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I’m often asked how bad is the Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica? Since so many people have expressed their apprehensions to me, I wanted to put those fears to rest. If you are wondering how to survive Drake Passage seasickness, read on for my top tips from two different Antarctica expeditions.
Ushuaia to Antarctica is a long but worthwhile journey
While the 620 mile (1000 km) journey from Ushuaia, the southernmost point in Argentina, to the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica, has rightfully earned the reputation as the roughest sea crossing in the world, it’s manageable and absolutely worth it.
As someone who gets woozy on curvy roads or bumpy airplane rides, the videos of relentless waves battering large ships and tossing them around like toy boats intimidated me. Honestly, the thought of a roller coaster at sea (plus the hefty price tag) deterred me from visiting Antarctica for many years.
What is it like crossing the Drake Passage?
Now that I’ve crossed the Drake Passage four times on two different ships, I can confidently say the Drake Passage conditions weren’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined.
Having just read Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath, I realize I had succumbed to “affective forecasting.” This is how we predict we will feel in future situations. Research shows the actual experience is a lot less scary. I can attest this is the case with the Drake Passage.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! If I could afford it, I’d go to Antarctica every year. Antarctica’s extraordinary beauty is incomparable and worth the discomfort. It touched me so deeply that I pivoted from my medical device marketing career to chase a wildlife photography and writing dream after visiting. Read more 25 Surprising Things to Do in Antarctica.
Drake Shake vs Drake Lake
The Drake Passage crossing is referred to as “Drake’s Shake” when it’s rough and “Drake’s Lake” when it’s smooth. Since I’m not known for having the best luck with weather, I convinced myself we’d encounter “Drake’s Shake.” I always keep my fingers crossed that my husband Jason’s favorable weather karma overrides mine when we travel together.
While estimates indicate 30% of travelers crossing the Drake Passage experience the “Drake Shake,” it’s comforting to know that the majority aren’t subjected to it.
70% of Drake Passage crossings are calm
We’ve been incredibly lucky with our four Drake Passage crossings (knock on wood). On our outbound journey in February 2016, a glass like surface allowed our Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Explorer ship to cross in 17 hours.
The serene seas allowed our captain to maneuver and watch orcas surfing the gradual swells. Having dreamt of seeing wild orcas my entire life, I watched in awe as the pod dove amongst the azure waters.
INSIDER TIP: For the best chance to see whales, visit Antarctica in February or March.
Since wildlife interactions and sightings differ throughout the six-month Antarctica season, you’ll want to select the best time to go based on your interests.
Is crossing the Drake Passage dangerous?
No, the ship captains and crew are incredibly skilled. And, the boats are well built and stable, designed to surmount the challenging conditions.
In rough “Drake Shake” conditions, captains don’t stop. They power through, carefully navigating the heaving seas, often taking 24 – 48 hours to make the crossing. By examining the weather and sea conditions, they chart as smooth a course as possible.
Reliefband is a must have Drake Passage seasickness remedy
During our return journey in March 2016, 10-15 feet waves smacked the dining room windows during dinner, resulting in people retreating to their cabins. Realizing I had forgotten to don my Relief Band, my GO TO motion sickness remedy, I hurried to our room to grab it.
Putting the Reliefband on resolved my queasiness within minutes, allowing me to resume the lovely dinner conversation I’d been immersed in about an upcoming trip to Palau. The fact that Reliefband can resolve symptoms AFTER they’ve started is incredibly valuable. Initially developed to minimize nausea for chemotherapy patients and morning sickness for pregnant women, it’s a game changer. Read more about my favorite motion sickness remedies here.
Icebreakers are less stable
In November 2018, we journeyed to Snow Hill, Antarctica, with Quark Expeditions to see the exquisite Emperor Penguins. Witnessing the fluffy grey and black chicks’ hilarious antics is both extraordinary and incredibly rare.
Reaching this remote penguin colony in the Weddell Sea early in the Antarctic season is challenging due to multi-year pack ice. Only a few specialized icebreaker ships are equipped to navigate the challenging and constantly changing conditions. Quark Expeditions had last offered this trip in 2009, chartering the Kapitan Khlebnikov, for both expeditions.
This legendary Russian icebreaker has a flat bottom. The shape allows the ship to crack the ice, slide above it and crush it beneath the bow. Unbeknownst to us before the trip, the tradeoff is a much bumpier ride through turbulent seas in the Drake Passage.
Even in relatively calm conditions, the ship rocked and rolled a lot more than our prior ship, the National Geographic Explorer. To minimize ship movement, our captain charted a course to circumvent storms and high waves, resulting in a 60-hour journey across the Drake Passage. Although we sometimes “pinballed” down the hallways as the ship swayed, we found it doable, chuckling much of the time. To me, this is small price to pay for Antarctica’s unforgettable sights.
Drake Passage seasickness remedies
For Antarctica trips, to combat nausea, I highly recommend the following (in my order of preference)
- Reliefband – This adjustable electric wristband interrupts the signal from your brain to your stomach. It’s been a lifesaver for me since I started using it in 2011.
- Ginger chews – Ginger is known for settling your stomach. These chews aid with minimizing nausea by relaxing the digestive track.
- Ginger tea – I always travel with my own ginger tea to calm my stomach, drinking it at lunch every day. To maximize benefits, make sure to steep it for 7-10 minutes.
- Bonine (meclizine) – Jason swears by this over the counter oral anti-nausea medication. Despite the fact that Bonine is supposed to cause less drowsiness than Dramamine, it still knocks me out.
- INSIDER TIP: I try to avoid taking it during the day and opt to take it at night, waking up a wee bit drowsy. A friend of mine, who also swears by it, takes it for 2 nights before boarding, the morning of embarkation and every night thereafter.
- Zofran (ondansetron) –This prescription oral, anti–nausea medication is very effective. While it doesn’t treat seasickness, it works like a charm to combat nausea.
- Scopolamine transdermal patches –This prescription topical patch is placed behind your ear, delivering medication through your skin for 72 hours. Since the patch can cause eye dilation, dry mouth, and difficulty urinating, definitely consult with your doctor to see if you have any conditions with which this drug might interfere. I personally experienced huge pupils for 12 hours while diving in Papua New Guinea and haven’t used it since 2010.
Other suggested Drake Passage motion sickness remedies
While people often suggest looking at the horizon when sea sick, I don’t find that helps me when there are severe shifts as the visual seems to mess with my stomach even more.
Others recommend heading outside for fresh air. However, while in the midst of Drake Passage storms, no one is allowed outside for safety reasons. Positioning yourself near an open porthole can help a lot.
Eating saltine crackers and drinking ginger ale has always helped settle my stomach. I’ve also found lying down with a cold towel over my forehead soothing. While I can read my book or Kindle to distract myself, my husband can’t. So that depends on the person.
Avoid the gym. On our Lindblad Expeditions ship, the small gym had a beautiful view off the back of the ship. However, I discovered that I could only use it when seas were calm. While attempting to use the treadmill on a slightly rough day, I found the constantly shifting horizon disorienting.
If you are seasick, abstain from spicy food, alcohol and caffeine. For me, I found a glass of wine at dinner helped me sleep at night.
Since Antarctica is considered a desert, it is incredibly dry. If you are dehydrated as a result of the climate or motion sickness, I highly recommend traveling with Nuun Sport rehydration tablets. We drank one per day while in Antarctica.
Chairs and tables are secured to the floor, ensuring they won’t tip over.
Although surfaces throughout the ship and in your cabin have a skid resistant covering and the tables have raised bumpers, they are no match for the powerful waves.
They also advise that you remove any fragile items (computers, camera equipment, etc.) from desks, cubby holes, bathrooms and side tables. It’s best to secure them so that they don’t tumble during the journey.
INSIDER TIP: To doubly protect our breakable equipment, we placed our cameras and computers inside our padded camera bags and stored those within our suitcases for extra padding. To minimize sleep disturbances, secure pill bottles so they don’t roll around.
In the hallways and stairwells, handrails are present. Use these at ALL times and always have one free hand. This will protect you if the ship leans sideways, as it’s prone to do.
On particularly rough days, they will have little bags at various intervals, the same kind you find in airplane seat back pockets. While I never had to use these, I appreciated having access to them.
Some ships have ginger chews aboard in a bowl, which I found helpful to ingest. Since they provide me with a lot of relief, I always travel with my own.
Both of our Antarctica expeditions had doctors aboard who could give Phenergan shots in the case of severe motion sickness. If you’re suffering from continual stomach nausea and dehydration, this can be a welcome solution as it will also help you sleep. Although I’ve never gotten the shot, one friend indicated it gave her a severe hangover-like headache the next day. So, I’d reserve this as a last resort.
Choose a lower level, mid-ship cabin available
To maximize stability, choose a cabin in the center of the ship and as low as possible. Any rooms at the front (bow) or back (stern) tend to move more. And, rooms on higher decks are less stable. We also like having a window to look out for perspective. While balconies can be great, they often add a significant premium to the price.
As a scuba diver who explores off the grid places around the world on small 16-20 passenger dive boats, we always choose the lowest mid-ship cabin available and it serves us well.
What causes the crazy weather in the Drake Passage?
Since there are no landmasses at the same latitude as the Drake Passage, the winds and the uninterrupted Antarctic Circumpolar Current can pick up considerable speed, leading to violent storms. It’s crazy to think that 600 times the Amazon River volume flows through here!
What do you do onboard during the Drake Passage Crossing?
Attend a presentation from one of the many wildlife and subject matter experts aboard. Learn about iceberg formation, penguins, whales, Shackleton’s journey, photography and much more. Ships always have excellent speakers on fascinating topics that will build your excitement and provide a foundation for all that you will see.
Hang out in the library to read or chat with other intrepid passengers and staff. Since those who travel to Antarctica are adventurous types, it’s the perfect time to share stories and discover new places to add to your ever-growing bucket list.
Head up to the bridge to converse with the captain and crew. I enjoyed checking out the nautical maps (even though I had no idea what I was looking at) and the expansive views from the elevated vantage point.
Gather on the bow or stern to photograph petrels, skua or albatross or see orca whales as we did!
With that, I’ve now shared all of my tips and tricks for surviving Drake Passage and combatting seasickness.
I hope my insights helped you realize crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica isn’t as bad as everyone imagines. And, you’ll keep busy and entertained with all the options aboard.