What is the Drake Passage?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The Drake Passage is the stretch of ocean between the south tip of South America, also known as Cape Horn or Tierra del Fuego, part of Chile, and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake Passage is famous for being the site of some of the roughest and most unforgiving waters of the world, also among the world’s coldest, as they are part of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a freezing current that endlessly circles the world’s southernmost continent, Antarctica. It is this current that is responsible for turning Antarctica from a temperate forest continent into a frigid wasteland covered by mile-thick glaciers over the course of millions of years.

Antarctica's ice sheet contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water.
Antarctica's ice sheet contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water.

The Drake Passage is named for the 16th century privateer (state-sponsored pirate) Sir Francis Drake, who traversed the passage after his ship was accidentally blown far south during an attempt to cross at the Strait of Magellan, a smaller passage between the Pacific and Atlantic located to the north. The passage was actually probably discovered first by the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces, who found it under similar circumstances, but did not end up traversing the passage, instead going through the Strait of Magellan. For this reason, the passage is sometimes called the Mar de Hoces by Latin and Spanish historians.

The Drake Passage is the stretch of ocean south of South America.
The Drake Passage is the stretch of ocean south of South America.

The latitudes at which the Drake Passage exists are somewhat unique is that they are among the only consistent east-west stretches of unbroken ocean on the planet, the only other latitudes with this quality being those of the Arctic Ocean, most of which are almost always blocked by sea ice. The only islands at the latitudes of the Drake Passage are the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic and the South Macquerie Islands south of New Zealand, land bodies too small to seriously influence the flow of ocean currents.

Despite being the largest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Drake Passage has relatively little ship traffic, as most shipping routes between the two oceans go through the Strait of Magellan. This was not the case for much of history, as it is easier for sailing ships to maneuver within the Passage than the Strait, which is narrow and often icebound or so windy that a safe passage is impossible. Today, using ships with engines that can be maneuvered precisely, the Strait of Magellan tends to be a faster route.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Oh, and by the way, if Drake has been popularized and elevated to the altars of history it's because of his own sponsors in -- yep you guessed it -- Hollywood and UK historians. The dude was no more than a pirate, bandit, thief, murderer and a coward (as tagged by his own fellow English navy officers; check out the facts on the English counter-armada expedition in 1589 against La Coruña (Spain), Lisbon and Santander, which was as big as the Spanish one in the previous year, and which set sail the year following the 1588 Spanish Armada as a token of revenge from Queen Elizabeth I. How many people know about this historical episode out there? Only a few. But some (clueless and brown-nosing movie directors, of course) have even made movies about the defeat of the Spanish Armada, I don't know for what reason. The defeat of the English Armada the following year was even worse, which was followed by even more tail-kicking by Spain, both in Europe and the New World during the six-year 1585-1604 Anglo-Spanish war. Once again, your own age of discovery starts today.


The first man to circumvent the globe was the Spaniard (from Getaria, Basque Country) Juan Sebastián Elcano, second in command of a Spanish exploration fleet that set sail on 20 September 1519, who took over after Magellan died in the Philippines and arriving at Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Cádiz, Spain on September 6, 1522 aboard the ship "Victoria", the only surviving ship of three along with only 18 survivors after a 3-year voyage around the world (the first globe circumnavigation in history).

As usual, and thanks to Hollywood and decades of (fake) UK and US propaganda topped with much jealousy, 99 percent of the people everywhere are clueless about the true facts of Spanish history and feats during the amazing golden age of exploration, before and for sure after. Start reading and researching guys. Your own trip of discovery starts today.


It made me dizzy looking at the monster waves in Drakes Passage that I saw on an internet site. They are just huge, rocking large ships and cruise ships in all directions.

I viewed waves on videos and in photos that were crashing up onto the decks. I wonder how many people in the cruise ships couldn't keep their meals down?

It's hard to imagine that sailors from decades past could possibly get across this passage in their small sailing ships. I wonder how many didn't make it. These were some brave souls who went on those voyages.


Do you know, I was just reading a book about this. Apparently, sailing through the Drake passage from east to west is a nightmare for sailors, since the waters of the Atlantic Ocean meet the Pacific. It causes some wild, windy and cold weather.

Even though the journey through the Drake Passage was dangerous with wild weather, most early sailors took this route. It was easier than maneuvering through the Straits of Magellan.


@robbie21 - Well, because Magellan's mission was successful even though he himself was not, people do remember him as the first to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman, though. (And don't you like the idea of basically having a pirate license? All right, you can go out and sink and plunder ship and put their crews to the sword, but only if they are French.)


I've heard that although they often say Magellan was the first person to sail around the world, he didn't really finish. He was killed in some sort of brawl or knife fight or something, but his crew did continue. (We talk about the leader - "Columbus," "Magellan," "Lewis and Clark" - and tend to forget that they had dozens of equally brave, equally endangered support staff along with them.)

So if Magellan didn't really sail around the world, was Sir Francis Drake the first?

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