Arctic tourists are ready, even if the Arctic's not

A cruise through the Northwest Passage changed the way authors Connie and Peter Roop thought about Arctic tourism. There are benefits, but the risks remain great. Some trips should not go ahead, they write, in this co-publication with Arctic Deeply.

By: , /
June 29, 2016
A mother polar bear and her two cubs travel across the barren ground. Credit: Peter and Connie Roop

Our Arctic adventure traces back to 1973, when we moved to frozen Wisconsin. Here we learned of the fabled Northwest Passage, the water route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, long sought after by explorers like Henry Hudson and Sieur de La Salle who hoped to open up a viable trade route between Europe and Asia. One of those supposed routes, travelled in 1634 by French explorer Jean Nicolet, runs right through our region – to what is now Green Bay.

We never imagined that one day we would actually be able to take a trip through the true Northwest Passage. In deciding to go, we faced our own personal conundrum. Our activities – flying to Greenland, voyaging by ship and flying back home from Alaska – would emit carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that is changing the Arctic climate, and making such transits possible because the sea ice is in retreat.

To justify our trip’s impact, we decided that, as children’s book authors, we would explore the Arctic with our words and become Arctic ambassadors with our newfound knowledge. The experience has produced two book proposals, a magazine article and various school programs.

The trip changed us personally as well. It opened our eyes to the Arctic’s spectacular beauty, its unique people, the problems and possible solutions. It made us determined to preserve the Arctic for the future.

In order to minimize our impact and maximize our time, we chose a small, 200 passenger, expedition-style trip. We wanted the opportunity to go ashore, to meet people and explore. In fact, many of the settlements and hamlets we visited had no ports, which required us to offload on to wet, rocky beaches. A boat any larger would have limited those opportunities.

The quality of the ship’s staff also influenced our decision. If we were to learn about the Arctic environment, we needed experienced guides. Our ship was staffed with experts in Arctic history, geology, plants, the Northern Lights and more.

The ship’s safety record was important to us as well. Had our chosen ship been to the Arctic? Yes. Did the captain have specialized Arctic experience? Yes. Would there be an ice master aboard? Yes. Had our ship been in any maritime accidents? No. Did the ship have updated satellite communication as well as ice-detecting capabilities? Yes.

Drifting ice and icebergs can lead to unexpected changes in plans in the Arctic. Photo by Peter and Connie Roop

Choosing the cruise ship Le Soléal allowed us to have a memorable Arctic experience. Our Zodiac inflatable boats took us to remote shores to hike the tundra, to closely examine the geologic wonder of the Smoking Hills, where rock is literally self-combusting, to photograph thousand-year-old human habitation sites and to stand in awe on Beechey Island where three members of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition lie buried.

We met Inuit, heard about their lives and learned about their culture by visiting the communities and inviting them on board for dances, music and cultural demonstrations. Many of the staff had previously established friendships in these communities, which enhanced our experience.

We were treated to rare wildlife encounters. Local fisherman directed us to a pod of 500 narwhals, swimming and diving close to shore. We watched polar bears swim, hunt and rest, without disturbing them. From our deck, we saw Arctic wolves, musk oxen, Arctic foxes, bowhead, humpback and seals in their own wild environment. 

But there were also storms, drifting ice, icebergs and unusual tides that forced our captain to make rapid – and informed – decisions. We quickly understood the importance of our shipboard safety drills. We made detours to avoid heavy, shifting sea ice after the Canadian Coast Guard warned that if we ran into difficulty, it would take 48 hours for an icebreaker to reach us and the remainder of the trip would be called off. On occasion, planned stops, including one to Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island, were cancelled due to stormy weather.

We were ready for the Arctic, but, we wondered, is the Arctic ready for us?

Connie and Peter Roop are the authors over 100 children’s books about nature, science, and history. Photo by Peter and Connie Roop

More ships, larger ships, more passengers and crewmembers may well endanger the land, water, wildlife and people in the Arctic, especially if there is an accident. “It’s a matter of time before we see some sort of major disaster in the Arctic,” Jackie Dawson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, who studies Arctic transportation including cruises, told the Natural Resources News Service in 2012.

This summer, the Crystal Serenity, will become the largest cruise vessel to attempt to transit the Northwest Passage, traveling from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York City. “We feel like true explorers,” states Crystal Cruises’ promotional literature. This trip is sold out and the 2017 trip is already waitlisted.

By all accounts, the Serenity is well prepared for the cruise, but it remains a very large ship. It would take five smaller expedition-style ships to carry all of the Serenity’s passengers.

Should much larger vessels like the Serenity be denied passage through a region that is undergoing rapid and likely irreversible changes? Yes, according to our experience travelling through the distant and largely uncharted waters of the Arctic.

Or as Lawson Brigham, of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, said in the same Natural Resources News article, “It is the larger ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers that could represent the biggest threat to human life.”   

But let’s not forget the wildlife on land and sea, and the Indigenous people whose lives have depended on the Arctic’s resources for thousands of years.

If the Serenity’s voyage is successful, will this not encourage other cruise lines to capitalize on the moneymaking opportunity of traveling the Northwest Passage?  Will all of them spend 18 months preparing as the Serenity has?

We do believe more people should visit the Arctic, but it must be done in a safe, sustainable way. Only by visiting the Arctic and sampling its wonders can we become Arctic ambassadors who carry our impressions and insights back home with us.

The motto of our ship was, “Only time and ice will decide.” Time, ice and human understanding will enable the Arctic to remain the wonderland it is today and deserves to remain for tomorrow.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply or