Shackleton Discovery and the Drake Passage

Few stretches of water have a reputation quite like the infamous Drake Passage. Having claimed thousands of lives and hundreds of shipwrecks, this convergence of seas was once one of the most dreaded areas of ocean amongst seafaring men. Nowadays, with high-tech equipment and polar-ready ships, Drake Passage is safe to cross and can provide an enthralling adventure. But its history remains intriguing, to say the least.

Let’s dive into the details of this mysterious route and the recent discovery of one particular shipwreck: Shackleton’s Endurance.

What is Drake Passage?

Discovered in 1525 by Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces, the Drake Passage has since become the epitome of rough, treacherous sea. But what makes it so unique? Drake Passage is a legendary 800 kilometre-wide stretch of the Atlantic ocean between the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. Connecting the Scotia Sea with the southeastern area of the Pacific Ocean, Drake Passage happens to be the intersection of a powerful combination of currents. With no nearby land, water can flow as fast as 150 million cubic metres per second. Combine this with brutal winds and the propensity for storms to develop in the area, and you’ve got one rocky stretch of sea.

Shackleton’s Journey

Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was an Irish explorer who, along with 27 of his men, set off from South Georgia on the ship Endurance in 1914. They aimed to reach Vahsel Bay, Antarctica.

Up against harsh conditions in an unmapped expanse of icy ocean, their expedition didn’t go to plan. By January 19th 1915, Endurance was frozen in the ice and was being used as a winter station. By October, she was going down.

After two months spent camping on a drifting ice floe, Shackleton and his crew decided to sail their lifeboats to Elephant Island in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands. Remote, ice-covered, and utterly inhospitable, they knew they couldn’t stay for long. As there was no chance of discovery from passing ships, Shackleton decided to risk a dangerous open-boat voyage to South Georgia to get help.

Along with five brave men, Shackleton crossed the 15 day-long Drake Passage and battled hurricane-force winds. After safely arriving in South Georgia, they organised the heroic rescue of the remaining Elephant Island crew.

Finding Endurance

After 107 years in the deep dark depths of the Weddell Sea, research scientists finally found Endurance’s shipwreck on March 9th 2022. It was spotted four miles away from the location where it went down and 10,000 feet below the waves.

Specialists have marvelled at the wooden ship’s excellent condition. Extraordinary video footage shows the ship sitting upright, remarkably preserved, and the Endurance lettering clearly visible on the stern. In this sense at least, it lived up to its name. Finding Endurance was the world’s most difficult shipwreck search. Up against rough sea, blizzards, and constantly shifting sea ice, discovering the ship is a huge achievement. As the boat is now a designated monument under the international Antarctic Treaty, nothing will be removed and it will remain undisturbed under the sea.

Can you cross Drake Passage today?

Yes! You can safely cross the Drake Passage by boat in 48 hours. With advanced stabilisation systems and GPS, it has truly kicked its dangerous reputation. You might still experience some of the passage’s infamous swells and storms, but they are nothing to worry about onboard a well-equipped vessel. Safety is of the utmost importance on modern Antarctic cruise ships. For instance, at Swan Hellenic, our ships have Polar Class notation PC5 ice-strengthened hulls — the highest classification.

Antarctica via Drake Passage

If you want to experience the beauty of Antarctica, travelling through Drake Passage via cruise ship is the most popular route. You don’t have to cross Drake Passage to get to Antarctica but unless you want to travel by plane, it’s the best route to take. Nervousness is understandable, but if you ask anyone who has done the crossing before, they’ll tell you that Drake Passage was a completely worthwhile step to get to Antarctica.

Weather in Drake Passage

The weather in Drake Passage is highly unpredictable, though ship captains can always see what’s coming in time to adapt their route. While some people will experience some rough waves on their journey (sometimes referred to as Drake Shake), others will enjoy a smooth, tranquil voyage to Antarctica (Drake Lake). You won’t know what you’re going to get — but that’s all part of the adventure!

If you’re prone to developing seasickness, it’s worth being prepared. Board your cruise with the medicines or remedies you might need.

Wildlife in Drake Passage

The journey through Drake Passage isn’t something to just tolerate, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see breathtaking scenery and incredible wildlife. With waters rich in krill and plankton, you can spot hourglass dolphins, humpback whales, orcas, penguins, and various seabirds during your voyage. You won’t be short of spectacular ocean views and exciting animals to gaze at, so make sure you pack your camera and binoculars.

Voyage across Drake Passage with Swan Hellenic

The voyage to Antarctica through the Drake Passage is an unforgettable one. Why not make the crossing in luxury onboard one of our expedition cruise ships? At Swan Hellenic, we have a range of boutique Antarctic itineraries to choose from.

Our 18-day Shackleton Discovery luxury cruise departs from Buenos Aires. From there, you’ll visit West Point Island, Saunders Island, Port Stanley, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands, Ushuaia, and of course — the two-day trip across Drake Passage. You can also voyage the Drake Passage on several other expedition cruises, including our Classic Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula, Beyond the Antarctic Circle and Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula journeys.

Take a look at all our Antarctic luxury cruise options and dates.