Cruise Ship Set to Sail the Perilous Northwest Passage

Crystal Cruises will sail a ship with over 1,000 passengers through the legendary—and deadly—Arctic route

Alaska Ship
A cruise ship in Alaska, similar to the one that will cross the Northwest Passage in August Mark Kelley/Design Pics/Corbis

It took humanity several centuries and uncounted deaths to finally cross the Northwest Passage, the legendary sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a maze-like, mostly frozen path through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Franklin Expedition and its 149 sailors famously disappeared in 1847. The McClure Expedition spent 3 years on their ships trapped by ice and starving. It wasn’t until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally completed the route after a grueling three-year expedition. Now, 110 years later, the first full-size cruise ship has announced plans to traverse the Passage.

The Crystal Cruises ship Crystal Serenity will set out from Seward, Alaska, on August 16 carrying 1,700 passengers and crew through the icy waters to New York City during a 32-day luxury trip. According to Sophie Jamieson at The Telegraph, the ship will offer excursions to sites in Alaska, Pond Inlet and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut as well as several communities in Greenland. Visitors will be able to go whale and polar bear watching, take helicopter flights to the interior and even visit the world’s most northerly golf course.

In recent years, reduced sea ice has made the once iced-in Northwest Passage look like a viable shipping route. According to Discovery News, 220 ships, including several small “adventure” cruises had made the crossing as of 2014. That same year, a cargo ship made the first commercial crossing through the Passage. But a report from New York University published last year pours some icy water on dreams of a shipping route over the top of North America, saying the Passage is still too dangerous for commercial use and will be for several decades.

Still, the tourist ships are coming, but Nunuvut, the Northwest Territories and Greenland aren’t normal cruise destinations. Jane George of Nunatsiaq Online reports that local officials are holding meetings to figure out how to handle the influx of tourists, especially since the Crystal Serenity holds more people than the population of most towns in the area.

The government is taking precautions too. According to Discovery News, the United States Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Alaska State Emergency offices, Crystal Cruises and Alaska’s North Slope Borough will all meet next month to discuss plans in case things go awry. And there is a precedent for accidents. In 2010 the Clipper Adventurer, a tourist boat carrying about 200 passengers ran aground on a rock shoal in the Northwest Passage, leading to an evacuation by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

There are also environmental concerns. The Crystal Serenity will be tailed by an oil clean-up ship just in case, and it will burn a low-sulphur oil to reduce its carbon footprint. The ship has also agreed to hold onto sewage and other waste that cruise ships normally dump into the ocean until it reaches the Atlantic.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK is not impressed. He tells Jamieson at The Telegraph, “The melting of the Arctic sea ice should be a profound warning for humankind, not an invitation to oil companies and now tour ships to move in.”

Still, as long as the Crystal Serenity finds smooth sailing, the trips will continue. The company recently began booking for another trip through the passage in 2017 and announced that the world’s largest mega yacht, the Crystal Endeavor, will visit the area in 2018. That trip offers “extreme adventures by air, sea and land” and will bring with it jet skis, ATVs, seven-person submarines, eight electric zodiacs and two helicopters.