Polar Notes

Jul 2016

Crystal Serenity prepares for Arctic Cruise

On 16 August 2016, the Crystal Serenity will set sail from Anchorage on a 32-day (1,500km) journey to New York City, via Greenland. What makes this trip so significant is that the Crystal Serenity will attempt to complete the trip by traversing the North West Passage (NWP).  

The Serenity will not be the first cruise ship to seek passage through the NWP – in 2012, The World crossed the NWP with 481 passengers on board – but it is by far the largest. 820 feet long, with 13 decks, a casino, a movie theatre, six restaurants and a driving range, the Serenity can carry up to 1,000 passengers, with an additional 600 crew.  

The cruise has taken eighteen months to plan. The Serenity has been fitted with a navigation system designed for travel in icy waters. Earlier this year, US and Canadian coast guards carried out a joint table-top exercise to test their ability to conduct a rescue mission, should the Serenity need them.

All maritime activity in the Arctic is risky given the speed at which ice conditions can change, and the lack of detailed hydrographic charts. Cruise ships present a further challenge because of the number of people on board. When a much smaller cruise ship, the Clipper Adventurer ran aground in 2010, it took two days for the 128 passengers on board to be rescued by the Canadian coastguard.  

British interest in the cruise is substantial. Aside from any British citizens who may be aboard, Tactical Marine Solutions has chartered the RRS Ernest Shackleton, a polar research ship operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to provide operational expertise and support to the Serenity. The Ernest Shackleton is a logistics vessel used to transport cargo, fuel and Antarctic science and support staff during Antarctic summers only. During UK summers, she is available for charter by third parties, via BAS/NERC or her owner GC Rieber Shipping. Income from the Ernest Shackleton summer charters helps support Antarctic science and operations, providing value for money from public-funded assets.

The Ernest Shackleton will carry Crystal Cruises’ expedition support staff, safety and pollution equipment, as well as providing icebreaking capabilities if needed. BAS is providing additional operational support to Tactical Marine Solutions during the cruise, something which BAS argues demonstrates its commitment to environmental stewardship of the polar regions  

Although tourism in the Arctic (and Antarctic) is a legitimate activity, the cruise is seen by some as controversial, primarily because of the risks to the environment and human life associated with navigating Arctic waters. Should something go wrong, the involvement of the Ernest Shackleton also carries a reputational risk for BAS (which is funded by the UK taxpayer).      

Assuming all goes to plan, the safe passage of the Serenity through the NWP this summer could trigger a small boom in Arctic tourism (it is worth noting that Arctic tourism is still very much a niche market). This could create further opportunities for the UK, whether through the building of ice-capable ships which could be chartered to provide escort and support services in the future, or through demand for ice navigation and logistics systems which might be developed at British research centres. UK-based businesses are also in a strong position to provide insurance (for example, the UK P&I Club might provide third party liability to cover pollution and wreck removal). However, given the associated risks to the environment and human life, Arctic tourism is likely to remain controversial.

Further Reading

The Crystal Serenity
Further information available from: http://www.crystalcruises.com/northwest-passage-cruise

Tactical Marine Solutions
Further information available from: http://www.tactmarine.com/arctic-expertise.php

British Antarctic Survey
Further information available from: https://www.bas.ac.uk/