BAD TRIP

Cruise Ships In The Arctic Take Titanic Risks

More and more floating pleasure palaces are plying the increasingly ice-choked and unstable waters near the poles. What could possibly go wrong?

05.29.16 4:15 AM ET

This year, the new 820-foot-long, 13-deck cruise ship Crystal Serenity will be the first large-scale tourist ship to navigate through the Northwest Passage. And while amenities such as a casino, a movie theater, six restaurants, and a driving range may be what most potential tourists consider first, the safety precautions the cruise line is taking should be most important.

As the ship’s parent company, Crystal Cruises, notes, “Two ice searchlights, a high-resolution radar and other equipment will be installed to allow the vessel to scan the waters ahead looking for underwater obstructions or uncharted rocks.” The cruise liner will also carry a helicopter for “ice condition reconnaissance,” and will be accompanied by an escort ship with “damage control equipment.”

These precautions constitute the minimum security protocols for the safe travel of large ships in unstable, ice-choked waters. And the very fact that such extreme measures are necessary tells us that large cruise ships shouldn’t be in polar waters at all.

Yet, according to a 2009 NOAA STAR report, tourism is the single largest human presence in the Arctic, with the majority of travelers visiting by ship.

Certain forms of Arctic adventure tourism have existed since the early 1800s, from mountaineers to adventure seekers, but today the industry has expanded—in regions including Alaska, Canada, Norway, and Iceland—to include nature lovers and leisure travelers, in part because of greater access due to melting ice.

Crystal Cruises

Courtesy Crystal Cruises

In the last 15 years, the number of cruise-ship visitors in Norway has increased from approximately 200,000 to almost 700,000. Canada’s tourism quadrupled from 11 passenger vessels in 2005 to an estimated 40 in 2015. And, according to the Icelandic Tourism Board, the number of foreign tourists in Iceland has more than tripled since the year 2000, to nearly a million visitors a year—about three times Iceland’s population.

Ship-based tourism is increasing in the Antarctic as well, from about 6,000 travelers per year in the early 1990s to upwards of 40,000 today. When I visited Antarctica in 2004, on Lindblad’s small expedition ship Endeavour, our naturalists and crew were disconcerted about the increasingly large ships traveling to the Antarctic peninsula. Their concerns were multifold: in addition to the environmental impact of increasing tourist numbers in this pristine region, many of the large ships didn’t have reinforced hulls to adequately protect them from ice, and many were too big to allow for the rescue of all passengers were something to happen.

When the cruise liner Costa Concordia hit a rock and sank off the coast of Italy in 2012, killing 32 people, it happened in mild weather with rescuers nearby. In the Arctic and Antarctic, however, the water is near freezing, the weather is unpredictable, and the regions visited are so remote that rescuers are often not hours but days away.

In 2007, a small expedition ship very much like the one I’d been on, the MS Explorer, hit ice and sank in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Fortunately, its 100 passengers and 54 crew members were all rescued. They drifted in lifeboats for five hours awaiting rescue, and 20 hours later, the Explorer was underwater. Had the conditions not been calm in this normally stormy location, or had there been hundreds or thousands more passengers, or had another ship not been nearby, the name Explorer would be as familiar to us as Titanic.

This summer, Crystal Serenity will carry 1,000 passengers, ten times the number of the MS Explorer.

The cruise industry has come a long way since the Titanic. Yet despite all our technological advances, a ship is only as safe as her captain—and the capricious nature of ice and polar weather means even an experienced captain isn’t immune from human error, as the formal investigation of the Explorer’s sinking concluded.

The media coverage of the Crystal Serenity carries an all-too-familiar tone of hubris and unfailing faith in technology. “The Crystal Serenity will be the largest ship that maritime officials can recall attempting the voyage,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “And it will be the first large-scale cruise liner packed with tourists.” Demand was so high — the trip, at $22,000 per person, sold out in three weeks—that Crystal Cruises has already planned another for 2017.

Jeff Hutchinson, a deputy commissioner at the Canadian Coast Guard, told the Journal, “What I’m just as, or more, concerned about is ship owners who might be looking at this voyage and saying, ‘Well, that looks profitable, why don’t we think about that … And they won’t, or may not, bring the same level of planning and forethought.’” 

And therein likes the risk. The last time we thought we created an unsinkable ship, it did just that.

Midge Raymond is the author of My Last Continent and the short story collection Forgetting English, which received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, the Los Angeles Times magazine, TriQuarterly, and Bellevue Literary Review among other places. Learn more at MidgeRaymond.com.