The first-ever cruise through the Northwest Passage has set sail

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A tourist vessel outside the hamlet of Kimmirut in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

In 1969, the first commercial cargo ship sailed through the Northwest Passage.

In 2013, the first bulk carrier traversed those same icy waters.

And today from the southern Alaskan port of Seward, the luxury cruise vessel Crystal Serenity set off on its historic 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage. If it successfully completes the journey, Crystal Serenity will be the first-ever cruise ship to ply these waters. You can keep track of the ship’s location hereCrystal Serenity has sailed on cruises around Antarctica before, but this will be it’s first time heading to the northern polar region.

The 69,000-ton, 820-foot ship is ferrying 800-odd guests, all of whom paid at least $21,855 for their ticket (except maybe the lone travel journalist, who will be blogging about the cruise). The fact that Crystal Cruises, a luxury outfitter if there ever was one, spells out a dress code for its passengers should give you an idea of the type of well-heeled passengers they hope to attract. Here’s one sampler warning: “After 6 pm, casual daytime attire is not appropriate. Shorts and baseball caps are not permitted for men or women.” In other words, please keep all those “ALASKA: THE LAST FRONTIER” baseball caps you picked up at the airport in Anchorage in your suitcase for the next month.

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Crystal Serenity in Antarctica. Photo: Crystal Cruises

The envy-inducing Northwest Passage itinerary includes stops in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and New England and will wrap up in New York City (where it’s been swelteringly humid lately). Passengers will have the opportunity to go out to shore in zodiacs with biologist guides, listen to lectures by the likes of University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic affairs, and yes – even watch a ventriloquist perform. (His name is Mark Merchant, in case you were wondering.) In case that isn’t enough, there will even be a gemstone trunk show while on board. All while those icebergs glide silently by.

Here are some photos of the types of vistas passengers will enjoy.

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A fjord on Baffin Island, where Crystal Serenity will sail on September 5. Photo: Adam Monier/Flickr. Creative Commons License 2.0
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An iceberg in Disko Bay off Ilulissat, which Crystal Serenity will visit on September 7. Photo: Sarah Cooley
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The town of Sisimiut, Greenland, where Crystal Serenity will dock on September 8.


Escort ship RMS Earnest Shackleton will guide the luxury yacht through the icy waters, while onboard, two experienced ice pilots will help the captain navigate. Crystal Serenity will also be using a higher grade of fuel than mandated to do its part to be green.

Still, despite the three years of preparation that have gone into making this voyage, a lot of concerns remain. First of all, just because the ice is melting doesn’t mean the waters are that much easier to sail. In fact, the opposite could be true since shifting sea ice makes for more volatile and unpredictable conditions. The Northwest Passage is already quite shallow and narrow in parts, and making matters worse, several parts of it have not been charted since the early 1900s. During my fieldwork in the Northwest Territories earlier this summer, one person told me that he thought Crystal Serenity’s crew would have to rely on old maps for some parts of the voyage.

Second, there is not a single hospital along the shores of the Northwest Passage. Children in Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, spend a day and a half flying 2,000 kilometers to Edmonton to get a mere tooth filled. There is a good hospital in a Inuvik and scattered medical facilities in the small towns that dot the Canadian Arctic, too. But in the event of a serious catastrophe in which hundreds of passengers require medical attention, the region just simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.

Two years ago, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, I examined what would happen if a jet plane went down in the Arctic. That situation sounded scary, but those planes usually carry somewhere in the ballpark of 300 passengers. This cruise ship has over three times that.

For most people, a cruise through the Arctic is not going to be within a lifetime’s reach. But there is a way to sail through the north on the cheap.

Four years ago, I paid $73 for a 17-hour journey onboard a Hurtigruten ship from Tromsø to the Lofoten Islands. Hurtigruten ships are far more pedestrian than Crystal Cruises affairs. After all, they’re still pretty much working boats that ferry mail and supplies, along with tourists, up and down the coast of northern Norway. My ticket explained, “Our ships carry goods, vehicles and foot passengers between ports, during day and night, as an integral part of Norwegian daily life. Our ships are calling at ports around the clock. You may expect some noise and vibration in a few cabins during loading of goods.”

In hindsight, yes: I would willingly save over $21,000 to sail through the Arctic if it just meant that I had to put up with some noise. My cut-rate student fare didn’t buy me a room, but it did get me a blanket that I could cozy up with in the commons area once everyone else had retired to their cabins.

Once daylight broke, I stood outside on the icy deck with a group of German tourists, who all wore matching misshapen beanies that said “Hunting the Light.” This sort of kitsch is probably not what Crystal Cruises, enemy of all baseball-cap wearing Americans, has in mind.

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Beanie-wearing German tourists on board a Hurtigruten vessel off northern Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett
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A Hurtigruten ship: essentially a working vessel that carries tourists. Photo: Mia Bennett.


With Crystal Serenity focusing on the icy and pristine, it obviously won’t be taking tourists to see the blight that exists throughout the Canadian Arctic. Amongst the ruins of bygone development are untethered oil rigs, and perhaps soon, the Port of Churchill. Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port was shut for good earlier this month and is now hoping for a government bailout. These are the type of rusty, gritty places that you’d have a better chance of getting to with a good pair of boots than wingtips.

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An abandoned oil drilling platform off Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo: Mia Bennett


Although it’s unclear what will happen to the forlorn Port of Churchill, if all goes according to plan, Crystal Serenity will dock in New York City on September 17 and its passengers will waltz into the bejeweled night. If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration doesn’t decide to rescue the port, perhaps Churchill could look to the Chinese. That first bulk carrier that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2013 is owned by a Chinese-state owned company, the first cargo ship to make the trip in decades the following year was Chinese-chartered, and I’d venture that a fair number of tourists on Crystal Serenity are from China, too.

So the first-ever cruise through Canada’s fabled passage is headed northwest, but really in the Arctic, all signs are pointing east. I guess those people five hundred years ago who thought the Northwest Passage would lead to the riches of Cathay have finally been proven right.

***

“We were the first that ever burst
into that silent sea.”

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)

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