As Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity prepares for its first cruise through the perilous North West Passage, questions about whether this Arctic area is too difficult for cruise ships have been asked.
Crystal Cruises’ ship will hit headlines as it will be the largest and most luxurious ship to sail through the remote North West Passage when it begins its maiden voyage in August, departing Alaska and cruising through the North West Passage and Bering Strait, before arriving in New York. But concerns about safety were raised a few weeks ago at a US congressional sub-committee.
Crystal Serenity will be operating in “a very treacherous area of the Earth,” and will face a number of safety issues, the vice commandant of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Charles Michel told the subcommittee, despite two years of planning by the operator, USCG and Canadian authorities. “I don’t want to underestimate the challenges of that area,” Adm Michel told the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation during a hearing into the USCG’s Arctic capabilities.
Questioned by Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who represents the 44th district of California, which includes the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Adm Michel said one of the challenges is the lack of logistics support in the area. During its 32-day trip from Anchorage in Alaska to New York, the ship will be accompanied by the research vessel Ernest Shackleton, chartered from British Antarctic Survey, which has two small helicopters. “If we needed to get a big helicopter up there it’s estimated it would take 15-20 hours if the weather is good,” he said.
It is a very environmentally sensitive area, he said, and “even during the summer the weather is an incredible challenge.”
The reduced ice in the once iced-in North West Passage has led to more vessels using it as a shipping route. But is there enough passenger ship experience of this route? Just 17 vessels crossed through this passage last year, according to USCG. And Crystal Cruises’ ship is much larger than any of the previous cruise vessels that have plied this routes. It is reported that the largest vessel to have travelled this passage had a passenger capacity of 150. And there have been accidents in the past. In 2010 the tourist boat Clipper Adventurer ran aground in the North West Passage, and passengers had to be evacuated by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.
Last year, York University of Toronto’s research paper Ice Thickness in the North West Passage – published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters – suggested that despite climate change, sea ice there is still too thick for it to become a regular shipping route for many decades.
But despite this, significant work has taken place to make the crossing safe for Crystal Serenity. Back at the subcommittee hearing, Adm Michel said that the coastguard had done “all the legwork that we can”.
And he credited Crystal Cruises for taking “a number of additional steps to ensure they have a safe passage,” such as taking on ice pilots.
The expedition cruise sector is booming, and if Crystal Serenity is able to smoothly navigate the North West Passage, more cruise operators will no doubt home in on this area, encouraging even more growth and focus on the expedition cruise. Whether the ship’s new itinerary will successfully open up this passage to other cruise operators remains to be seen, but all eyes will be on its maiden voyage.