Northerners prepare for largest cruise ship in Northwest Passage

The Crystal Serenity is the biggest cruise ship to plan a transit of the legendary passage

Sir John Franklin would have been astounded.

The Northwest Passage which he and his doomed crew of Arctic mariners sought is to be plied this summer by a ship roughly eight times as long and carrying 25 times as many people as Franklin’s flagship in 1845.

The Crystal Serenity, the biggest cruise ship to plan a transit of the legendary passage, is so large that Canadian officials are holding special meetings this week to prepare. Residents in the communities along its route, who will be outnumbered by the ship’s passengers and crew, are already planning for a visit that won’t happen until August.

“We get a lot of cruise ships, but this one is so large it will impact us significantly such that we need months to prepare for it,” said Vicki Aitaok, who’s organizing a reception in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, about midway along the route.

Every summer, about 10 cruise ships carrying a total of about 2,600 passengers sail through all or part of the Northwest Passage. The Serenity, with more than 1,000 passengers and 700 crew, is in another league.

“It’s fair to say that when you have 1,700 people making this particular voyage, it caught the attention of both the American and the Canadian Coast Guard,” said Jeff Hutchinson, the coast guard’s deputy commissioner.

On Wednesday, officials from both services, together with ship operator Crystal Cruises and Transport Canada, are to run tabletop simulations to test the capabilities of both the company and potential first responders.

In 2012, a 200-passenger ship ran aground in the passage. The weather was calm and everyone was helped off safely.

If something were to happen with the Serenity in stormy seas, it would be different, said Hutchinson.

“This is the purpose of the tabletop. It would be a very large effort indeed to get that many people off that ship in one fell swoop.”

The Serenity appears to be prepared. In addition to lifeboats, the ship has two helicopters and its own ice-strengthened escort vessel.

“We think they’re very well positioned to execute an evacuation if they needed to,” Hutchison said.

Cambridge Bay, population 1,500, gets four or five cruise ships a year. Aitaok said the community can prepare for a normal-sized vessel in as little as 24 hours. But for the Serenity, Aitaok is already organizing shifts of volunteers to guide and entertain.

“We usually get 150 people coming into the community over a four- to five-hour period,” she said. “Now, every two hours we’re going to get 150 people coming into the community for 10 hours straight.”

Cambridge Bay has no port, so guests will travel from ship to shore in small inflatable boats. Locals will meet them at the waterline to show them around town. Throat singers and drum dancers will perform. Others will invite guests into their homes.

“Fashion shows” of traditional Inuit clothes will be presented. Local crafts – Cambridge Bay is known for its textiles – will be on offer.

Passengers typically leave about $90 a head in the community, said Aitaok. Travellers who take Arctic cruises are usually a receptive bunch, she added.

“Generally, the passengers that come here, they shake your hand at the end. They want to almost hug you. They say, ‘Thank you so much. I really learned a lot.”’

Some, though, not so much: “Snap-snap, take a picture, shake your hand and go.”

The Serenity, which sold out its 2016 sailing in less than a month with berths starting at US$20,000, is already planning for next year.

Cambridge Bay, however, is cautious about too much of a good thing.

“All we said was yes to the Crystal for one year,” said Aitoak. “We would like to try this.”

Nunavut requires cruise ships to give advance notice to communities on the itinerary. Visiting environmentally or culturally significant sites requires passing a review. The territory is developing laws to ensure local employment and benefits.

Crystal Cruises is anxious to get it right, said spokesman Paul Garcia.

The ship is to burn low-sulphur fuel. No garbage is to be disposed of at sea. The company is working out ways for guests to give back to the communities they visit.

“We’re making certain of the fact we’re having a positive impact,” Garcia said.

The Arctic tourist season is like the Arctic summer – short and intense. Northerners enjoy visitors and welcome the economic opportunity, said Aitaok.

But after Cambridge Bay’s two-week cruise ship window, residents are ready for a break.

“We’re happy to see them come. We’re happy to see them go.”

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