Albatross and Cape Petrels in the Southern Ocean

Riding the Currents at 60°S

Drake Passage, 11 December 2016

A southern Royal Albatross dipped his smoky wings past my window as we officially entered Antarctica. An announcement from the captain comes seconds after I sight the birds to say we have just crossed 60°S.

As if someone turned a switch, the air outside grows thick with mist. That’s what happens when you cross the magic number, and enter into the realm of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. It’s the world’s strongest marine current, and the volume of water that runs through the Drake Passage – the strait between the Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula – is so large it has its own unit of measurement. I had never heard of a Sverdrup before now, but it is equivalent to all the freshwater rivers in the world.

Pic: @kelvintrautman

The volume, the current, the fact that there is no landmass to interrupt the flow, is the reason the Drake Passage is notorious as one of the most treacherous bodies of water on the planet. We were warned: the Drake is either ‘lake’, or it’s ‘quake’. We’ve been lucky. The swell is mild, the roll of the ship is gentle. When I close my eyes it’s like being in a great big hammock; the sea rocking you to sleep at night.

Except that there isn’t much night. The sun dips down, then changes its mind and comes back up again. Softened by the acuteness of the angle, hazed by the mist.

That mist is caused by temperature inversion; within the magic circle the water temperature drops some 7°C, to hover around zero. After a while, the air catches up and the mist clears. That’s when you realise how many birds there are.

I could sit and watch the Cape Petrels for hours, the way they swoop and touch the surface of the sea with the lightest wing tip, dipping their toes in the water to stir up plankton – that’s why they are called petrels, after St Peter, who wanted to walk on water. But the locals call them Pintado, because they were splashed black and white by God’s paintbrush.

pic: @kelvintrautman

… And then a pair of black-browed albatrosses cruises by, like Buicks among the taxi traffic.


Albatross and Cape Petrels in the Southern Ocean
Photo: @kelvintrautman


[Special shout out to photographer Kelvin Trautman for permission to use these beautiful images from our #Antarctica2020 Expedition. Check out more of Kelvin’s amazing work here. And watch this blog space for wedding pics (!) – how lucky were we to have him there? Then again, how lucky were we to get married on an Antarctic glacier…]

Leave a Reply