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  HOME | Science, Nature & Technology

Drake Passage: Turbulent Test for 80 Women Scientists en route to Antarctica

DRAKE PASSAGE – Calm gradually returns to the B/M Ushuaia, where 80 leading scientists from around the world, all women, were facing a great challenge on their way to Antarctica: the waters of Drake Passage, considered by sailors to be one of the stormiest sea passages on the planet.

On day two of the expedition, six hours after leaving port in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, the scientists began to feel the swell of Drake Passage, also known as Mar de Hoces, where, according to the mainly Argentine and Chilean crew on board, waves can reach up to 10 meters (32 feet) and winds regularly hit 150 kph (93 mph).

For the majority of participants on the Australian program Homeward Bound, an initiative that seeks to heighten the influence and impact of female global leaders and incorporates specialists in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, the four-meter waves are a far cry from their usual lives in academia.

Some of them, such as oceanographers and marine biologists, may be accustomed to traveling the open ocean, but the rough seas on this passage, which takes its name from English explorer Francis Drake (1540-96), were unfamiliar to most.

“This was a terrible experience,” said Tayyaba Zafar, a Pakistani astronomer who had to get an injection to ward of seasickness. “I have never seen such movement, it was a terrible, terrible experience,” she added.

Halfway through the journey, the winds picked up, pulling waves from two to four meters high.

The waves rolled the boat from side to side, prompting doors to open and slam shut and equipment to fall from cabins.

The recommendation from the crew was simply to stay in bed.

“Although the most common effect is dizziness, there can also be traumas and falls,” said Carla Duque, a Venezuelan doctor in charge of medical care on the Ushuaia. “Most of all, there are traumas when people get their fingers trapped in doors, which has led to amputations,” she added.

Despite the adverse conditions, crossing the passage is an obligation in order to reach the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica.

For Sophie Adams, clinical director at Orygen, Australia’s Center for Excellence in Youth Mental Health, the journey was about strengthening leadership, teamwork and female resilience, as well as courage.

One of the reasons for going to Antarctica, according to Adams, was to “test resilience.”

On the night of the third day, the sea began to calm and the explorers, some still suffering from nausea, left their cabins in better shape.

“It was an interesting experience, on the first morning we felt terrible and I had to spend the whole night asleep,” Venezuelan geochemist Ines Melendez told EFE.

“It was very quiet in the common areas. But when it was all over and we started to see land, things started to look up,” she said.

On the morning of the fourth day, the group was able to see the South Shetland Islands, where the boat finally arrived into Maxwell Bay. It would be the first day they would get to set foot on Antarctica.

Homeward Bound left Ushuaia, considered the world’s most southernmost city, on Dec. 31.

Argentina’s Carlini scientific research station, Paulet Island, which is home to a breeding colony of thousands of Adelie penguins, and Palmer Station, a research base belonging to the United States, were among the scheduled stops.


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