04/26/2016 02:58 EDT | Updated 04/27/2017 05:12 EDT

Arctic Cruises Are Extinction Tourism By Another Name

The Crystal Serenity is preparing to ply the same waters as the good ship Ocean Endeavour, but won't carry any sincere, concerned Arctic lovers. I fear the star-crossed Serenity will carry the first extinction tourists into the Northwest Passage and begin the end of our endangered, fragile north.

Olaf Protze via Getty Images
SVALBARD, NORWAY - 2007/07/07: MS Explorer in the harbour Ny Alesund. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It's Earth Day weekend and I'd been planning to write a column on a feel-good topic, say the runaway success of solar power or the 130 world leaders gathered at the UN to sign the landmark Paris Declaration; the promise instead of the peril.

But my sunny outlook faded to black when I heard the highly alarming news that a massive cruise ship called the Crystal Serenity was preparing to transit the Northwest Passage on August 16. I have so far resisted the impulse to lead with a paragraph summ'at like this:

The ground above Sir John Franklin's grave must be vibrating as the great Arctic explorer spins violently in his grave with the imminent departure of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity to transit the Northwest Passage. The ship will carry 1,000 passengers and 600 crew through the icy waterway where in 1845 he and his doomed crew of 129 mariners suffered an agonizing death and probably resorted to cannibalism.

For 300 years, the Northwest Passage was a holy grail for explorers until 1906 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sailed the route in three years. Passengers on the Crystal Serenity will fork out from $30,000 to $156,000 dollars to sail from Anchorage, Alaska, through the Northwest Passage, then down to New York City. The month-long cruise is already sold out. And the greatest tribulation they can expect is possibly running out of the good Scotch.

But I refuse to lead, as practically every other journalist has, by comparing the cruel fate of Franklin and his men to the hedonistic, pampered experience-to-be of the Serenity's passengers. Rather, I choose to lead with the opinions of two concerned Arctic-lovers I know personally, both experts on our melting, endangered northern reaches.

Dr. Michael Byers and his wife, Catharine, kindly hosted my wife, Debbie, and I in 2014 when I gave a talk on Saltspring Island, where they live. Michael holds the Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic and cares deeply about the Arctic. He recently wrote about the impending cruise/invasion in the Globe and Mail.

"Arctic cruises are the latest thing in high-end tourism. Icebergs, polar bears, beluga whales, awe-inspiring vistas and isolated Inuit communities -- what's not to like for the jaded traveller? But here's the thing: Arctic cruises involve greater hazards and environmental impact than just about any other kind of tourism," he writes.

Michael touched on the climate change "feedback loop" of Arctic cruises, which produce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to even more melting in years to come. "Consider the emissions associated with the Crystal Serenity: Passengers will fly from their homes to Anchorage, and return at journey's end from New York. On board the ship, they will enjoy food products that have also travelled great distances. They will be cared for by 655 crew members, each with their own smaller but still significant climate footprint. All the while, the ship will be burning fuel oil for propulsion, heat and electricity," he writes.

He touches on the many hazards involved in transiting the Northwest Passage, such as running aground in the poorly charted waters; exceptionally hard and deadly mini-icebergs called growlers that float low in the water and are difficult to spot; and oil spills, which would be practically impossible to clean up and would stain the pristine frigid Arctic waters for many generations to come.

But I think the Crystal Serenity will leave a legacy far more toxic and destructive in her wake than an oil spill. She will open up the north for other, less sophisticated cruise lines. I think it highly unlikely that Carnival cruise lines will have two helicopters and its own ice-strengthened escort vessel at its disposal.

My second Arctic expert is a dear friend. CW Nicol made his first expedition to the Arctic from his native Wales in 1958 when he was 17. He forged his stepfather's signature, told his mother he was going camping and researched eider ducks for six months on Baffin Island. By 1965 Nic was spending seven months a year in the north as a marine mammal technician for the Arctic Biological Station.

He wound up a citizen in Japan with a black belt in karate and over 100 books, including a bestseller on the Arctic called The Raven's Tale, a luminous story of surviving an Arctic winter told by the creatures who live there led by an old raven called Gon.

Nic sails the Northwest Passage regularly on the Ocean Endeavour, a small cruise ship that carries about 200 passengers and leaves little trace of its passing. Nic says they get some of the top Arctic experts in the world as guides and interpreters, hire Inuit as guides, teachers and artists, and contribute a lot of money and support to all the small coastal communities they visit.

Nic says the captain of the ship is very experienced in icy waters and will take no risks. Novelist Margaret Atwood has sailed on the Endeavour several times, as has painter Robert Bateman. Nic feels that the more we can take sincere, concerned people into the Canadian arctic, the better it will be for global understanding.

Michael says Arctic cruises are a form of "extinction tourism," in which people travel to see a species or culture while they still can. The Crystal Serenity is preparing to ply the same waters as the good ship Ocean Endeavour, but won't carry any sincere, concerned Arctic lovers. I fear the star-crossed Serenity will carry the first extinction tourists into the Northwest Passage and begin the end of our endangered, fragile north.

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