By K. Joseph Spears

This past summer many milestone events occurred in the Canadian Arctic, including the milestone event garnering the most controversy and international media attention, namely the historic voyage of the non ice-strengthened cruiseship Crystal Serenity with 1,000 passengers and 700 crew on a 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage.

Once again this year, sea ice records were broken. 2016 was the warmest year on record, with each of the past few years showing an increase in average global temperatures. The extent of sea-ice in Canada’s Arctic waters was at a second all-time low since records have been kept. Both the surface area and volume of sea-ice is decreasing. For much of its trip in Canadian Arctic waters, Crystal Serenity saw very little sea-ice.

Another arctic milestone was solving the disappearance of the ships constituting the 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin seeking a route through the Northwest Passage for commercial shipping. On September 3, working with Parks Canada’s marine archaeological branch, the Canadian Arctic Research Foundation using its research vessel Martin Bergmann discovered Franklin’s second exploration vessel, HMS Terror, sunk in aptly named Terror Bay on the south side of King William Island. HMS Terror was over 100 miles from where marine archaeologists were undertaking an underwater search in what was thought to be the ship’s most probable location, based on their historical research efforts. Crystal Serenity’s voyage constituted the realization of Franklin’s 19th-century dream.

HMS Terror’s actual location had been the subject of Inuit oral history, and a recent sighting by Canadian Ranger Sammy Kogvik of a ship’s mast protruding through the sea ice while on a hunting trip six years earlier. The Ranger had kept quiet about his find as he didn’t have physical proof of seeing a mast sticking through the sea ice while on a hunting trip. He had photographs, but had lost his camera. Kogvik had joined Martin Bergmann the day before, and advised the expedition leader who altered course to Terror Bay on learning of Sammy’s comments. HMS Terror was found intact and upright in very good condition within 2.5 hours of arrival in a very shallow sheltered bay.

Because of communications difficulties, Parks Canada was not notified of the findings until September 11. Subsequently, Parks Canada archaeologists dove on the wreck site and on September 26, Parks Canada was able to officially confirm that the wreck was, in fact, HMS Terror. The ship and artifacts remain the property of Great Britain. An issue the find highlighted is that marine communication difficulties continue to plague the Arctic and marine coordination and weather can be problematic. In addition, the find highlighted once more that Inuit knowledge, often called traditional ecological or ocean knowledge, is central to Arctic operations and shipping governance. In the 21st century, this reality cannot be overlooked: input of Inuit knowledge is key to the success of Arctic shipping in Canadian waters.

The voyage of Crystal Serenity was three years in the planning and it is clear that the company has used its planning process and input of the Inuit to develop a first class cruise product. In fact, the initial 2016 voyage was heavily oversubscribed. There is presently a lengthy waiting list for the repeat voyage planned for 2017.

“We are humbled and thrilled to have completed such a monumental journey,” said Edie Rodriguez, CEO and President at Crystal Cruises LLC. “As Crystal is constantly seeking new ways to share the world with its guests, the Northwest Passage represents an especially massive undertaking that was made possible by the extreme dedication of our expert destination team and expedition partners. We now look forward to beginning the planning process in delivering another memorable experience for guests on our 2017 sailing.”

The vessel’s Master, Birger J. Vorland, enters an exclusive club of maritime explorers to successfully lead a vessel through the Northwest Passage, and joins Norwegian-born sailors Roald Amundsen and Henry A. Larsen on achieving the professional milestone. During the northernmost portion of the journey, Crystal Serenity was escorted by RRS Ernest Shackleton. In addition to being fully equipped as a first response vessel for virtually any emergency situation, RRS Shackleton provided icebreaking capabilities, two helicopters for special adventures and additional expert expedition crew.

Captain Vorland was quoted as saying: “The voyage was very successful, and there were no surprises. There was actually less ice than we anticipated… I never felt the wane. Everything clicked. I never experienced an atmosphere like this before in my 38 years at sea. From day one of planning the voyage, we were committed to ensuring the safety of our guests, crew and the ship. In addition to carrying two veteran Canadian Ice Pilots, Crystal Serenity’s bridge team received ice navigation simulator training to prepare for the conditions, and prior to the voyage, the ship was outfitted with forward looking sonar, ice searchlights, ice radar, and a thermal imaging system.”

Vancouver Maritime Museum (VMM) provided static display panels aboard the vessel, and its Executive Director provided presentations to the ship’s guests. Captain Ken Burton, a retired RCMP inspector and Master Mariner and now VMM’s Executive Director, is no stranger to these waters having been the master of the RCMPV St. Roch 2 that undertook the voyage through the Northwest passage in 2000 ( In that year, as well, there was also very little ice). These experienced marine experts on board or on the support vessel were able to provide expert knowledge in real-time during this transit to assist the Master. In addition, Environment Canada’s Canadian Ice Service provided ice information in real-time for the voyage, supplemented with aerial support utilizing the escort vessel’s helicopter for ice reconnaissance. It was clear that no stone had been left unturned planning the voyage and to assure its safety.

The same approach was used to plan community visits – any community that did not want to have the vessel was bypassed. In Canada, the vessel visited the communities of Ulukhaktok, NWT, Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet both in Nunavut. The vessel operator worked in close cooperation with the communities well in advance to maximize benefits to individual communities, and to minimize disruptions. In the absence of local marine infrastructure, passengers were brought in in zodiacs, in groups of 100 so as to minimize their overall impact, and stayed for a limited period, enjoying the preparations that had been made for them which included showcasing the communities, as well as artists and their work. Crystal Serenity and its passengers were well received in the communities visited. There is no doubt that Crystal Serenity will impact Arctic shipping in the coming years on many levels. While expedition cruise vessels carrying up to 200 passengers have been coming to Canada’s Arctic since the 1980s, Crystal Serenity’s visit set a new record and a new milestone.

While there was criticism of the environmental impacts of the voyage, with some writers calling it “extinction tourism”, the company met and exceeded all Canadian and international regulatory requirements. The vessel burned low sulfur fuel to minimize air pollutants, and did not discharge greywater within 12 miles from shore. At present, there are no guidelines for Arctic tourism as part of the International Maritime Organization Polar Code and/or the Arctic Council, and in the Antarctic guidelines are voluntary. In Canada, however, the cruise was subject to an assessment by the Nunavut lmpact Appeal Assessment Board (NIRB) which granted permission, stating that “the tourism project is “not likely to cause significant public concerns, and it is unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental and social impacts,” in a 29-page decision. The Board also provided specific instructions over interactions with polar bears which were seen by many to be a highlight of the voyage.

This highlights the importance of cooperation between the cruise industry and local communities and local government to make cruises successful and safe ventures that provide unique visitor experiences. It’s all about striking a balance, as this voyage has shown.

Crystal Serenity’s voyage has set a very high benchmark for future Arctic marine cruises. The challenge will be to maintain the same high standard on voyage planning in the coming years as the novelty and uniqueness wears off. It is imperative for the Arctic environment to remain pristine and adequate shipping infrastructure is in place including search and rescue. Recently, in a first, a delegation of various Inuit groups attended the International Maritime Organization in London and met the new Secretary General Kitack Lim. Additionally, a special panel discussion in IMO’s main conference hall saw the indigenous leaders speak directly to the assembly about living on the front line of expanding Arctic shipping. The “Arctic Voices” discussion took place 26 October, in between sessions of IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 70).

Crystal Serenity’s voyage has also demonstrated the need for Inuit input into all future cruise activity in the region, both with respect to the impact on local communities, as well the impact on Arctic wildlife and other resources. This needs to be formalized and cannot be done on simply an ad hoc basis. There is also an opportunity for voluntary Arctic cruise standards (including discharges and air emissions) to meet and exceed the present international regime. As Captain Vorland stated, we need to maintain the enthusiasm for governance and cooperation. Also forced to the forefront is the need for sustained funding for Arctic marine cruise activity as it now forms part of the region’s growing tourism economy which can have a major economic impact. There is also the need to address heavy fuels which present a pollution risk, and mandatory low sulfur fuels to limit air emissions which can result in black carbon. The voyage also shines a light on Canada’s Arctic marine corridor infrastructure which includes search and rescue, aids to navigation and other services in the region that forms part of Canada’s marine infrastructure. Crystal Serenity broke trail for a new sustainable tourism economy. Its legacy is that the future is now for Canada in its arctic waters and its people, the Inuit.

K. Joseph Spears is principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group of West Vancouver. He has worked for Parks Canada. He has been tracking Arctic shipping and marine ecotourism for the last 38 years. Joe can be reached at