For generations, the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian Arctic was considered impossible to travel. Thick ice prevented ships from taking advantage of the potential sea route until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated it in 1906 after a three-year struggle. In the years since, some commercial ships have passed through, but only in the summer when the ice was thin enough for their icebreakers to smash a path. Now, thanks to climate change, a cruise ship has made the journey for the first time.
The Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship with rooms running from $20,000 to $120,000 apiece, set sail on August 16, 2016 from Seward, Alaska. With more than 1,600 guests and crew on board, the ship became the largest vessel ever to traverse the treacherous Northwest Passage. To the credit of Crystal Cruises, the ship was equipped with a few special additions for the journey: systems to detect ice, two Canadian ice pilots to assist the captain, a small icebreaker, and an escort ship to evacuate passengers in case anything should go wrong.
Still, there were many who voiced their concerns about the safety of the journey. Because tourism in the region is completely unknown and the communities along the passage’s route are incredibly small, there would be no room for accidents. In an interview with NPR, one WWF representative said, “There’s absolutely no capacity to respond to accidents.” Search and rescue infrastructure simply hasn’t been needed in the region in the past.
While thankfully the cruise arrived in New York without incident a month after setting off, critics still warn that future cruises are incredibly risky. Some have even called it “the most dangerous cruise on Earth.” Critics have also pointed to the effect the ship could have on native wildlife – the sound of the ship could be damaging to marine life like narwhals and beluga whales, and it goes without saying that an oil spill would be a disaster. Some are also concerned the indigenous Canadian communities dotting the route are being exploited by the wealthy passengers in what’s been dubbed “apocalypse tourism.”
Unfortunately, melting arctic ice is now our planet’s new reality, and we will need to adapt going forward. The ability to more easily travel the Northwest Passage could be a boon to underdeveloped and impoverished communities in Canada’s far north and could open up new trade possibilities. However, luxury vacations for the mega-rich are just adding insult to injury for concerned conservationists and environmental activists.
Images via Crystal Cruises