Drake Passage — Ever since sailing men first proved the world was not flat they have been cursing the weather conditions at Cape Horn and the Drake Passage that lies below, separating South America from Antarctica.
Everyone from Sir Francis Drake, for whom the windy passage is named, to Captain Bligh, who fought into the winds for 100 days before giving in, turning around and sailing to Tahiti the long way, no one in their right mind has looked forward to these seas.
I’ve crossed the Drake a couple dozen times now and include myself on the long list of those who live with a mild and constant dread of the place. Whether leaving from the southern Chilean ports of Punta Arenas or Puerto Williams, or Ushuaia in Argentina — from which most of the 30-odd tourist ships that carry visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula each austral summer leave from — in the days leading up to each of the crossings my fingers are tightly locked for many days in advance, praying for calm seas.
This time out was no different. We were set to leave aboard the 74-foot “Pelagic Australis” from a dock in Ushuaia lined with expedition yachts on January 2 and the five-day outlook was for incredibly light winds and calm seas. If that luck held, it looked like we’d make what we anticipated to be a three-day crossing in good time, with little turbulence.
Unfortunately our luck did not hold. Delayed waiting for an underwater housing for our 3D cameras, which never arrived and as far as I know is still stuck in customs in Buenos Aires, we finally sailed away from at midday on January 4 in 45 mile per hour gusts. Just minutes later they closed the port due to strong winds.
That kind of luck — bad luck — managed to hang in for the next four days, as we were bucked by strong easterly winds pushing us far off our hoped-for course of due south to Deception Island. Instead we were forced to tack far to the east to avoid sailing directly into the wind, taking us slightly out of our way to the eastern edge of the South Shetland Islands. When we finally turned the corner around the Shetlands at King George Island, we had to lower the sails and motor face-on into a pounding wind and sea, making less than four miles an hour.
At 7 a.m. on the 8th we finally sailed into the caldera of Deception Island, wearied by a trip that had taken about 24 hours longer than it should have.
I had chartered the “Pelagic Australis” four years ago for a similar exploration sponsored by the National Geographic Expeditions Council; the crew this time around has some overlap: my friends and expedition partners Sean Farrell and Graham Charles were with me then, as was Skip Novak, who owns the “Pelagic.” But the camera crew has changed, to include 3D experts Ken Corben, Bob Cranston and Johnny Friday.
During the four days of bashing our way across the Drake it was easy to lose focus on why we were headed to the Antarctic Peninsula in the first place. But as a rare sun came out over Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island — lighting up the long, black volcanic sand beach that a century ago was home to one of the most efficient whaling operations the world has ever known — it was easy to put the seasick pills away, crawl out of our bunks and start pulling camera gear out of the holds below.
The film we are here to make — “Wild Antarctica 3D” — is my first entry into the growing genre. The film industry, pushed by coalitions of heavyweight broadcasters and theater owners around the world, are gambling that 3D’s time has finally arrived and are demanding more and more high-level content. For me, being able to bring the Antarctic Peninsula, which I’ve been visiting the past two decades, initially into theaters in museums and science institutions all the better. I can already see penguins and icebergs jumping and floating off the screen and into people’s laps.
Like much of my writing and filmmaking about Antarctica in recent years this film will ultimately be about Antarctica’s ice, specifically how it is changing.
Despite that the southern continent is covered in some places by nearly three miles of ice, along the Peninsula each summer for the past four decades its ice edges have been being degraded thanks to warming air and sea temperatures. Stepping onto the rare, sunshine-filled beach at Deception Island we were reminded that many things change here, and fast.