In Warmer Climate, A Luxury Cruise Sets Sail Through Northwest Passage

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The Crystal Serenity, pictured here in Seward, Alaska, is the largest cruise ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, traveling from Alaska to New York City.

It has 13 decks, eight restaurants, a casino and a spa. Staterooms start at about $20,000 and run as high as $120,000.

And it's about to journey through the Northwest Passage.

The Crystal Serenity is the largest cruise ship to navigate from Alaska to New York City, by way of the Arctic Ocean. And as climate change opens up the top of the world, it may be just the first taste of what's to come.

Sitting in one of those pricey staterooms, passenger Moira Somers says that for most of the people onboard, the ship is as much a destination as the Arctic.

"When you start your cruise ... and you see the ship, it's goosebump stuff," she says.

Somers and her husband live in Victoria, British Columbia, and they are regular cruisers. But this time is different.

"Maybe we're not so sure what we're letting ourselves in for?" she says. "But there's so much, we've read so much, we've prepared ourselves, and we know it's a big thing."

Until about a decade ago, the Northwest Passage could be reliably navigated only by ships with icebreaking capabilities — even in the summer. But a warming Arctic has meant increasingly ice-free summers.

And while smaller cruise ships have visited the region for years, the Crystal Serenity, with more than 1,600 guests and crew, is by far the biggest. It's a dry run for large-scale tourism in a region that hasn't seen anything quite like it.

The man in charge, Capt. Birger Vorland, is not concerned.

Vorland has spent 38 years at sea. Vorland, who is originally from Norway, says the Northwest Passage has special meaning.

"My countryman, Roald Amundsen, did the first transit here between 1903 and 1906," Vorland says. "We're going to do it in 32 days and in a lot more comfort."

Standing on the navigation bridge, Vorland ticks off the special preparations for the trip: systems to detect ice, two Canadian ice pilots to assist him, an escort ship in case he runs into trouble.

"We have crossed all the t's, dotted all the i's," he says. "Nobody has ever planned a cruise as diligently and as detailed as Crystal Cruises has done for this particular voyage."

As the ship gets ready to leave Seward, Alaska, there's an emergency drill. In the casino, guests wearing life jackets gather around a sign that reads, "Lifeboat 6."

Despite Vorland's assurances, plenty of people are worried about what happens if this scenario plays out in real life.

"There's absolutely no capacity to respond to accidents," says Elena Agarkova, who tracks shipping for the World Wildlife Fund conservation group.

She says there's very little search and rescue infrastructure in the region — a major concern for authorities. Some of the communities it is visiting have populations smaller than the ship itself.

Agarkova points out the question isn't just whether the Crystal Serenity is ready for the Arctic, but if the Arctic is ready for the Crystal Serenity.

"The main reason why this ship is able to go up to Northwest Passage is climate change — the melting of the Arctic ice, which is threatening the very wildlife that this cruise ship is promising to its passengers," Agarkova says.

That tension isn't lost on passenger Somers.

"One kind of feels — I won't say guilty, but you're taking advantage of what is happening," she says.

Somers hopes the cruise is drawing attention to climate change. But she has more immediate goals, too.

"My big dream is to see a polar bear," she says.

The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to arrive in New York City on Sept. 16.

This report comes from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.

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