A previously all-but-impenetrable Arctic passage is now the latest luxury cruise ship destination, as climate change diminishes ice barriers that once thwarted the most intrepid of explorers.
The Crystal Serenity will depart from Seward, Alaska, on Aug. 16, rounding the north coast of the most northerly state and plunging into the Northwest Passage before emerging in the Atlantic Ocean and concluding its voyage, all being well, in New York City on Sept. 17. It's a journey that not so very long ago would have been unthinkable, given that the passage had been sought for hundreds of years and was not successfully traversed until 1905.
The search for the Northwest Passage began in the mid-1500s, when England sought a trading route to Asia that did not require making landfall in territories in South America (largely colonized by rival Spain) or Africa (predominantly occupied by Portugal). Over the course of several centuries, multiple expeditions sought to find a path cross the top of North America through the ice-bound islands of the Canadian Archipelago.
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For over 300 years, they all failed, some of them famously and spectacularly: In 1610, for example, Henry Hudson's crew mutinied and set him adrift in a small boat; while the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's expedition aboard the Erebus and Terror in 1845 mobilized a succession of searches that captivated British society.
Even as they fell short of their ultimate objective, however, many of these voyages filled in a little bit more of the Arctic map. Finally, the Gjoa, captained by Roald Amundsen - who, five years later, would become the first person to reach the South Pole - rounded Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of Alaska, and entered the history books.
There have been multiple transits since then – 220 through 2014, in fact - by assorted motor yachts, survey vessels, cable-layers and even by a number of cruise ships. But there has been nothing quite on the scale of the 68,000 ton Crystal Serenity and its 1,700 passengers and crew.
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The passage has become increasingly navigable as climate change has decreased Arctic ice. As Tim Soper, founder of Expedition Voyage Consultants, which is overseeing the trip, said: "We are in a period of change in the Arctic. The ice is reducing in extent and thickness so it is easier to navigate, and the window during which it can be transited is lengthening."
That change has led some to predict that the Northwest Passage might soon become a commercially-viable sea route. A recent study, however, tempered such optimism, pointing out that "less ice" did not mean "no ice" and that the passage remains, at least for now, an unpredictable and dangerous destination.
Accordingly, those behind the Crystal Serenity‘s journey are taking multiple precautions. It will be accompanied by an escort vessel carrying oil cleanup equipment. Next month, the United States Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Alaska State Emergency offices, Crystal Cruises and Alaska's North Slope Borough will meet to review their emergency response plans. The ship will also travel at slow speed and use low-sulfur oil to reduce its carbon footprint, and will dispose of all its waste outside of the Arctic.
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The presence of such a large ship in what remain dangerous conditions, and the circumstances that have made the voyage possible, have led to criticism. "The melting of the Arctic sea ice should be a profound warning for humankind, not an invitation to oil companies and now tour ships to move in," said John Sauven of Greenpeace.
Crystal Cruises, however, is undeterred. Demand for the trip - which costs anywhere from roughly $16,000 to almost $100,000 - is such that the company is already taking bookings for 2017.