineering?

Credit: WorldAtlas

Situated between South America’s Cape Horn and northern Antarctica, this vast body of water (600 miles wide to be exact) contains some of the strongest, most unforgiving currents on Earth. 


The currents can move freely and unrestrained without being deterred by any land masses. The waves have ascended to a height of 65 feet, which is equivalent to the height of a modern house. 


The Drake Passage has taken the lives of those who have dared to venture within its waters over the centuries. It has been recorded that over 20,000 people have lost their lives. Furthermore, over 800 shipwrecks litter the passage’s ocean floor. With the forceful currents, towering waves, and high fatality rate, there is no wonder why the Drake Passage strikes fear into the hearts of sea voyagers. 


If you happen to have access to a social media account, you have most likely come across videos of the vicious waters that support Drake Passage’s fearsome reputation. Some of the videos showing voyages across the Drake Passage have gained millions of views, likes and thousands of comments, especially on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. This trend explains why there has been a soaring interest in the Drake Passage. The recordings of these expeditions feed into the audience’s curiosity surrounding our mysterious and forbidding oceans. 


Credit: British Antarctic Survey

The videos display walls of water crashing upon the deck and thrashing onto passenger's windows. Some show how boat equipment has been fastened down for safety precautions. There are also videos of people falling over as the boat is being hammered by the swells and currents. TikTok user @theworldpursuit documents her not-so-smooth sailing experience through the Drake Passage. The video shows the creator to be bed-bound and hopped up on anti-sickness medication due to the persistent tossing and rocking of the boat.


Travel vlogger Simon Wilson also documents his journey to Antarctica and shows him standing out on deck. Bitter winds and below-freezing temperatures are shown to pummel him. He pans the camera to the sea where we can see the choppy waves shaking the boat. These videos exhibit how taxing the journey to and from Antarctica is and how the passage worsens the excursions to this part of the world. 


Some other first-hand accounts of the Drake Passage all mention the scary experiences they endured. One traveller story mentions that the sea “had reached 11 metres and the wind had peaked at 50 knots” on their way to Antarctica. Another traveller stated that “the Drake decided to hit us hard…Not only were we bouncing up and down on huge swells, but we were also twisting side to side.” These anxiety-inducing anecdotes show the merciless power of the Drake Passage. 


Although through these accounts the fear that surrounds the Drake Passage is still very much alive. However, it is important to question whether travelling within these waters has become safer due to the advancement in engineering and technology established over the years. 


Past expeditions saw more fatalities when crossing the passage. This was due to the lack of mechanical processes, satellites and monitoring weather technologies within their simply structured wooden vessels.


One travel journalist documented their trip over the Drake Passage which depicted a harmless and mostly relaxing experience, as opposed to the frightening accounts from other travellers. The writer states, “Despite the shaky passage we felt completely safe, even if we did get a little motion sickness”.


Some cruises sail through the Drake Passage with thousands of tourists on board each year. Although at times the journeys can be stomach-churning for passengers, the safe and reliable ships allow a low-risk crossing. 


On this voyage of the Drake Passage, its hair-raising reputation will likely not sink to the depths and be forgotten, even if the mortality rate has seen a decline. There will continue to be maritime tales detailing these wild waters for years to come. Whether that is through anecdotal sharing on blog posts or social media videos, people’s fascination with our oceans will preserve the fearsome image of the Drake Passage.

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