Is a Luxury Cruise Through the Northwest Passage a Good Idea?

This summer, a Los Angeles cruise company is sending 1,500 passengers on a month-long voyage through the Arctic

Mar 28, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Is a Luxury Cruise Through the Northwest Passage a Good Idea?

The Crystal Serenity in Antarctica. The ship will make its first trip through the Northwest Passage this summer.    Photo: Crystal Cruises

On August 16, an 820-foot-long luxury cruise ship called the Crystal Serenity is scheduled to motor out of Seward, Alaska, and begin a 32-day journey through the Northwest Passage—the long-mythologized route that so many early explorers died trying to forge.

If successful, the trip, which ends in New York City, will mark the first crossing of the passage by a luxury cruise ship. The route includes 23 waterways and weaves around land and ice in the Canadian Arctic. Attempts to navigate it date as far back as the 15th century, when nations in Europe and Asia first sought it as a trade route. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first sea crossing in 1906—a three-year, east-to-west journey that he and a team of six men completed in a fishing vessel by hugging the coast of Northern Canada and nimbly avoiding ice bergs.

But in recent years, rising Arctic temperatures have softened up the sea ice and made the passage more accessible to less intrepid seafarers. The largest private residential yacht on earth, a 644-foot vessel called The World, motored through the passage in 2012, and other private yachts have made the journey each summer since. That 2012 voyage was led by Tim Soper of Expedition Voyage Consultants, a British firm that works with large outfitters to design novel trips around the globe. In 2013, when Los Angeles-based operator Crystal Cruises started thinking about sending one of their liners through the passage, executives called Soper to plan the logistics.

“With the recent retreat of polar ice, the time is right for us to lead the way within the travel industry,” said Crystal executive vice president Thomas Mazloum in a press release.

There’s room for about 950 passengers and 624 crewmembers aboard Crystal Serenity. Crystal Cruises is offering “all-inclusive” packages, which are listed online for as much as $240,000 per person, and “cruise-only” fares, which start just shy of $22,000. (An all-inclusive fare includes more meals and onboard activity options, like golf lessons from a PGA instructor.) According to Crystal Cruises spokeswoman Molly Morgan, the trip sold out three weeks after tickets became available March 7.

Passengers will be more comfortable than Amundsen was 110 years ago. With wireless Internet access for 90 percent of the trip, twice-a-day housekeeping, and 24-hour butler service—not to mention a potted orchid to greet each of the elite tier of travelers—this summer’s cruise is not designed for dirtbags. “I think people are coming because they’re interested to experience this part of the world, but they don’t want to compromise the comfort of a cruise ship,” Soper says.

The itinerary: talks by speakers ranging from climatologists to marine biologists to world-renowned whale photographer Flip Nicklin; “wilderness adventures” like nature hikes, kayak trips around icebergs, and a camping trip on the Greenland Ice Sheet (for an extra $4,149); and interaction with Inuit locals along the route.

Not surprisingly, the trip has raised the antennae of seasoned adventurers like Lonnie Dupre, who completed the first west-to-east winter crossing of the Northwest Passage in 1992. Along with his partner, Malcolm Vance, Dupre traveled 3,250 miles by dog sled from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Churchill, Manitoba. (It was a brutal trip: 15 of the expedition’s dogs perished in bitter conditions.)

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Dupre says of sending luxury liners through the passage. “Maybe it’s just because of my love of the Arctic, but you always want to protect those places that you love, you know?” 

Dumping human waste at sea is a common practice in the cruise industry, and Dupre worries about sewage from Crystal Serenity winding up in the Arctic’s pristine waters. According to a statement from Crystal’s operations team, the ship won’t dump any waste within 12 nautical miles of shore and that its discharge parameters “well exceed international requirements.” 

But the precedent the cruise could set is concerning to Dupre, who thinks regulation might be an order as other commercial cruise companies eye the Arctic. Rules he’d like to see in place: “They can’t dump any of their waste; they have to be careful where they’re walking since footprints can last 100 years in the wrong location up there; and they have to be sensitive about breeding grounds for whales and other animals.”

Crystal Serenity will be accompanied by a 260-foot “escort vessel” carrying equipment for icebreaking and oil-spill containment. It will also have two helicopters, Zodiacs, kayaks, and a landing platform to enable side trips—like that Greenland glacier camp—during the voyage.

After consulting with local search and rescue teams and the Canadian Coast Guard, Crystal Cruises issued a special requirement for its passengers: each is required to have emergency evacuation insurance that covers at least $50,000 in costs. To ensure Crystal Serenity does not follow the fate of the Titanic, the crew will have access to advanced sonar equipment, high-resolution radar, and two ice searchlights and will be aided by a pair of veteran Arctic captains trained to spot ice and navigate the roughly charted waters.

“To say a Northwest Passage voyage is without danger would be naïve,” Soper says. “But over the last two years we’ve worked really hard with Crystal to identify the risks and manage them.”

Soper also conceded that leery observers, like Dupre, might argue an 820-foot cruise ship carrying 1,500 people is not meant to cross the passage at a time when sea ice there is shifting and melting. Still, Soper hopes the passengers—many of them wealthy Americans—will be moved by what they see and chip in to Arctic conservation efforts.

“It’s powerful to actually see firsthand the changes that are happening,” Soper says. “Perhaps that will inspire some of them to take action and lobby to do something about climate change when they get back.”

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