The Canadian newspaper "Embassy" has recently reported that the Canadian Government will be watching closely the first cruise ship sailing the Northwest Passage this summer. Arctic scholars are still debating whether the voyage of the first cruise ship going to sail the Northwest Passage this summer is 'entirely safe". Concerns regard navigating an icy, dangerous route, safety, pollution, but also the impacts of tourism on small northern communities.
Embassy, 02.03.2016- A sold-out cruise ship, the biggest ever to cross through the Northwest Passage, takes off late this summer—and the Canadian government will be watching closely.
Amid concerns over navigating an icy, dangerous route, Canadian officials are working with Crystal Cruises to prevent potentially disastrous worst-case scenarios. While foreign vessels can sail in Canadian waters, Ottawa says it can order the ship, the Crystal Serenity, to find a different route if needed, or call in the defence department. Transport and coast guard representatives confirmed to Embassy that they have been meeting since 2014 with the cruise line. The coast guard, which provides icebreaking services, “will continue to work in collaboration with Crystal Cruises' representatives to ensure a safe voyage," wrote Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo in an emailed statement. “Through our Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre in Iqaluit, the Canadian Coast Guard will monitor the voyage daily while it moves through the Northwest Passage,” added Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Carole Saindon.“Should a marine emergency arise, the Canadian Coast Guard will work with the Department of National Defence regarding the co-ordination of maritime response efforts."Canada will order the ship to find a different route if, "at any time, Transport Canada deems the voyage does not meet regulatory requirements or poses a safety concern," wrote Amber Wonko, a spokesperson for Transport Canada. If pollution occurs, the coast guard engages an “Environmental Response program,” she added. What amount and type of pollution is necessary for the program to kick in is unclear. Conservative fisheries and oceans critic Mark Strahl noted that weather and sea conditions can be unpredictable and dangerous in the Arctic. “The Liberal government must ensure that significant safety concerns are addressed before allowing this type of venture to proceed,” he said.Arctic scholar John Higginbotham also says it's still up for debate "whether it's entirely safe to take a ship with so many people on board through the Northwest Passage."
More tourists experiencing the Arctic
The Crystal Serenity departs Anchorage, Alaska Aug. 16. It hits its first Canadian destination about 10 days later and arrives in Greenland by Sept. 7, finally disembarking in New York City Sept. 17. Crystal’s vice president of marine operations, Greg MacGarva, told Embassy that the company is also engaged with the US Coast Guard and local port agents in Greenland. Foreign vessels can sail in Canadian waters as long as they have international certificates issued by the country where the vessel is registered, according to Transport Canada. The Crystal Serenity was built in France and has a Bahamian ship registry, according to Mr. MacGarva—something that isn't unusual for the world's major cruise lines.
The trip sold out within a month of going on the market, said Ms. Morgan, and there’s now a waiting list of more than 400. Currently-listed prices start at $21,855 and go up to more than $120,000 per person (for a penthouse) based on double occupancy. Passengers need to show proof of an insurance plan that can cover up to $50,000 per person for emergency evacuation. One of the experts that Transport Canada has been consulting for this summer’s voyage is Capt. David (Duke) Snider, a master mariner who retired from the coast guard as a regional director in 2012 and now works as a consultant for Martech Polar. Capt. Snider said after he was approached by the department, he ended up working with the cruise line to develop its safety plans. He personally knows some of the ice navigators who are going to be working on the voyage, he said.
“The biggest concern, of course, is this is the first time a full-on cruise ship of this size will attempt such a voyage,” he said.
The privately-owned yacht The World passed through the Northwest Passage in 2012. But its size pales in comparison to the Crystal Serenity, which carries up to 1,070 guests, according to company spokesperson Molly Morgan. Ships of similar size, length and tonnage already operate in Arctic waters every summer. Routes through the Canadian Arctic archipelago are well-charted.
But those ships are not carrying a thousand tourists.
“Just about every possible option” for safety has been examined ahead of the journey, Capt. Snider said. If a disaster happened—“which is so highly unlikely”—there are backup plans to head to communities along the route. Two Transport Canada-approved ice navigators will be on the main ship, and a support vessel that has been used for the British Antarctic Survey, the Ernest Shackleton, has been commissioned, Capt. Snider said. That support ship has icebreaking capabilities and “a huge amount of experience as a ship in Antarctic and European Arctic waters.” It will carry another ice navigator, helicopters and other equipment for emergency response. According to Mr. MacGarva, the Serenity also has ice search lights and high-resolution radar. Mr. MacGarva couldn’t confirm details about the support vessel because it is in negotiations with an escort vessel provider, he said. “We have taken many extraordinary operational and equipment-related measures to ensure a safe voyage,” he said. “The typical conditions along the planned route during the Arctic summer are substantially free of ice. With these extremely low ice concentrations, keeping the ship well clear of ice is entirely feasible.” A “professional expedition team” will also be on board, consisting of 14 Arctic experts. They’ll be offering lectures, seminars and workshops to passengers. “I see what Crystal has been doing as very proactive,” Capt. Snider said. “This is about as well-put-together as it can be.” This kind of traffic is likely to increase in coming years, he said—the cruise line announced March 1 it's already planning another voyage through the passage for 2017—especially as climate change causes sea water to warm up and ice to melt. At present, Canada has planned to build one new icebreaker, while the aging fleet that Capt. Snider used to sail on is still operating, with some of the ships 40 or 50 years old.The coast guard is expanding its auxiliary presence in remote locations, according to recent government press releases, “but those are volunteers in the communities, with small boats,” Capt. Snider argued. “Our government presence, our infrastructure presence is still extremely light.”
Impact on northern villages questioned
A review of the Transportation Act, chaired by David Emerson and tabled in Parliament last week, recommends increased funding for northern infrastructure and stricter regulations for vessel operators in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic scholar Mr. Higginbotham says ship operators themselves are looking for better infrastructure and search and rescue capabilities, so as to improve safety overall and make cruising the Arctic more profitable. “Until there’s more airports, until there’s better search and rescue, until there’s safer charting, it’s still a long way off in the Canadian Arctic,” Mr. Higginbotham said. Several communities in the Canadian north are listed on the itinerary, including Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on Baffin Island. Capt. Snider recalls visiting a community in the far north—some of them are villages of only 500 people—with a Canadian icebreaker, years ago. People in the village asked if he had brought any produce on the icebreaker. Tourists from a small cruise ship had come into the community and bought them out. “That’s the kind of thing I’ve always kept in the back of my head. When we go into these communities, we have to be aware of their footprint and their survival,” he said.
To Capt. Snider’s knowledge, the cruise line is working with communities on “clearly restricting impact.” They won’t dump 1,000 tourists into a village of 500 people all at once, he said. Crystal’s website states it will only conduct visits “under the approval of the local communities.” Andrea Charron, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, said she’s nervous about the tourism industry’s characterization of the north as “quaint,” instead of a dangerous place where communities are quite sensitive. She said the idea of local participation is good, but the concept of “clearing out a store until the next year when they can get resupplied” is a real concern—and some tourists treat villages like “museum pieces,” forgetting they are among real people’s homes.
“If this is a resounding success, it may encourage other cruise ships to give it a go, and they may not have the same sort of resources or planning that Crystal has. And that’s concerning,” Ms. Charron said.