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Cruise ship set to traverse treacherous Northwest Passage

Caroline Floyd

Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 1:21 PM - Crystal Cruises is planning to take on a voyage that stymied hundreds of explorers from the 15th to 20th centuries, as the luxury line embarks on a sailing through the Northwest Passage in August 2016.

The sailing is set to depart from Seward, Alaska on August 16, 2016 and arrive in New York City 32 days later, following the path of the first successful explorer, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who finally conquered the passage in 1906 after a three year journey.

As the extent of Arctic sea ice shrinks, the treacherous passage has become more accessible to shipping lines, but the journey of the 250 metre-long luxury cruise ship may mark the beginning a new - and some say dangerous - era for the icy waterway.

The planned itinerary of the August 2016 sailing. Image courtesy Crystal Cruises.

The northern Canadian waterways have been drawing the attention of merchants for hundreds of years - the search for a viable sea route from Europe to Asia was what spurred explorers to make their often disastrous attempts to sail the Arctic archipelago in the first place.

More than 200 successful transits of the route had been completed as of 2014, but it wasn't until 2007 that sea ice extent had retreated enough to make the straits accessible to ships traveling in summer without an ice breaker. This has attracted renewed interest in the route for commercial shipping.

With scientists forecasting the Arctic to be almost entirely ice free during the summer months within 25 years, the potential for increased profit seems to go hand in hand with increased danger, both to the people making the trip, and to the already fragile Arctic environment.

The luxury vessel Crystal intends to send through next year - loaded with 1,050 passengers and 650 crew members - is on an entirely different scale than ships that usually navigate the Arctic waters.

Crystal Cruises' ship Serenity.

Speaking to The Guardian, mayor Richard Beneville of Nome, Alaska - one of the intended stops on the itinerary - said, "Most cruise ships that get here have passenger manifests of 100, maybe 150. This is a very different ship."

Preparations for the sailing have become an international effort. Next month five agencies, including the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards and Transport Canada, will conduct a simulation rescue exercise intended to explore the procedures, capabilities, and limitations of resources that could be called upon in case the ship - or others that may follow - encounter an emergency.

The cruise line has spent the past three years considering such an itinerary, and considerable effort is going into making sure such an emergency doesn't occur. In addition to co-ordinating with "bespoke expedition provider" Expedition Voyage Consulting, Serenity will sail with an escort ice breaking vessel, oil pollution mitigation gear, a helicopter for real-time ice condition reconnaissance, additional bridge officers, ice searchlights, two experienced pilots, and a diver. Each passenger embarking on the voyage is also required to carry a minimum of $50,000 US in emergency evacuation insurance.

Arctic cruising is expected to increase in the future and the demand certainly seems to be there; Crystal's inaugural sailing sold out in only a few weeks despite an entry-level price tag in excess of $21,000 U.S. and an August 2017 itinerary is already on sale. Among its planned ports-of-call are Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet in Nunavut, and the hamlet of Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories, home to fewer than half the number on the ship's passenger manifest.

In this way, the retreat of the ice as the Arctic warms is potentially both a hindrance and an opportunity for northern communities seeing age-old ways of life disrupted by climate change and supplanted by a new tourist economy.

"In tourism there is a saying: 'if people can get there, they will go', and that is becoming possible," Nome mayor Beneville told the Guardian. The western Alaska town has seen dockings increase from a few dozen in the 1990s to more than 700 last year.

It's not only the people making the trip who face the potential impact of their actions, however. As more traffic makes its way through the area, pollution and waste are growing concerns, along with the threat of oil spills. Adventurer Lonnie Dupre, himself a successful traveller of the Northwest Passage, told Outside Online he worried about the ship's sewage being dumped into largely-untouched Arctic waters. And researchers are quick to point out 'less ice' doesn't mean 'no ice'. A study published recently by researchers at York University called ice conditions 'severe, even in today's climate'.

For its part, Crystal Cruises seems to be taking the health of the environment into consideration along with that of its passengers. The vessel will use a low-sulphur fuel and travel at slower speeds, as well as enacting a "nothing overboard" policy - meaning no garbage will be disposed of in the water - while sailing in the Arctic.

Sources: The Guardian | Crystal Cruises | Discovery | The Maritime Executive | Outside Online | Washington Post |

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