Polar Cruising

The New Explorers

Arctic Town

By Mia Bennett 2015-03-19 11:48:00

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2015 edition.)

***From Jan-Feb 2015 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***

Baby Boomers shell out big bucks to experience the world’s final frontiers.

Today’s luxury cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic are a far cry from the frigid and often fatal journeys made by Europeans during the Age of Exploration. Until modern times, in fact, travel in the Arctic was possible only for a small class of explorers typically funded by national treasuries as they searched for the fabled Northwest and Northeast Passages. Travel to Antarctica was even more limited, given that the continent was not sighted until 1820.

In the 21st century polar voyages have taken on a whole new cast of characters. Improvements in sailing technology, the growth of a mobile and wealthy elite, and demand for travel to exotic places have caused cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic to surge. Chuck Cross, President of U.S.-based Polar Cruises, explained, “The trips are booming. This year sold out a long time ago, and we’ve already sold out most of next year. Business is good.”

The trend is similar for Hurtigruten, a Norwegian polar cruise company that is one of the oldest in the world. The company got its start as a steamship line delivering mail and supplies to the remote communities dotting Norway’s glacially carved coastline. Now, while Hurtigruten still carries out some of its original duties, it also ferries passengers from all over the world to tour the polar regions.

Gordon Dirker, Managing Director for Hurtigruten’s North America Division, stated, “While most markets have experienced growth in 2014, the North American market grew by well over 20 percent last year. Both Norway and Arctic cruises enjoyed very healthy sales growth from this market. The trend is continuing in 2015.”

No Price Too High

The high price tag for a berth onboard a polar cruise hasn’t deterred customers as the trips often skew toward older generations with deep pockets. Polar Cruises’ “In the Footsteps of Vitus Bering” cruise retraces the voyage of the 17th century Danish adventurer who explored the northeast coast of Russia. 2015 departures for the 19-day cruise start at $12,650. Dirker noted that “Arctic bucket list travel” is a big draw in getting tourists to travel north. Antarctica also “sells out and for the most part well in advance,” he added.

Younger generations who haven’t yet written their bucket lists are beginning to explore the polar latitudes too. “The Baby Boomer market continues to be our main audience overall,” Dirker explained, “although we are seeing a shift toward a younger audience now that we have more of an emphasis on delivering ‘soft’ adventure and explorer-type experiences.”

The Call of the Wild

Passengers often take a polar cruise for the chance to spot wildlife like polar bears and penguins. Yet animal sightings cannot always be guaranteed. David Burton served as an enrichment lecturer on two Arctic cruises for Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury travel agency. He found that in the Arctic it was a lot harder to find the wildlife that tourists sought compared to Antarctica. “Bears move more than penguin colonies,” he chuckled.

Burton’s cruises, the first of which sailed from Norway up to Svalbard and the second from Svalbard to East Greenland and Iceland, were fortunate in that both resulted in polar bear sightings. An early retreat of sea ice had caused dolphins to swim north, but a swift refreezing around Svalbard trapped and killed many. Polar bears feasted on their carcasses, creating a stunning wildlife encounter for passengers.

Not all polar visitors are so fortunate. One such guest, a retired physician who preferred to remain anonymous, traveled onboard a cruise ship that intended to sail up to the Arctic ice cap but had to turn back because of sea ice and fog. He admitted, “We were disappointed because we thought we would be able to see polar bears and seals.”

The Allure of Climate Change

As climate change progresses, many tourists in the Arctic and Antarctic view themselves as among the last people on earth who will see the polar regions in their pristine form. Hurtigruten offers an “Arctic Climate Voyage” where passengers listen to lectures on climate change and pick up trash on a Svalbard beach.

During an upcoming voyage to Greenland in June, Hurtigruten will partner with Dr. Jason Box, one of the world’s foremost experts on Arctic climate change. Guests will be able to visit his research sites while in Greenland and learn firsthand how the changes are impacting the environment there.

On voyages not explicitly billed as “climate voyages,” however, it’s sometimes tricky for guides to strike a balance between education and entertainment. “Sometimes passengers felt a bit like they were being lectured,” explained Abercrombie & Kent’s Burton, “because a lot of lecturers take it as an opportunity to discuss why the Arctic and Antarctic are so important to look after.” Regardless, he described the education they receive during these cruises as a good thing. “I suppose it makes them like stakeholders in the Arctic,” he mused. “Otherwise, they just went there to see polar bears.”

Bringing Dollars to Local Communities

The Arctic is home to more than just polar bears, of course. People live there too, many in remote villages that tend to welcome polar cruises, which are sometimes the only ships they see all year. Since large ships can’t visit these places due to the lack of permanent docks, “Any village we visit is by Zodiac,” Polar Cruises’ Cross explained. “When we get there, the village knows we’re coming, and they meet us and show the people around.”

He described some of the activities that take place when passengers visit Pond Inlet, a largely Inuit town in Nunavut, Canada with approximately 1,500 inhabitants. “They’ll have cultural dances and talks about what went on there historically,” he recounted. “That happens in almost all the villages, right down to passengers playing soccer with the kids.”

But cruise ships can also have negative impacts on Arctic communities. In Greenland, particularly in remote areas, the bulk of people’s incomes is from hunting and fishing. Melisa Larsen, an Arctic technology student from the town of Sisimiut in West Greenland, contended, “If cruise ships disturb hunting or fishing areas by sailing through them and thus the fish disappear, Greenlandic people will definitely not be glad to see cruise ships.” 

Added Neil Hamilton, Senior Political Advisor on Polar Issues for Greenpeace International: “The environmental and safety risks associated with increased ship traffic in the region – among them accidents and spills, collisions with wildlife, air pollutant emissions, water pollution and garbage, wildlife disturbance by underwater noise and the introduction of invasive species – demand serious conversation and action by the international community.”

Search and Rescue

Concerns regarding the search-and-rescue capabilities of coast guards in the polar regions abound due to the climate and limited infrastructure. Scientists have discovered that the wider expanses of open water created by melting sea ice are causing bigger swells, some up to 16 feet. High winds and frigid temperatures can challenge search-and-rescue efforts.

Greenland native Larsen warned, “Greenland is not ready at all to rescue people who are on a cruise ship if one sinks,” a statement corroborated by a report from the Danish Forum for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning. The level of preparation may be better in Canada, however. David Walters, a spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a government agency, insisted, “The Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre in Iqaluit is equipped to accommodate levels of marine traffic above what is seen today in the Arctic.”

Cruise lines also have a responsibility to ensure adequate preparedness, from operating ice-strengthened ships to properly training their crews. When the M/S Explorer sank off Antarctica in 2007, all of its passengers were rescued thanks to quick responses by the Chilean Navy and the passenger cruise ship M/S Nordnorge, which happened to be nearby. An investigation blamed the sinking on the captain’s lack of ice navigation skills.

Since 2007, several other incidents involving cruise ships in the polar regions have proven that the Explorer’s fate was not an isolated incident. Cruise lines and coast guards must enhance their preparedness as the industry grows.

The Sound of Silence

Larissa Beumer, a trainee and translator employed by German company Polar Kreuzfahrten, told the story of what her cruise ship would do when it docked at a remote location. Once on land, she said, “We sometimes did an ‘exercise’ with the guests: Everybody had to be silent for two to three minutes so we could all enjoy the silence of the Arctic landscape and let it affect us.”

That precious silence of the polar landscape, however, may be vanishing as quickly as the ice. Noisy ship engines and chitchatting, camera-snapping cruise-goers are hard to muffle. The mariners who plied the polar waters during the Age of Exploration would be astonished to see the transformation that has taken place. In the span of five hundred years, the poles have gone from being a quiet world known only to their indigenous inhabitants to a place where beach-combing tourists pick up trash carried thousands of miles by swirling ocean currents. – MarEx  

Mia Bennett blogs on the Arctic and writes frequently for The Maritime Executive.

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.