By K. Joseph Spears

2014 was a series of Arctic firsts for Canada. One major first was the integrated search and rescue (SAR) exercise that was developed as part of Operation Nanook, the Canadian Armed Forces annual Arctic summer exercise. This month-long event had as one component a simulated cruise ship search and rescue incident in the waters of Frobisher Bay south of Iqualuit, Nunavut. The exercise brought together a variety of players that might actually have to care for victims from a major marine casualty. As Vice Admiral J.V. Card of the U.S. Coast Guard has stated: “at the time of an incident is not the time to be making friends.”

Exercises are critically important because they highlight gaps that, if properly analyzed and implemented, can lead to improvements in the search and rescue system. These exercises should have independent outside examiners to critique the event and should not be feel feel-good events. Lessons learned by failure during the exercise phase strengthen and buttress real-time SAR response.

Cruise lines travelling in the Arctic region are dominated by exploration/soft adventure cruise brands that operate relatively small vessels (120 to 300 passengers). However, this trend may be beginning to change as the cruise industry searches for new products. A similar development occurred in the Antarctic. Operation Nanook was timely as Crystal Cruises, a major cruise operator, plans to transit the luxury cruise ship M/V Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage in 2016 voyaging from Alaska to Greenland. The voyage is presently sold out, and will carry 1,070 passengers and 655 crew. Crystal’s Vice-President quipped “Certainly Crystal Serenity is going to be an ice avoider”. Canadian Arctic waters have been witness to expedition cruise ships and the condominium vessel M/V The World which likely carried 150 to 200 passengers and 250 crew members. The actual number of passengers on the The World was not disclosed. These vessels require a Canadian-mandated ice navigator which often tends to be a highly experienced retired Canadian Coast Guard master, but that is not always the case. There is no compulsory pilotage regime in place in the Northwest Passage. The ice navigator provides a single point of contact of an experienced master mariner aboard the vessels at the prevention phase, but does not address response. Cruise ship voyages have not been without incident, as we will see below.

The Crystal Serenity plans to transit waters where Canada has obligations for search and rescue under its domestic law and marine and Arctic international conventions. If there was an incident involving this vessel, the SAR response required to be mounted by Canada is equivalent to a lunar landing. If “Finding Franklin” was our moon shot, as one newspaper article noted, this is an order of magnitude larger and is more akin to a lunar landing.

On March 25 2014, Canada’s Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, indicated before a Washington audience that Arctic shipping is not going to be viable in the near future. The minister stated “I don’t see it happening right now” This now seems to be at odds with the Obama White House view which is concerned about Arctic shipping governance and the ability to respond to a marine mass casualty. Arctic cruise ship SAR response is a concern of the U.S. government and the United States Coast Guard which has been vocal on this issue.

Whether the Transport Minister’s prediction is accurate or not remains to be seen. The fact remains that international cruise lines look at the Canadian Arctic as a travel destination, and the number of voyages and size of vessels are going to increase. There is demand for this cruise product as indicated by the sellout of voyages two years in advance. This is just the start of a trend that Canada can simply not ignore. A similar development occurred in the Antarctic with respect to cruise ship travel. Canada, as a coastal nation, needs the capability to respond to a major search and rescue incident.

Canada’s obligation to provide SAR services extends to both domestic as well as foreign vessels. Given the increasing number of voyages and larger vessels being deployed, this requires a robust capability, which needs to be developed and maintained in all elements of risk management, including prevention, protection and response. We simply cannot afford to wait another ten years for the arrival of fixed wing SAR aircraft for which there is a critical need in the Arctic. The Danish naval commander in Greenland makes it very clear that he is concerned about his search and rescue capability for the large cruise ships visiting West Greenland.

Canada pushed at the Arctic Council to sign the international Arctic Search and Rescue agreement. Those were words which provide an international conceptual framework. Now it’s time for Canada to show the same leadership to act and put in place the necessary search and rescue mechanism that has the capacity to deal with an incident that could involve up to several thousand people.

As we saw on the West Coast with respect to M/V Simushir earlier this month and the fire aboard HMCS Protecteur off Hawaii in March, a dedicated salvage capability is needed. The Canadian Coast Guard working with its partners needs to develop a dedicated salvage capability especially with respect to the Arctic where there is limited infrastructure and even fewer vessels of opportunity.

Salvage capability is an integral part of search and rescue capability, which is a very important consideration in the Arctic because the distressed vessel itself may be the only available accommodation for the hundreds or thousands of passengers and crew. Given the large Arctic area, it is highly unlikely that another vessel would be in nearby Arctic waters to respond to a distress call, except for an icebreaker that might be escorting the cruise ship. Tugs of opportunity and salvage vessels, such as the American tug M/V Barbara Foss in the Simushir incident, are non-existent in Canadian Arctic waters.

Being shipwrecked can hardly be expected to be part of Arctic adventure travel. Yet, accidents do happen and it should not be forgotten that M/V Explorer sank in the waters off Antarctica in 2007 after hitting ice. That vessel carried 100 passengers and 54 crew, which all managed to escape unharmed.

Incidents in Canadian Arctic waters can and will happen. The cruise ship M/V Clipper Adventurer hit an uncharted but known rock in Coronation Gulf, in the Western Arctic in 2010. In that case, luckily the research icebreaker CCG Amundsen was close by, and was able to evacuate 128 passengers to the nearby community of Kugluktuk. Sea conditions were relatively calm, and passengers were able to disembark in Kugluktuk, and be flown home from the available airstrip there. If weather conditions had been severe, the outcome could have been quite different.

The vessel also sustained considerable damage to its double bottom fuel tanks. The damage was below the waterline and, consequently, the fuel oil was forced to the top of the tanks by the ingress of seawater and there was no leakage of oil. The vessel had to be towed out of the Arctic after waiting for two weeks for a salvage tug to refloat it.

Large parts of the Arctic are unpopulated, so dealing with the basic needs (accommodation, food, hygiene) of thousands of passengers and crew is a major logistical challenge, even when no injuries are involved. Should injuries or casualties be involved, required logistical, medical and environmental responses could very quickly overwhelm first responders’ capacity. These needs must be addressed and dealt with as part of the overall SAR response. Operation Nanook touched on this.

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Air Force which is primarily responsible for airborne SAR response, has developed air-droppable Majaid kits that contain survival supplies, to deal with plane crash emergencies and other emergencies in remote regions of Canada, including the Arctic. Deployable only at this time from C-130 aircraft stationed at Trenton, Ontario, and Greenwood, Nova Scotia, ways must be found to stockpile kits and delivery aircraft at multiple locations, so as to be able to provide assistance on short notice, distance and possible severe weather conditions notwithstanding.

It’s important to remember that the Arctic is often foggy, which creates visibility restrictions for aircraft. There is limited fixed wing and rotary wing airlift capability to deal with major incidents. There needs to be the policy discussion aimed at beefing up Canada’s present “virtual” search and rescue capability in the Arctic as cruise ship activities increase.

This is not a matter of the sole jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence but rather calls into question Canada’s capability in ocean governance. Canada may require alternative service delivery methods, such as those implemented in other jurisdictions. The National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) was set up after the Ocean Ranger oil rig capsizing on February 15, 1981 incident off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks which resulted in the loss of 84 lives. NSS was mandated to develop Canadian search and rescue policy and thinking so that incidents of this type would never happen again. Unfortunately, that organization has been sidelined for unknown reasons. It reports to the Minister of National Defence, rather than directly to Parliament. Arguably that chain of reporting stifles frank discussion. By comparison, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada which investigates marine incidents reports directly to Parliament.

Canada has yet to deploy its fifteen CH-147F Chinook helicopters in any search and rescue response. The primary SAR helicopter is the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter which is equipped to carry twelve stretchers and a payload of 5,000 kg. In the case of an evacuation of a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers, that would take over 300 aircraft sorties. Canada only has fifteen SAR Cormorants which do yeoman service on a daily basis all located in southern Canada.

None of Canada’s primary search and rescue air assets are stationed in the Arctic so any operation would involve a lengthy 10-14 hour flight with multiple refueling, mandated crew rest periods and maintenance issues. SARtechs (search and rescue technicians) have lost lives because of the lack of helicopter support. In one recent rescue mission, a brave SARTech parachuted into icy Arctic waters in severe weather conditions and pending darkness because of insufficient helicopter hoist capability. Because of a personal equipment failure, he died. In that case, the Cormonant helicopter took 14 hours to arrive on scene to hoist up the victims and the two other SARtechs.

Canada needs to work more closely with the United States on these activities. Unlike the United States, Canada has not held a marine mass casualty SAR event in southern waters.

In a report released in the fall of 2014, as part of the annual environmental commissioner’s report, Canada’s Auditor General has recently criticized the Canadian government for having no clear policy focus with respect to Arctic shipping. The environmental commissioner found that Canada’s work on marine navigation in the Arctic has no long-term national vision. The press reported that the Harper government’s Arctic actions do not match its rhetoric. The pending cruise ship transit in 2016 gives Canada ample time to work with its partners such as the United States to develop the necessary search and rescue capability. Canada’s mariners and search and rescue professionals have never shied away from a problem. Canada also needs to enhance NSS. The formulation of Canada’s Arctic search and rescue policy will allow it to speak clearly and freely to Admiral Papp, the U.S. special envoy on the Arctic. As a former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, he is no stranger to search and rescue. This is an opportunity for Canada get to get this right. Sailors and aviators understand the problem. The Lead Minister and his colleagues who are responsible for the federal SAR program need encouragement to provide the SAR vision and the leadership that is urgently required.

K. Joseph Spears is a former Canadian Coast Guard rescue coxswain and has been involved in Arctic search and rescue in the marine and aviation context. He is a principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and maritime barrister and undertaken work for the National Search and Rescue Secretariat on Arctic SAR. He can be reached at