Student planning trip along the Drake Passage to Antarctica



Abigail Hollingsworth said she will inevitably spend at least five days this January throwing up.

It's called the Drake Passage. It's a stretch of water from South America at Cape Horn, Chile, and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. The 500-mile long passage is the shortest crossing to Antarctica. Other shipping routes are narrow, and often blocked off by large masses of ice, literally leaving ships ice-bound. Therefore, Drake is the only reliable route to Antarctica.

As a fifth-year senior studying conservation biology, Hollingsworth, a Lexington native, will be braving these elements on her way to a research expedition to study invertebrate lifeforms in Antarctica later this month.

The two to four-day journey is notorious for being the most treacherous sea-route in the world.

Drake is unpredictable but often ferocious, often stirring with 30-foot waves, but the waves can grow menacingly larger, or disappear entirely in a once-in-a-season rare period of calm, what is commonly referred to as Drake Lake.

Geography instructor Leann Yates said the conditions at Drake's passage are particularly intense for two reasons: the first because of the surface waves, and the second the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

"The waves created are some of the largest waves in the world," Yates said. " It's an interesting sidenote that (Fernidad) Magellan, a very famous sailor once tried to sail the passage, and he couldn't do it. He failed."

Hollingsworth said she is not scared, but rather excited.

"I care very deeply about the environment, and we're sampling a lot of areas that haven't been sampled," Hollingsworth said. "It's incredibly cool. I have nightmares that it's not happening."

The trip will last from Dec. 28 to Feb. 15 and will begin in Punte Arena, Chile. From that point, they will take a research vessel down to Antarctica. After Jan. 11, they will travel to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Hollingsworth is partaking in the trip as a research assistant for Biology Professor Andrew Mahon, who has been to Antarctica twice before — once in 1994, and another time in 2006.

Mahon said Antarctica holds a variety of creatures that are incredibly unique to the region.

The research group, which will be sampling DNA from several different invertebrate species to learn about their genetics and ancestral history, will be comprised of Hollingsworth and Mahon, along with Hazel Park senior Carlos Coronado, faculty from the University of Alabama and Auburn University, and a group of international researchers.

Hollingsworth spent last summer as Mahon's research assistant, so she is no stranger to the research they will be performing. But seeing Antarctica for the first time will be an entirely new event.

The research in the past has had the tendency to reveal previously undiscovered species, with the previous expedition uncovering four new species. Sometimes these species are not easy to explain, one new group of starfish was composed with the genetics of an Antarctic species, and a South American species. Mahon said it is unknown how exactly such a species could be created.

"It's so untouched," Hollingsworth said. "I feel almost guilty about going down there and touching it. It just isn't something you get to experience anymore — nature undisturbed by human activity."

Hollingsworth will visit Antarctica in its summer, the warmest and least hostile time of year. She will also be sheltered at McMurdo station, a research center. She will be able to send out emails to her family and friends every half an hour, and will be surrounded by individuals who have experienced Antarctica before.

But there is still a level of danger to the trip, even after they get past Drake Passage.

"I have had to go through full physical, dentist appointments, eye appointments, everything, a ton of medical tests," Hollingsworth said. "If something goes wrong, there's not a medical facility for hundreds of miles, so they make sure you're in top physical shape."

The most expensive item for Hollingsworth was a pair of prescription sunglasses, which protect her from the sun's glare which is magnified and reflected by the ice, risking retinal damage to anyone unprotected.

For Hollingsworth, the trials and hardships of the trip will be undeniably worth it as the trip is an opportunity for her to alert other to the importance of conservation, which, in regards to biology, is her passion.

"People don't tend to miss what they don't know they have," Hollingsworth said. "A lot of these samples will be used for teaching purposes. The more people know what is there, how nature is ultimately interconnected, they'll know that there is to save"


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