The luxury liner Crystal Serenity is on its way from Seward to New York City through the Northwest Passage.
It’s the largest cruise ship to navigate the route, which hugs the coasts of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. And it’s attracted international attention, with many wondering if it’s a sign of what’s to come as the Arctic sees increasingly ice-free summers.
The ship has 13 decks, eight restaurants, a casino, and a spa. Staterooms for this trip started at about $20,000 and run as high as $120,000 (with personal butler service).
Sitting in her room, with a deck looking out over the Seward harbor, passenger Moira Somers said for most of the people on board, the ship is as much a destination as the Arctic.
“When you start your cruise, no matter where in the world you are, and you see the ship, it’s goosebump stuff,” she said.
Somers and her husband live in Victoria, B.C. (she’s originally from Namibia). Like the majority of people on board, they’re repeat cruisers – she says this is perhaps her 16th trip with Crystal.
But this time is a little bit different.
“Maybe we’re not so sure what we’re letting ourselves in for?” she said, with a laugh. “But there’s so much, we’ve read so much, we’ve prepared ourselves, and we know it’s a big thing.”
Until about a decade ago, the Northwest Passage was only open to ships with icebreaking capabilities. And while smaller cruise ships have visited the region for years, the Crystal Serenity, with more than 1600 guests and crew, will become the largest passenger ship to traverse the full, winding route across the top of Canada.
It’s a dry run for large-scale tourism in a region that hasn’t seen anything like it before.
But the man in charge is not concerned.
Birgir Vorland, the master of the Crystal Serenity, has spent 38 years at sea. Originally from Norway, he says the Northwest Passage has special resonance.
“My countryman Roald Amundsen did the first transit here, between 1903 and 1906,” Vorland said. “He spent three years on this passage. We’re going to do it in 32 days and a lot more comfort.”
Crystal Cruises has spent more than three years planning the trip. Standing on the navigation bridge, Vorland ticked off the special preparations: systems to detect ice, two Canadian ice pilots joining him in Nome, an escort ship in case he runs into trouble.
“We have crossed all the t’s, dotted all the i’s,” he said. “Nobody has ever planned a cruise as diligently and as detailed as Crystal Cruises has done for this particular voyage.”
As the ship prepared to leave Seward, passengers participated in an emergency drill. In the casino, guests wearing life jackets gathered around staff holding signs that read, “Life Boat 6.”
Despite Vorland’s assurances, plenty of people are worried about what happens if this scenario plays out in real life.
“There’s absolutely no capacity to respond to accidents,” said Elena Agarkova, who tracks shipping for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group.
There’s very little search and rescue infrastructure in the region, a major concern for authorities. On August 24th, just as the Crystal Serenity passes through the region, the Coast Guard, U.S. military and Canadian forces will stage a major training exercise in the Bering Strait. Called Arctic Chinook, it will simulate the response to a cruise ship going down with 250 people on board.
The question isn’t just whether the Crystal Serenity is ready for the Arctic, but if the Arctic ready for the Crystal Serenity. Some of the communities it’s visiting in Canada have populations smaller than the ship itself.
Agarkova said Crystal Cruises has done a good job of working with communities and addressing environmental concerns, with plans to forgo heavy fuel oil and exceed standards for discharging wastewater. But, she said, there’s no guarantee those precautions will be taken in the future.
“They’re doing these measures voluntarily,” she said. “So there’s nothing that would require cruise lines or cruise ships that would follow in their steps to adhere to the same kinds of standards.”
Agarkova also pointed out the irony of this new era — when the very changes making the region accessible are also transforming it.
That’s not lost on passenger Moira Somers.
“One kind of feels – I won’t say guilty, but you’re taking advantage of what is happening,” Somers said, adding that she hopes the cruise is raising awareness of climate change.
As for her more immediate goals? “My big dream is to see a polar bear,” she said.
After a moment she added, with a laugh, “And just being able to have a successful trip, I think. Getting through with no hiccups.”