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The Drake Passage

SeaWiFS saw a well-defined eddy in the Drake Passage in this view. The difference in surface albedo between the eddy and the surrounding waters is quite large. (Photo: SeaWiFS Project)

Drake Passage is a strait between Southern Chile and the Antarctic South Shetland Islands connecting the South Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The narrow shelves on both sides of the Strait steeply slope from few hundred meters to more than 3,000 meters water depth. Fracture zones, seamounts and small basins originating from plate tectonic movement structure the bottom of the Drake Passage. The strait is known as the roughest ocean in the World.


In 1577, the English navigator Sir Francis Drake was sent to enter the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Magellan, and to find and to explore the great southern continent. Although Drake did not know it at that time, it could be said that he was the leader of the first Antarctic expedition. The small fleet reached the Strait of Magellan on August 17, 1578, however, the next day they were hit by a severe storm and blown off course. They ended up going around the southernmost tip of South America, later called Cape Horn (see below). The waters between South America and Antarctica were named ‘Drake Passage’ after the famous explorer.


The Drake Passage is an area of substantial heat and water exchange between the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Ocean basins. For example, the Pacific Ocean exports half a Quintillion (a 5 with 14 zeros) Watt of heat energy southwards, while the Atlantic receives roughly the same amount of energy from the South. Thus, the Southern Ocean plays a key role in the global heat and water circulation, which in turn regulates the global climate.


Penguins will go over 400 kilometers away from land for food search in the Drake Passage. Albatrosses, whales, and seals are other abundant seabirds and marine species in the waters between the two continents.



Main islands and island groups:

South Shetland Islands, Horn Island (Tierra del Fuego Archipelago), Isla de los Estados

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