Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut August 18, 2016 - 2:30 pm

Crystal Serenity can sail through Northwest Passage: Canadian Coast Guard

But, it's "a level of risk that you don't have sailing a cruise ship out of Miami," Coast Guard says

JANE GEORGE
The Crystal Serenity is unlikely to meet heavy ice: This NASA satellite image shows an ice-free Northwest Passage on Aug. 9.
The Crystal Serenity is unlikely to meet heavy ice: This NASA satellite image shows an ice-free Northwest Passage on Aug. 9.
The Crystal Serenity will carry roughly 1,600 passengers and crew through the Northwest Passage. (FILE PHOTO)
The Crystal Serenity will carry roughly 1,600 passengers and crew through the Northwest Passage. (FILE PHOTO)
The RRS Ernest Shackleton icebreaker will lead the way for the Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY)
The RRS Ernest Shackleton icebreaker will lead the way for the Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY)

The huge Crystal Serenity cruise ship is likely to enjoy “extremely favourable” ice conditions in the Northwest Passage, a little more than one week before it stops Aug. 29 at Cambridge Bay on its landmark transit through Canada’s High Arctic Islands.

That’s according to Canadian Coast Guard officials, Jeffrey Hutchinson, the CCG’s deputy commissioner, and Marc Mes, the acting assistant commissioner of the Coast Guard’s Central and Arctic Region, who recently spoke to the Nunatsiaq News.

This promising forecast follows two years of preparation, during which they said the Coast Guard took “some unique steps” to cope with the potentially risky undertaking by the largest cruise vessel ever to navigate the passage.

Seafarers have always had to be self-sufficient, but travel in Arctic waters demands “what is over and above” the norm, Hutchinson said — in addition to meeting regulatory standards, such as the Polar Code

The Crystal Cruises company outlined its extensive plans in a 101-page tourism project application to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, that has asked Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett Aug. 11 to grant an extension of its screening period until Aug. 18 for a decision on the application.

The company said Crystal Serenity “will transit only open water and areas with very limited ice floes like those encountered in Alaska and Northern Europe and follow the route selected by the ice pilots.”

But, while Crystal Cruises has spent time and money organizing with officials for their Northwest Passage voyage in 2016 and 2017, it continues to “very risky” to take a sailboat or, for example, a snorkel team through the islands, Hutchinson said.

“We would want to say to those people in no uncertain terms — ‘please know what your doing,’” he said.

His advice: plan ahead and have the equipment you need and have the system in place to support you.

“We do see the Crystal Serenity as adventure tourism and having a level of risk that you don’t have sailing a cruise ship out of Miami or Vancouver,” Hutchinson said.

Depending on ice conditions and weather, help from Coast Guard icebreakers might be hours away.

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Terry Fox icebreakers will located around the Arctic islands, assisting with the annual resupply of Nunavut communities, but the Coast Guard does not expect to dedicate specific resources to the Crystal Serenity, Hutchinson said.

The cruise ship will travel with its own icebreaker, a British Royal Research icebreaker, the Ernest Shackleton, named after the polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic.

And the Crystal Serenity’s ice pilot, Marc Sheldon Rothwell, a retired Coast Guard officer, who captained the CCGS Louis S. St. Laurent, has 22 Arctic voyages to his credit.

The cruise ship will also be outfitted with forward looking sonar, ice detection radar, ice searchlights and thermal imaging, as well as an ice navigation system to display near real time satellite ice imagery and ice forecasts.

The Ernest Shackleton, with two ice pilots, will carry two helicopters, damage control equipment, oil pollution containment equipment, and survival rations for emergency use.

The Crystal Cruises NIRB application notes, among its emergency measures response, that 1,350 can be accommodated in covered, motorized lifeboats and an additional 900 in 36 inflatable life rafts.

“This means the ship [expected to carry about 1600 passengers and crew] will enter Canadian Arctic waters with excess emergency capacity,” it states.

Despite all the preparations, the U.S. also has concerns about the Crystal Serenity voyage into the Northwest Passage.

“I don’t want to underestimate the challenges of that area,” Navy Adm. Charles Michel during a July 12 House of Representatives hearing into the USCG’s Arctic capabilities.

To prepare for the transit he said the USCG has worked with “everyone who has an oar in the water.”

“We take this very seriously — that is a very treacherous area of the Earth,” adding that the “most treacherous parts” are in Canadian waters,” Michel said.

“I don’t want to underestimate the challenges.”

A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which called for the creation of new “shipping corridors” in the Arctic, said the 2010 groundings of the cruise ship, the Clipper Adventurer, and the Nanny, carrying 9.5 million litres of diesel fuel, reveal the shortcomings of the current management of marine traffic in Canada’s Arctic.

The World Wildlife Fund has also pointed at the Crystal Serenity, saying it symbolizes “the risk of large scale cruise ships operating in the Arctic.”

“The unique wildlife is already stressed by a warming climate and the loss of sea-ice, and the arrival of mega-cruise ships in this part of the world could push it further towards the edge,” said Rod Downie, WWF-UK’s polar program manager.

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