Breaking the Ice: Crystal Cruises Will Sail the Once-Forbidden Arctic

Once limited to explorers and small ships, the Northwest Passage is now opening to cruise ships. (Courtesy: Crystal Cruises)

Credit enhanced sailing technology, or just credit global warming. But an icy Arctic route that was once unheard of for tourism will soon be crossed by a luxury cruise ship with over 1,000 passengers.

On August 16, 2016, Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity will become by far the largest cruise ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, a historically ice-bound terrain between Anchorage, Alaska, and New York that goes through the northern Canada archipelago. The cruise is sold out, but the company is still taking stand-by signups starting at about $20,700 for the 32-day voyage.

The Northwest Passage still isn’t tamed, and this won’t be a trip for those who want a quick-and-convenient cruise. Extra time was built in to account for possible delays. A second vessel with a helicopter pad and towing ability will accompany Serenity to break through ice or help with evacuation if need be.

The Crystal Serenity’s route of the Northwest Passage. (Courtesy: Crystal Cruises)

If worst comes to worst, the ship could also change course through Panama. Meanwhile, Canada’s Coast Guard is training for the possibility of a grounded cruise ship.

Related: An Inside Look at the New Most Insane Cruise Ship to Hit the Seas 

The Serenity will stop at once-isolated Arctic communities that are seeing increasing commercial shipping as ice thaws. This creates the tricky challenge of educating passengers about these areas and contributing tourism dollars to them, without overwhelming them or raising the same environmental concerns that surround cruises that go through Venice, Italy.

"We are not going to leave anything behind," Thomas Mazloum, Crystal Cruises’  executive vice president, told “Not a single drop of garbage or anything else.”

(Courtesy: Crystal Serenity)

The cruise line insists that in the more remote Arctic communities, such as Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, passengers will disembark in smaller groups of 150 to 200. Activities in these destinations will include art-and-culture visits with discussions of their history.

Related: Norway Smackdown: Midnight Sun vs. Northern Lights

The first explorer to cross the Northwest Passage? That was Roald Amundson in 1906, One-hundred years later in 2006, only four ships traveled it during the year. But times are changing: earlier this month, the luxury cruise line Silversea completed a 23-day crossing of the Northwest Passage with 132 passengers.

Data suggests that ice is decreasing in the Arctic: In September 2012, a record was set for annual minimum extent of Arctic sea ice, at 1.32 million square miles – 293,000 square miles below the previous record in 2007. But with conditions changing year to year, what the Serenity encounters in 2016 is almost impossible to predict.

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