Even though the Northwest Passage has been opening up in summer almost every year since 2007, it still remains a tricky and difficult sea route for vessels due to sea ice and weather. Nonetheless, it fascinates people around the world to sail through this fascinating and mysterious waterway and numbers of tourists on small expedition cruise vessels have increased. Now, the ship owner Crystal Cruises plans to send the cruise ship Crystal Serenity with 1,070 passengers on board on the way through the passage. Concerns issued from experts and communities let the Canadian government watch closely the planning and implementation.

The 13-year old ship Crystal Serenity was built in France and performed its maiden voyage in 2003. It is almost 250 meters long. 32.31 meters wide and consists of 9 passenger decks for a total of 1,070 passengers. It has no ice class or ice strengthening and relies entirely on support vessels for its planned cruise. Picture: Bert76 www.wikipedia.com
The 13-year old ship Crystal Serenity was built in France and performed its maiden voyage in 2003. It is almost 250 meters long. 32.31 meters wide and consists of 9 passenger decks for a total of 1,070 passengers. It has no ice class or ice strengthening and relies entirely on support vessels for its planned cruise. Picture: Bert76 www.wikipedia.com

Amid concerns over navigating an icy, dangerous route, Canadian officials are working with Crystal Cruises to prevent potentially disastrous worst-case scenarios. While foreign vessels can sail in Canadian waters, Ottawa says it can order the ship, the Crystal Serenity, to find a different route if needed, or call in the defence department. All involved parties have gathered since 2014. The coast guard, which provides icebreaking services, “will continue to work in collaboration with Crystal Cruises' representatives to ensure a safe voyage," states Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo in an emailed statement. “Through our Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre in Iqaluit, the Canadian Coast Guard will monitor the voyage daily while it moves through the Northwest Passage,” added Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Carole Saindon. “Should a marine emergency arise, the Canadian Coast Guard will work with the Department of National Defence regarding the co-ordination of maritime response efforts." Canada will order the ship to find a different route if, "at any time, Transport Canada deems the voyage does not meet regulatory requirements or poses a safety concern," wrote Amber Wonko, a spokesperson for Transport Canada. If pollution occurs, the coast guard engages an “Environmental Response program,” she added. What amount and type of pollution is necessary for the program to kick in is unclear. Arctic scholar John Higginbotham also says it's still up for debate "whether it's entirely safe to take a ship with so many people on board through the Northwest Passage." Captain David (Duke) Snider, ex-Coast Guard Regional Director and now consultant for Martech Polar, states: “The biggest concern, of course, is this is the first time a full-on cruise ship of this size will attempt such a voyage. “Just about every possible option” for safety has been examined ahead of the journey, he adds further.

The RRS Ernest Shackleton is operated by the British Antarctic Survey and usually resupplies BAS bases in the Antarctic during Austral summers. It has ice-breaking capabilities and also carries a helicopter on board for survey tasks. Crystal has chartered the ship just for this one cruise. Picture: Brian Burnell www.wikipedia.com
The RRS Ernest Shackleton is operated by the British Antarctic Survey and usually resupplies BAS bases in the Antarctic during Austral summers. It has ice-breaking capabilities and also carries a helicopter on board for survey tasks. Crystal has chartered the ship just for this one cruise. Picture: Brian Burnell www.wikipedia.com

Two Transport Canada-approved ice navigators will be on the main ship, and a support vessel that has been used for the British Antarctic Survey, the Ernest Shackleton, has been commissioned, Capt. Snider said. That support ship has icebreaking capabilities and “a huge amount of experience as a ship in Antarctic and European Arctic waters.” It will carry another ice navigator, helicopters and other equipment for emergency response.

The trip sold out within a month of going on the market, said Ms. Morgan, spokeswoman of Crystal Cruises, “and there’s now a waiting list of more than 400.” Currently-listed prices start at $21,855 and go up to more than $120,000 per person (for a penthouse) based on double occupancy. Passengers need to show proof of an insurance plan that can cover up to $50,000 per person for emergency evacuation.

Many of the Norther communities along the Northwest Passage are beset by ice until late into the summer and can be supplied by air or ice-strengthened ships. The population of most of the places does not exceed 500 people. This raises concerns of visiting ships with 1,000 and more passengers.
Many of the Norther communities along the Northwest Passage are beset by ice until late into the summer and can be supplied by air or ice-strengthened ships. The population of most of the places does not exceed 500 people. This raises concerns of visiting ships with 1,000 and more passengers.

The Crystal Serenity departs Anchorage, Alaska Aug. 16. It hits its first Canadian destination about 10 days later and arrives in Greenland by Sept. 7, finally disembarking in New York City Sept. 17. Several communities in the Canadian north are listed on the itinerary, including Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on Baffin Island. Captain Snider says: “When we go into these communities, we have to be aware of their footprint and their survival.” To Capt. Snider’s knowledge, the cruise line is working with communities on “clearly restricting impact.” They won’t dump 1,000 tourists into a village of 500 people all at once, he said. Crystal’s website states it will only conduct visits “under the approval of the local communities.” Andrea Charron, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, said she’s nervous about the tourism industry’s characterization of the north as “quaint,” instead of a dangerous place where communities are quite sensitive. She said the idea of local participation is good, but the concept of “clearing out a store until the next year when they can get resupplied” is a real concern—and some tourists treat villages like “museum pieces,” forgetting they are among real people’s homes. “If this is a resounding success, it may encourage other cruise ships to give it a go, and they may not have the same sort of resources or planning that Crystal has. And that’s concerning,” Ms. Charron said. According to Duke Snider, a “professional expedition team” will also be on board, consisting of 14 Arctic experts. They’ll be offering lectures, seminars and workshops to passengers. “I see what Crystal has been doing as very proactive,” Capt. Snider said. “This is about as well-put-together as it can be.” This kind of traffic is likely to increase in coming years, he said—the cruise line announced March 1 it's already planning another voyage through the passage for 2017—especially as climate change causes sea water to warm up and ice to melt.

The coastal towns in Greenland and Canada are usually small with only a couple of hundred people. Cruise ships calling in at these places like these two ship at the town of Sisimiut in West Greenland may have a positive impact on the local economy; but it comes with a cost when several hundred or even thousands of tourists swarm through the town. Picture: Michael Wenger
The coastal towns in Greenland and Canada are usually small with only a couple of hundred people. Cruise ships calling in at these places like these two ship at the town of Sisimiut in West Greenland may have a positive impact on the local economy; but it comes with a cost when several hundred or even thousands of tourists swarm through the town. Picture: Michael Wenger

Source: Marie-Danielle Smith, Embassy