A massive luxury cruise ship is planning a month-long journey in 2016 through the infamous Northwest Passage, a voyage that has intrigued and challenged Arctic adventurers since it was first successfully traversed a century ago. Promising an "epic journey" across the Arctic, cruise line Crystal Cruises says its Crystal Serenity will be the largest luxury cruise ship that has ever embarked on the passage.
The voyage is one example of increasing maritime traffic in the region as sea ice recedes and waterways open up. Yet the challenging terrain still thwarts adventurers hoping to capitalize on the shifting Arctic landscape -- and causes logistical challenges for first responders in emergencies. Meanwhile, scientists say that predicting sea ice levels for any given year remains impossible.
Crystal Cruises says it has planned for the voyage for nearly two years, and it is confident in the preparations it has made for Crystal Serenity, set to undertake the journey in 2016.
Cruises through the Northwest Passage have been available for years through companies such as Polar Cruises or Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. These ships, however, are "luxury expedition ships," with a maximum capacity of about 200 passengers.
By contrast, Crystal Serenity's passenger capacity is 1,070. The 68,000-ton ship has 13 decks, multiple pools, two tennis courts, a sushi bar, movie theater, shopping area and concert stage, among numerous other amenities.
"Crystal Serenity will (be) the first luxury cruise ship larger than an expedition vessel to offer this voyage," public relations director Paul Garcia wrote.
The cruise begins in August 2016 in Seward, stopping in Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Nome before heading across the Arctic Ocean into Canada. The cruise will navigate through Canadian waters, stopping at various communities along the way, before heading to Greenland and back to the United States. The cruise ends in New York City 32 days after it embarks.
Cost for the trip ranges from $22,755 to $120,000. The cruise line anticipates that the ship will be full for the entire voyage, with a passenger manifest mostly composed of repeat guests known as "Crystal Society Members," Garcia wrote.
Preparing for the Northwest Passage
The ship is just one example of the increasing number of vessels passing through the Northwest Passage as sea ice recedes. The infamous passage has intrigued -- and frustrated -- European mariners throughout the years.
The Northwest Passage was originally a hoped-for, sought-after route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that might provide a simple method of trade between Europe and Asia.
A ship with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen aboard made the first known crossing in 1903. As of 2012, 185 voyages had been successfully completed through the passage's seven different routes, according to a list compiled by Robert Headland with the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in England. To travel the Northwest Passage, a vessel must go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa), voyaging through the Bering Strait.
Yet sometimes voyages don't go as planned.
In mid-July, a man attempting to sail a 36-foot sailboat through the passage was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker after his boat became trapped in Arctic sea ice northeast of Barrow.
Last summer, a French adventurer was forced to abandon his attempts to row the passage after traveling more than 400 miles.
In 2009, the cruise ship Bremen required assistance from oil company BP and Alaska Clean Seas to help transfer a woman suffering from possible appendicitis about 30 miles west of Prudhoe Bay.
Crystal Cruises has spent more than 18 months determining the feasibility of the project, according to Garcia, and has worked with polar expedition experts, the Canadian Coast Guard and local communities in planning the trip.
An escort vessel will be traveling with the cruise ship, equipped with a helicopter that will report real-time ice conditions back to the cruise, Garcia wrote.
"The escort vessel will have ice breaking capabilities and would be able to assist in the extremely unlikely event that the ice concentration becomes a challenge for Crystal Serenity," Garcia wrote.
An expedition team with experience navigating the passage will be on board to advise the captain. Two ice pilots with several decades of experience navigating the passage will also be on board, monitoring ice situations around the clock, as will a diver who could assist with emergency response, Garcia wrote.
The vessel will be equipped with two ice searchlights and forward-looking sonar to allow the vessel to scan waters ahead for obstructions or uncharted rocks.
"Very few commercial vessels have this technology," Garcia wrote.
The ship also has oil pollution mitigation gear on board in case of emergency.
The ship has operated in both Alaska and Antarctica, Garcia wrote, and the transit has been planned around the time of year when ice concentration is minimal.
Lagging sea ice increases the feasibility for maritime traffic in the Arctic, yet navigating this landscape remains a challenge.
Sea ice conditions are highly variable, and predicting what sea ice will look like in upcoming years isn't possible, said Mark Serreze, executive director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
"We know the northern sea route and northwest passages are becoming more frequently open on a seasonal basis," he said; however, there's "no way to predict" ice conditions from year to year. For instance, Arctic sea ice hit a record low in 2012 but had rebounded by 50 percent the following summer.
Sea ice thickness during the spring is one indicator of what summer levels will be. However, "the big issue here is the summer weather patterns," Serreze said. Weather influences sea ice conditions, and that is highly variable.
"We can't predict that at this point," Serreze said. "For any given year it's really going to be a crapshoot, and that's the problem."
Mary-Beth Schreck, sea ice analyst with the National Weather Service Sea Ice Desk, said that sea ice "can vary quite a bit from year to year."
In the Arctic, "there's always some ice that remains," Schreck said. "Where it goes is less predictable."
The Sea Ice Desk is able to provide general sea ice predictions a few months out, using historical data matching to years with similar weather conditions.
"Even if we can compare to another year, or five years, no two years are the same," she said.
When vessels do run into trouble, the Coast Guard is the first responder. In Alaska, Coast Guard resources along the Arctic coast are scarce. The closest Coast Guard station to Nome is in Kodiak, located 945 nautical miles away, a Coast Guard report notes.
While there is no permanent Coast Guard station on the Arctic coast, the agency deploys assets to the area during summer months. This summer, two Coast Guard cutters have been deployed to the Arctic, along with a seagoing buoy tender, according to Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow.
The deployments are part of Arctic Shield, an initiative created in response to increased traffic in the Arctic.
"The harsh operating environment, geographic spread of these facilities, lack of roads, and vast distances from major Coast Guard support hubs make Arctic missions challenging," an Arctic Shield report notes.
The Coast Guard will deploy more resources in future years "when the vessel forecast calls for more," Wadlow said.
In addition, a Coast Guard cutter continuously navigates the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, said Petty Officer Shawn Eggert. Agencies such as the Alaska Air National Guard also assist in emergencies.
As vessels enter Canadian waters, the Canadian Coast Guard monitors the ships.
A marine communications and traffic service center in Iqaluit, on Baffin Island in the Northwest Territories, is the point of contact for vessels and is "equipped to accommodate current and future levels of marine traffic," Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson David Walters wrote. Those services include giving medical advice for people onboard ships, monitoring distress signals and sending vessels to assist ships in distress.
The Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre in Canada, responsible for search and rescue operations, has three centers working in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Center and Arctic Region has nine primary search and rescue vessels, and six inshore rescue boats during summer. In addition, the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary provides additional vessels.
"Vessels transiting through the Northwest Passage should be prepared for rapid changes in weather and ice conditions," Walters wrote.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Roald Amundsen's ship as a steamship. In fact, the Gjøa was fitted with an internal combustion engine.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing