Due to global warming, the Northwest Passage—the famed high Arctic route that links the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans—is increasingly ice-free, opening a great—if still risky—adventure to more ships. This month, Crystal Cruises’ 68,000-gross-ton, 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity became the largest cruise ship ever to complete the journey—a controversial feat.
For most of the year, the Northwest Passage is frozen solid and impassable. During a brief summer window, the ice melts and breaks up. NASA satellite photographs showed the southern, or Amundsen route, was nearly ice-free in mid-August when Crystal Serenity began its voyage.
However, the journey sparked some bad press. Critics called the trip “extinction tourism,” warned about the large ship’s carbon footprint and the dangers of taking tourists into remote places, and surmised that Inuit communities would be overwhelmed.
Luckily, Crystal had spent four years of preparation to address these concerns.
Crystal’s Northwest Passage feasibility study involved all the relevant Canadian authorities and consulted communities via town hall meetings, elders, and hunting and fishing associations. When it came to garbage, wastewater, exhaust emissions, and community impact, “We’ve taken extraordinary precautions and care in the Northwest Passage. Everyone has a vested interest in protecting what’s up here,” said John Stoll, Crystal’s Northwest Passage project manager. On its voyage, the ship left no waste and burned only low sulfur fuel.
Any passenger going ashore had to attend an hour-long briefing and sign up for community visits at set times. These ensured that no more than 150 to 200 visitors were in town at a time. At its Arctic stops, Crystal Serenity donated money and school supplies and hired as many local people as possible. Passengers spent tens of thousands of dollars on art and handicrafts at each port—the kind of commerce that sustains traditional culture. The Nunavit News/North reported that passengers spent $120,000 at Cambridge Bay, population 1,600. Local officials said the Crystal visitors arrived in small, organized groups and the town was “not overpopulated.”
While the Northwest Passage is at a historic low for ice, Crystal played it safe, chartering an icebreaker escort and engaging a respected company, Expedition Voyage Consultants, to help plan and execute the trip. The icebreaker carried two helicopters, a remotely operated vehicle, and extra emergency equipment. A team of 21 polar experts went along.
“From the government’s perspective, this is setting a new bar that others should aspire to,” said Andrew Orawiec of Nunavut’s tourism and culture division.
An ardent cruise traveler, I did not want to miss this historic voyage. The 32-day cruise embarked at Seward and headed north over the top of Alaska into Canada’s Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The course continued through Baffin Bay along the coast of Greenland and south to New York City. I, however, joined the ship at remote Cambridge Bay and sailed to Pond Inlet, experiencing the heart of the Northwest Passage.
There has never been so little ice in the Northwest Passage, so the captain, Birger Vorland, had to go looking for it. He steered Crystal Serenity to a pair of icebergs, circling at a comfortable distance. It snowed enough over several days that we could make snowmen on deck.
We explored the region by Zodiac, fast boat, kayak, hike, and helicopter. Landing by Zodiacs at windswept Beechey Island, a haunting outpost with the graves of early explorers, we saw claw marks on barrel staves at an old supply depot. Expedition team members patrolled with rifles should a polar bear approach.
Inuit communities warmly welcomed us with eye-opening cultural exchanges. They demonstrated throat singing, drum dancing, athletic feats, seal skinning, and other crafts and skills. Crystal Serenity was the first passenger ship to call at Ulukhaktok, and the whole town turned out to witness it. Another town, Pond Inlet, welcomes small expedition vessels, but not all ships work with communities the way Crystal has.
The scenery everywhere was spectacular. As we transited narrow Bellot Strait with its dangerous currents, shoals, and hidden rocks, some were lucky to glimpse the elusive narwhal.
“This is, by far, the most prepared and planned cruise ever sailed by anyone, anywhere,” Captain Vorland said. Vorland added that the ship and its passengers were safe, as well as safe for the area in which it sailed.
“We’re going here now because we can and it’s exciting,” the captain added, noting that throughout history, humans have followed the retreating ice. “And we’re raising a lot of awareness of the area, an understanding of the Arctic communities and their way of life.”
Crystal plans to repeat the expedition in 2017.
Anne Kalosh doesn't count the cruises she's taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she's on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.