When Canadian explorer Roald Amundsen traversed the Northwest Passage in a tiny wooden boat from 1903 to 1906, he likely never envisioned that a little more than a century later, a 1,725-person vessel would sail through the same waters during the course of just a week, enabled by shrinking ice cover from global warming.
This summer, the Crystal Cruises’ Serenity — the largest passenger cruise ship ever to attempt to navigate through the treacherous waters of the famed Northwest Passage — will depart from Seward, Alaska on August 16, bound for New York City via the top of North America.
The voyage is sold out, according to Paul Garcia, the chief spokesman for the cruise line.
“In terms of guest capacity, we would be the most guests to go through the Arctic in one vessel,” Garcia told Mashable. He said there is already “strong interest” in the planned 2017 cruise.
The Crystal Cruises ship signals the arrival of a new era of mass tourist exploration of the once inaccessible and virtually pristine Arctic Ocean. It brings with it hopes of economic benefits for the Far North, as well as fears of difficult to manage environmental and human accidents taking place far from any search and rescue bases.
The Serenity’s planned voyage presents significant challenges for search and rescue agencies that would be tasked with responding to any incidents at sea, particularly since the ship will be operating in remote locations and in harsh weather conditions.
To make things more interesting, it will also be traversing relatively uncharted waters and ice-covered seas.
To try to plan for an emergency involving the Serenity or other vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian Coast Guard and other agencies will conduct emergency exercises on April 13.
Global warming is increasing human access
Companies like Crystal Cruises are taking the opportunity to pioneer expeditions that would have been deemed impossible just a decade ago. Until 2007, the Northwest Passage had never been considered ice-free in all of human history.
On Monday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that sea ice reached a record low wintertime extent after a bizarrely mild winter affected nearly the entire Arctic. This could set up the sea ice for a record melt in the summer, though this is not a guarantee.
Although Crystal Cruises, along with other companies, are intent on navigating the passage for profit, it’s not a given that the route will be open for business even in milder-than-average summers.
The passage is unlike other maritime choke points like the Suez Canal or Strait of Malacca. It is not a clearly marked channel, but rather a loosely defined waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through North American Arctic waters. For example, the Passage includes the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which contains 36,000 islands.
“We would be the most guests to go through the Arctic in one vessel.”
Boats can choose to follow several routes around these obstacles, generally either north through the Parry Channel, or the southern route passing south of Victoria Island, according to a recent Arctic marine shipping report for Copenhagen Business School.
Even though sea ice cover across the Arctic Ocean is dwindling year-by-year, studies show there could still be enough sea ice present in the Northwest Passage to render the route infeasible for reliable navigation for another four decades.
A study published in 2015 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, for example, found considerable amounts of thick ice present in the Northwest Passage, with cooler-than-average air temperatures compared to other parts of the Arctic at that time.
“… The observed thicknesses and amount of deformed ice still indicate serious ice conditions which can persist throughout the summers and provide ample potential for encounters with hazardous ice,” the study found. “… Therefore, shipping through the [Northwest Passage] should not be taken lightly.”
A cruise with an icebreaker escort
As added insurance, the Serenity will be accompanied by an escort ship that will have a helicopter on board to look for ice ahead of the ship’s course. This ship will also serve as an icebreaker.
Paul Garcia, director of public relations for Crystal Cruises, said the escort vessel will be capable of clearing the way for Serenity if it were to encounter significant ice floes.
“I can assure you it is a vessel that has the highest icebreaking capabilities,” Garcia said about the escort ship, noting that the contract for its use in 2016 has not yet been finalized.
“It is no stranger to the Arctic region,” he said. “We’re taking all precautionary measures to make sure it is a safe voyage.”
There have already been several close calls involving passenger ships in the Arctic. In 1996, the cruise ship Hanseatic ran aground in the Simpson Strait, forcing an evacuation of 153 passengers.
In 2010, the vessel Clipper Adventurer ran aground in the Coronation Gulf of the Northwest Passage with 118 passengers and 69 crew aboard. It was rescued by a Canadian ice breaker which happened to be deployed relatively close to the vessel at the time.
According to the Copenhagen Business School report, the Canadian Coast Guard has estimated it will have a response time of 11 hours for ocean-going vessels in its Arctic waters, which could be too late to prevent deaths in an incident involving a large cruise ship with so many passengers.
Fears of an accident
The Northwest Passage offers few easy options for safe passage of a large ship like the Serenity. The so-called southern passage includes several narrow, shallow waterways that pose dangers for large cruise vessels, whereas the northern route, which tends to have more ice even at the end of the summer melt season, is more suitable for larger ships.
According to NASA, the northern route was considered mostly ice-filled for the sake of navigation during most of the 2015 melt season, despite the southern route’s mostly ice-free status.
The Crystal Serenity weighs 68,870 tons and is 820 feet long, making it a challenge to navigate in the narrow, ice-choked waters that can be found even at the end of the summer melt season in the region.
“We’re taking all precautionary measures to make sure it is a safe voyage.”
Garcia said the cruise schedule is designed to be flexible to allow the captain and the ship’s handpicked Arctic navigation specialists to wait out any inclement weather or threatening ice conditions.
“We may encounter some potential delays but that’s why we’ve communicated way in advance that this is a 32-day style expedition,” Garcia said in an interview.
A nightmare scenario for such cruises involves emergencies that would require rescue in remote locations, along with transport for medical help that is located far outside the region. It’s only in the past few years that the U.S. and Canadian authorities have begun planning in earnest for increased ocean traffic in the increasingly accessible Arctic.
The U.S. Coast Guard lacks a permanent Arctic base from which to conduct search and rescue operations, let alone clean up oil spills, which was a major sticking point in the planning process for Shell’s oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Coast Guard is beefing up its presence at Port Resolute in Nunavut.
And Crystal Cruises is requiring all passengers to purchase at least $50,000 in emergency evacuation repatriation insurance in order to participate in the cruise, due to the high cost of medical evacuations from Arctic waters.
The cruise company says it will be taking steps to minimize air and water pollution during the voyage, and enhanced safety measures including putting more trained personnel in ice avoidance techniques on the ship’s bridge.
In addition, the cruise line says it is putting two ice searchlights, a high-resolution radar and other equipment on board the Serenity to search for underwater obstructions or uncharted rocks. Maritime charts in parts of the Arctic are considered to be unreliable because there have been so few ships transiting that area before.
Even before the ship gets to the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims is in its waters but America treats as an international waterway, it will be transiting through remote parts of Alaska that have few search and rescue assets.
Richard Beneville, the mayor of Nome, Alaska, where the ship is making a stop on Aug. 21, told The Guardian that he is concerned about the size of the ship coming to his small community.
“If something were to go wrong it would be very, very bad,” he said. “Most cruise ships that get here have passenger manifests of 100, maybe 150. This is a very different ship.”
Even Robert Papp, a former Coast Guard admiral and current special envoy to the Arctic for Secretary of State John Kerry, has expressed concern about this ship specifically, but also about the uptick in shipping and lack of permanent infrastructure to respond to accidents.
A “once in a lifetime trip”
Garcia described the voyage as a “once-in-a-lifetime trip” for the ship’s guests to visit areas that have long been off limits to human exploration to anyone except for scientists and members of the military.
For this summer’s cruise, the ship is slated to leave from Seward, near Anchorage, Alaska, on Aug. 16, travel through the stormy Bering Straight, north of Alaska, through the famed Northwest Passage, over the top of North America, down the west coast of Greenland — stopping at ports along the way — before finally docking in New York on Sept. 17.
The cost of the trip begins at $21,855 per person, based on double occupancy, on up to $120,995 per person for a luxury stateroom.
A fact sheet about the cruise advertises the opportunity for guests to “experience Crystal Cruises’ first expedition-style cruise and our maiden transit of the renowned Northwest Passage.”
Crystal is preparing a variety of unorthodox shore excursions for its cruise ship passengers, including visiting local communities that have no prior experience hosting cruises before, such as remote Inuit villages with limited docking facilities.
According to the company, Crystal Cruises has been considering the idea of a Northwest Passage cruise since 2013, and has been working with polar experts and Canadian authorities about the “feasibility and scope of the transit.”