After four years of planning, building, coordinating, selling and inspecting, the first large luxury cruise ship just finished its tour through the recently opened water of the Northwest Passage.
Arriving in New York City after 32 days at sea and about 8,000 nautical miles, the crew and their guests made history and left with a lifetime of memories.
Back in April it was a dream. A plan many considered too dangerous, but a dream Crystal Cruises hoped to make true for their guests.
“The Northwest Passage can now be safely navigated at a very narrow window of the summer. That is what we are taking advantage of,” said Capt. Birger J. Vorland.
Setting their sights on the unseen, the folks at Crystal knew if the ice cooperated, they had something special.
“We’re looking for wildlife first and foremost,” said Vorland.
While the Arctic is not completely ice-free, satellite images show a constant trend of declining ice since the data became available in the late 1970s.
“In previous decades, we had a big huge mass of multi-year sea ice. What we’re seeing right now is that there’s less and less multi-year ice from year to year,” said Becky Heim, program leader with Alaska Sea Ice NOAA.
Less permanent ice, more water and the potential for open passages, if you’re willing to take the risk.
“The ice situation in the Arctic changes rapidly. Depends on the winds, the currents. What could be blocked one day could be open the next, and vice versa. So we’re going to keep a very keen eye on this all the way through and that is also why we have two very experienced ice pilots on board,” said Vorland.
And while the captain prepared for ice, the U.S. Coast Guard prepared for the worst.
“There’s a lot of scenarios that we’ve thought through. There’s a range from complete loss of the vessel, vessel fires, (and) medical situations on board the vessels,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Mitchell, chief of contingency planning with the Coast Guard.
Scenarios the Coast Guard felt they and the ship were prepared for and the Serenity was given the all clear.
Passengers were greeted with violins as they settled into their luxurious temporary homes. A heated swimming pool, hot tubs, all-inclusive restaurants and bars, a casino, tennis courts, entertainment and more were all available to the guests during the trip through the Northwest Passage, but many say it was what was outside the ship that was most interesting. It was a month at sea, with a lifetime of stories to tell everyone back home.
The captain explained what it feels like to have completed the journey.
“I feel extremely happy and excited because this was truly a most remarkable voyage in all aspects,” said Vorland.
A voyage that included visiting Alaska, Canada and Greenland towns and villages along the way.
“Every one of the destinations we went up there had an amazing reception by the locals,” said Vorland.
Some were reluctant at first, but honored to see the ship roll in.
“They were so excited, they couldn’t believe all these people came up to see them and their local community,” said Vorland.
Ice was scarce for most of the trip, making it difficult to find polar bears, but at first glance zodiacs were deployed so guests could get a closer look.
“This polar bear spent the entire day on this ice flow, looking around, looking at people…we had a mother with 2-year-old cubs, we saw a polar bear on the kill of a seal, it was just amazing, absolutely amazing. So that day was probably the most memorable,” said Vorland.
While nearing Greenland, the ice increased.
“When we came up there it was a mess of ice there I mean this is glacial ice which is very hard, and in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from huge large ice bergs to small stuff. I was looking for an angle to maybe try to get in there, but at one point I was like, no I’m not going to do this, this is too much risk and I’m glad I didn’t because unannounced quite a bit of wind came up in the afternoon and which started packing the ice and had we been in there we would have had a hard time getting out again.” said Vorland.
After zodiac excursions in the area, it was time to move into safer water. After three days at sea, the ship arrived in Bar Harbor Maine. It then made a stop in Boston and eventually made it to its final destination, New York City.
“Sailing into NYC this morning, in fantastic weather, and docking here, there is a feeling of accomplishment,” said Vorland, “People are walking off the ship now with the feeling of having been apart of something that was both historical and truly amazing.”
And the passengers we checked with agreed.
With 2016 in the books, the 2017 Northwest Passage cruise is already on sale and many believe the Arctic will continue to be a popular tourist destination.
“If the ice continues to decline in the Arctic, and the hazards diminish accordingly, I wouldn’t be surprised if bigger ships make their way through it as well,” said climatologist Dr. Henry Pollack.
“This is a herald to what is coming in the future, and that is the accessibility of the Bering Straight and ergo the Arctic Ocean,” said Nome Mayor Richard Beneville, “It is happening. It is a reality and we need to be ready for that.”
When asked if increased tourism in the area would cause harm the ecosystem of the Arctic and negatively contribute to global warming, Pollack said it’s more likely that what humans do around the globe every day will harm the Arctic and contribute to global warming than individual ships will.
A reality of climate change, changing the future of the arctic — one rising degree at a time.