Residents of Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., population 402, may feel as though New York’s tony Upper East Side has come to visit when Crystal Serenity steams into town later this summer. The towering cruise ship, the biggest to traverse the fabled Northwest Passage, will be carrying 1,070 passengers who paid between $25,000 and $155,000—and 655 crew members—for a 32-day trip that promises “intrepid adventure, the great outdoors and immersive cultural experiences.” Which is where Ulukhaktok comes in. Crystal Serenity is not the first cruise ship to visit the coastal hamlet, mind you, but it’s by far the largest. “There was one back in 2012 called the World,” Janet Kanayok, the local economic development officer, says of the privately owned luxury yacht that carries between 150 and 200 passengers. “But it wasn’t nearly as big as this.”
Nor is Crystal Serenity likely to be the last giant, gilded passenger ship to come calling. Rising temperatures and receding sea ice have opened more of the Northwest Passage’s interconnecting waterways in recent seasons. In 2013, MS Nordic Orion made history by becoming the first bulk carrier to make the historically treacherous trip, hauling a load of B.C. coal to Finland and shaving about 1,000 nautical miles off its usual route through the Panama Canal. The following year, the MV Nunavik, operating on behalf of a Canadian firm, sailed from the Hudson Strait through the passage to China carrying nickel concentrate. In all, there were 25 full transits of the Northwest Passage last season, according to data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. That’s up nearly 40 per cent from five years earlier.
With the Arctic’s defences melting, Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises is understandably excited about a huge opportunity to wow well-heeled cruise junkies who’ve grown bored of sand and sun. The company’s inaugural Northwest Passage cruise, from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York, sold out quickly, and tickets for next year’s trip are already on sale.
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Less thrilled are those asked to make sure such voyages go smoothly and safely. Though Kanayok says Ulukhaktok locals agreed to play host, others have expressed reservations about having their tiny hamlets—Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet in Nunavut are also on the itinerary—overrun with hundreds of camera-clicking cruise-ship passengers, who are not known for spending as much money in local communities as other types of tourists. The Canadian Coast Guard, meanwhile, has devoted considerable time and resources to planning the transit, holding meetings with Transport Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard and even participating in “tabletop exercises” that attempt to simulate what would happen if Crystal Serenity ran into trouble. “An undertaking of this nature, it must be said, is not without risk,” says Jeff Hutchinson, the Canadian Coast Guard’s deputy commissioner. “This is adventure tourism. This is not a cruise ship leaving Miami.”
Indeed, the straits and sounds of Canada’s Arctic archipelago are mostly uncharted and, depending on the day, can either be totally clear or choked with hull-cracking sea ice. Add to that the unpredictable weather and a general lack of Arctic infrastructure—like deepwater ports or search-and-rescue bases—and it’s easy to see why the Guardian asked whether Crystal Serenity might be “a new Titanic.”
To Crystal’s credit, however, it’s taken the project seriously from the beginning—probably because it knows the world is watching. But what keeps Hutchinson up at night isn’t so much the safety of Crystal Serenity’s champagne-sipping passengers as it is what they represent: the arrival of the cruise industry’s big leagues to Canada’s unprepared North. “As long as we deal with companies that are this engaged, I think we’re on a very good footing,” Hutchinson says. “But we are concerned about the companies that are looking at the potential profitability of this undertaking and might attempt a similar voyage without putting the same level of planning in place—possibly because they don’t have the financial resources to back it.”
It’s no secret that the Coast Guard’s resources are wanting, too. This summer there will be a full complement of seven icebreakers patrolling Canada’s Arctic—an area that spans some 4.4 million sq. km, including both land and sea. Russia, by contrast, has more than 35 in its fleet. Further complicating matters is the fact some countries, including the United States, don’t recognize Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is territorial waters, but instead view it as an international strait—a position that could be strengthened if Canada is unable to demonstrate an ability to respond to cruise-ship incidents and accidents in its Arctic backyard. “Do we have enough capabilities to meet one big, honking ship? Yeah, we do,” says Robert Huebert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “But do we have enough when five or six medium-sized ones start going? That’s when it starts to get more complicated.”
Crystal Cruises began planning its first Northwest Passage voyage in 2014. That was the same year Parks Canada, with the help of former BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie and several other government departments, found the wreck of HMS Erebus in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf. The wooden bomb ship was one of two that went missing in the mid-1800s, when Sir John Franklin and 128 Royal Navy sailors set out from England to map the Northwest Passage and conduct experiments on Earth’s magnetism. The doomed men spent two winters trapped in the ice before succumbing to the brutal conditions, with several resorting to cannibalism in their darkest hour.
Passengers aboard Crystal Serenity are promised a more uplifting voyage. The US$350-million ship’s nine passenger decks boast 535 staterooms outfitted with “100 per cent Egyptian cotton sheets, down pillows, plush duvets and featherbeds (upon request).” Penthouse guests have access to a personal butler service, complimentary beer and wine and full Jacuzzi tubs. Elsewhere on the ship, passengers dine in a variety of restaurants, including a sushi bar created by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and imbibe at any number of cocktail bars and cigar lounges. There’s a casino, a cinema, a spa, a driving range, two paddle tennis courts, an outdoor lap pool and a shopping arcade with four stores selling clothing, jewellery and other items. In addition to sightseeing from Serenity’s decks and making scheduled stops in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, passengers aboard Crystal Serenity will have the option of taking “Arctic safaris” aboard kayaks, Zodiacs, ATVs and even a helicopter. Other planned activities include fishing, hiking and a round of golf at Ulukhaktok’s rocky, windswept, nine-hole course, billed as the most northerly in the world.
One thing Crystal Serenity doesn’t offer, however, is much tolerance for sea ice. So its owners set out to hire a support ship as an insurance policy. But finding a suitable vessel in Canada wasn’t easy. “There’s been a long-term rundown of the fleet,” explains Dermot Loughnane, the CEO of Tactical Marine Solutions in Victoria, who was hired to give Crystal a helping hand. Crystal eventually found what it needed on the opposite side of the planet: the British Antarctic survey vessel RRS Ernest Shackleton. The sturdy, red-hulled ship will carry two helicopters and containers full of extra water and emergency rations for Crystal Serenity—enough for three days. There’s also emergency oil-spill and damage-control gear on-board. “By having the Shackleton there, we can make up for quite a few things,” says Loughnane, who spent 11 years of his 35-year career working in the Arctic. “It’s above and beyond anything that’s required.”
The planning didn’t stop with equipment. Crystal Cruises did an extensive analysis of Arctic sea ice in past years, including the most likely choke points. One of those areas is the Victoria Strait, to the west of King William Island. “I describe it as the toilet,” says Loughnane. “Ice that migrates south tends to collect there.” Three experienced Canadian ice pilots—two aboard Crystal Serenity and one on the Shackleton—will work with the ships’ captains to determine a safe course based on information gleaned from ice-detection radar, searchlights, thermal imaging and other high-tech gear. If anything goes wrong, as many as 500 passengers could be transferred to the Shackleton to wait until helped arrived, according to Loughnane. Others could climb into one of 16 Zodiacs or be whisked to safety in one of the ship’s two helicopters. “The discussions we’ve had with the search-and-rescue people—we did an exercise with the U.S. and Canadian coast guards—was that, in their opinion, they could be overhead dropping supplies within six hours.”
Hutchinson, however, disputed the six-hour figure, saying it was impossible to provide any guarantees. “A search and rescue in clear skies and calm seas that would result from, say, a grounding is completely different from a search and rescue that results from communications going down in weather that suddenly turns foul,” he says. “The American coast guard has assets and so do we. But it’s a vast region and it’s hard to reach.”
Since the moment Crystal first announced its ambitious Arctic adventure, critics have warned it puts Canada’s environmentally sensitive North on an icy slope. “It’s this process of death by a thousand cuts,” says U of C’s Huebert. “Last year, there were ships carrying 300 or 400 people. Now it’s 1,600. But because it’s happening over a gradual period and they’re following all the rules, it eliminates the newness and the shock. But it doesn’t change the fact that, all of a sudden, we have some of the largest cruise liners in the world coming to the region.” Crystal won’t say what its ultimate plans are for Canada’s North. When asked, a spokesperson said only that “our luxury guests are affluent world travellers who seek and crave adventures in whatever form that term resonates with them.” But it’s worth noting that Crystal has inked an agreement to build a 1,000-passenger polar-class ship, to be ready in 2019, and has plans to buy two more.
While Canada has a relatively expansive Arctic surveillance system to monitor the increased traffic, comprised of data gleaned from satellites, ship’s reports and aerial reconnaissance, its capability to respond to trouble is already stretched. And there’s plenty of potential trouble. Only about one per cent of the Canadian Arctic is charted to the highest international standards, while about 10 per cent is charted to what’s considered a “safe” navigational standard. The percentages go up slightly—from 10 per cent to 30 per cent—if ships stay within narrow corridors, although it’s still far from reassuring. Cruise ships present a further challenge because, in addition to carrying delicate cargo, they’re under pressure to follow their eyes instead of their brains. “If you see something really spectacular and try to move toward it, suddenly your risk starts to go up,” Hutchinson says. It’s happened before. In 2010, the MV Clipper Adventurer grounded itself on a shoal near Kugluktuk, Nunavut, during a 14-day Arctic cruise. It took the nearest Coast Guard icebreaker nearly two days to travel the 500 km necessary to reach the stricken ship and evacuate its 128 passengers.
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If more and bigger cruise ships might tax the Coast Guard’s resources in the North, they threaten to dramatically alter the lives and livelihoods of those who actually live there. “This is going to open the floodgates to the Northwest Passage,” says Ross Klein, a professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University who maintains the website Cruisejunkie.com, noting that the cruise industry has sometimes been accused of wielding its tourist-boosting promise as a cudgel when it comes to negotiating favourable deals with port cities, and hasn’t always kept its word. “I don’t think anyone has prepared these communities.” As an example, Klein points to a 2003 incident in California when a Crystal cruise ship discharged 138,000 litres of waste water 14 km offshore into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Though the dump didn’t technically violate any marine laws, it did run afoul of a written promise Crystal made to Monterey, which banned the cruise line for 15 years. Crystal, which has similarly promised to leave the Northwest Passage mostly the way it found it by burning low-sulphur diesel fuel and storing or burning garbage, called the incident “unfortunate” and noted, “We are scheduled to return to Monterey in summer 2018.”
Bernie MacIsaac, Nunavut’s assistant deputy minister of economic development, acknowledges that cruise ships present as many challenges as opportunities for the region. “Some communities have been overrun,” he says. “Others have put a lot of time and effort into preparing for a cruise ship, but, in some cases, the cruise ship never showed up.” At the same time, it’s not clear cruise passengers contribute as much as is often promised to local economies. At least one recent study showed that cruise-ship passengers in Nunavut spent, on average, just $692 in the territory, whereas other types of tourists shelled out closer to $2,500, with the difference attributed mainly to a lack of revenue from meals and lodging. In fact, many passengers don’t even bother getting off the ship.
Crystal, for its part, says it’s doing whatever it can to make sure the experience is rewarding for passengers and locals alike. Ben Lyons, CEO of Expedition Voyage Consultants, which is working with Crystal to organize the trip, says the goal from the outset was to do everything in a “respectful and responsible manner.” To that end, the cruise line made several trips up north to gauge local communities’ interest and identify possible friction points, including concerns about 1,000-plus passengers tying up the local cellphone networks. Crystal also agreed to limit the number of cruise passengers brought ashore at any given time to 250, according to Lyons. To ensure locals benefit economically, Lyons says Crystal has hired residents to act as tour guides and put on demonstrations of local culture, including on the ship itself. “Crystal will also be purchasing Inuit carvings in bulk for distribution on-board, and has taken an additional step to make donations.”
Like the Coast Guard, MacIsaac says he’s pleased with Crystal’s conduct, but harbours concerns about others that may not be so accommodating. He says Nunavut is scrambling to put in place a more robust framework to govern cruise-ship visits, and is studying everything from passenger fees and taxes to requiring direct commercial relationships between communities and cruise lines. “We’re thinking of some kind of permitting process where the cruise ship would be mandated to have direct consultations with communities, with certain guidelines for passengers,” he says. In the interim, the territory is making do with whatever rules it already has on the books, asking Crystal to apply for two outfitter’s licences in Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet. “It was the only avenue we had to mandate certain types of activities,” MacIsaac says.
Back in Ulukhaktok, Kanayok and the rest of the hamlet are busy preparing for their first visit by a floating city. “We’ve never really had cruise ships that come in here and ask permission,” she says, heaping yet more praise on Crystal for its attentiveness. “It’s a very large amount of people, but Ulukhaktok is very friendly and welcoming, whether it be one person, 50 or, in this case, 1,000.” However, she deftly sidestepped questions about whether Ulukhaktok had agreed to participate in Crystal’s 2017 Northwest Passage cruise. “I’m not thinking that far ahead yet,” she says. “We’re just focusing on the one that’s coming at the end of next month.”
If all goes as planned, Crystal Serenity’s passengers will disembark in New York on Sept. 17 feeling relaxed and refreshed, with heads full of rich Arctic memories. For Canada and its northernmost residents, by contrast, the headaches are likely only just beginning.
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