A decision to proceed with plans to sail the first huge cruise liner through the Northwest Passage on Tuesday with 1,000 passengers on board has rekindled rows with environmentalists about the Arctic.
The wildlife charity WWF has accused Crystal Cruises of putting at risk “the very thing that tourists would come to see” – a pristine wilderness and home to endangered species such as polar bears and walrus.
“This voyage symbolises 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 Polar programme manager.
“We recognise the positive steps that Crystal Cruises have taken to minimise their impact, working with local communities and in particular choosing not to burn heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, which is more persistent and damaging to wildlife if spilled. But if tourism is not sustainable, we risk ruining the very thing that tourists would come to see.”
The Crystal Serenity will set sail from Seward, Alaska, for New York on a 32-day, near 1,000-mile journey through the famous Northwest Passage waterway viaCanada and Greenland.
Arguments around the Arctic have more recently centred on oil company drilling such as Shell’s controversial and now abandoned attempts to explore off the coast of Alaska and new plans to open up the Norwegian far north.
But the increasing scope for industrialising the region as the ice melts has alsotriggered geopolitical tensions and talk of a new cold war because the legal status of who owns what up there is uncertain.
Michael Byers, a professor of politics and law at the University of British Columbia, says the Crystal Serenity should be used to spur new talks between the Canadian and US governments about disputed waterway rights in the Arctic.
On its website, Crystal Cruises describes the cruises as a “world away from the sunny Mediterranean and the Caribbean’s white sandy beaches, cruises around the polar regions offer an entirely different adventure.
“Since these are luxury cruises, you could spend your days at sea in a hot whirlpool out on deck, glass of wine in hand – or head ashore on an expedition, learning more about these remote ecosystems with the help of expert guides,” said the Los Angeles-based company.
In a statement, Crystal Cruises said it was taking great care with the sailing. It had been “working on this project since 2013 and will be implementing a number of additional precautions to ensure the safety of all guests and crew, as well as to protect the pristine environment.
“We have taken many extraordinary operational and equipment-related measures to ensure a safe voyage. The typical conditions along the planned route during the Arctic summer are substantially free of ice and within Crystal Serenity’s safe-operating parameters.
“Of note is our intention to use ultra low-sulphur content marine gas oil, which far exceeds the current requirements in that region. This, along with a relatively slow transit speed, will achieve our goal of minimising our carbon footprint.”
The Crystal Serenity will carry 1,000 passengers – some reputed to be paying up to $120,000 (£92,000) – plus 650 crew members. There is a casino, six restaurants and a cinema on board. The vessel is by far the largest luxury cruise ship to sail through these remote, icy waters.
Crystal Serenity will be accompanied by an ice–strengthened polar logistics vessel, RRS Ernest Shackleton, for safety backup. The vessel is normally used by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a publicly-funded organisation.
Concerns have been raised about this but a spokesman for the BAS said it had no authority over how the vessel was employed in the summer months and made no financial gain from the Crystal Serenity work.