Northwest Passage: The Final Frontier for Cruise Ships

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An ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island opens into Davis Strait on the eastern end of the Northwest Passage. (Photo: NASA ICE/flickr).

In 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the Pacific Ocean after taking three years to cross the Northwest Passage. The route, skirting Greenland then weaving through Canada's northernmost islands and traveling across the waters of the Arctic Ocean, was considered one of the final frontiers of nautical travel.

Even more than 100 years after Amundsen's feat, few ships attempt this journey. Shifting ice and dense fog can make navigating the perilous and frigid seas an almost impossible challenge.

Map of Nothwest Passage
The Northwest Passage snakes through Arctic waters. NASA

Nonetheless, the Northwest Passage is seeing more and more traffic. In 2013, 18 vessels made the journey. That’s a miniscule number compared with major shipping routes, but when you consider that only about 200 boats have ever crossed the passage, it constitutes a significant rise in traffic.

Now the race is on to bring huge cruise ships through the challenging Arctic waterways. Citing the popularity of cruises around Greenland, Iceland and Alaska, several specialty cruise lines are planning to attempt the passage with large commercial vessels in the coming years.

Iceberg near Baffin Island
An iceberg floats near Baffin Island, a major waypoint on the Northwest Passage. Andrzej Gibasiewicz/Shutterstock

This race to cross cruising's final frontier is not without its dangers. The Canadian Army and Coast Guard, aware of the general increase in traffic in the country’s northern waters and the interest from large commercial passenger ships, recently held exercises to practice a large-scale rescue of passengers from a sinking cruise ship.

Expedition-style cruises have successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in the past. About 30 years ago, the 100-person Lindblad Explorer was the first cruise ship to complete the journey. Other similarly sized cargo vessels have succeeded as well, but the thousand-berth cruise ships that sail the Caribbean are another matter.

However, that may change. In summer 2016, the Serenity is scheduled to sail out of Anchorage with at least 900 passengers onboard. A month later, it is scheduled to reach New York City after negotiating the Northwest Passage. This will be, by far, the largest expedition to make the journey.

Those who want to take this historic voyage will shell out at least $20,000, plus airfare, to reach Alaska and return home from New York. The cruise line is already taking bookings for the trip, even though it is still nearly two years away.

The Serenity will be in uncharted waters when it comes to overall number of passengers, but a ship of a similar size, luxury cruise liner the World, sailed the passage in 2012. However, there were only 500 passengers and crew onboard.

Like the World, the Serenity will stop at several Arctic hamlets, highlighting one of the most interesting aspects of the Northwest Passage cruising boom. These remote villages, mostly inhabited by indigenous people who have lived a subsistence lifestyle for centuries, can now be visited by hundreds of cruisers at a time. On one hand, the travelers will bring additional income to locals. But these villages have stayed in almost complete isolation since they were founded. If they start receiving multiple ships each year, their traditional lifestyle will undoubtedly be altered.

The recent rise in the accessibility of the Northwest Passage is due to higher than normal ice melt in certain parts of the route. Even with this phenomenon — which many blame on global warming — boats have only a small window during the late summer to pass through the channels. A cool summer could easily make the passage unsafe for large cruise vessels.

However, if the melting continues to be an annual trend, the cruise industry will not be the only one reaping benefits. Cargo ships, which make up a vast majority of the ocean's traffic, will have an alternative to the Panama Canal when it comes time to move between the Atlantic and Pacific. If this is the case, more ships will spend their Augusts in the Arctic.